Awkward silences can be tricky to navigate. Is someone being thoughtful, or just weird? But thanks to a new trend amongst high powered CEOs, the Rule of Awkward Silence could become a new trend in the business world, and even in the gambling industry. But for us to get the most out of that eerie quiet, let’s understand what this thing is, and how to apply it effectively in our places of business.
What is the Rule of Awkward Silence?
INC.com’s Justin Bariso helped popularize the Rule of Awkward Silence in 2020 with a couple of articles on the subject, emphasizing how well it works for several popular CEOs. He defined it as:
“When faced with a challenging question, instead of answering, you pause and think deeply about how you want to answer.”
The recommended pause is anywhere from a couple of seconds to as much as 20 or more seconds. Bariso notes that Steve Jobs had been using this technique as early as 1997, and it’s now being employed by Apple CEO Tim Cook, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, and Tesla/SpaceX’s Elon Musk.
But this was not a new trend when Jobs was using it in 1997. A 2014 paper on “The Secret History of Awkward Silences” points to musician John Cage speaking about the benefits of silence as early as 1957, specifically in the process of generating music, but also in finding deeper answers. Author Alice Boone noted:
“The unintentional noise from those moments of silence produce reflections on what it means to process multiple media at once—as it could be that paying attention to impediments might make us into differently attuned readers of texts, of our learning experiences, of our lives.”
Does the Rule of Awkward Silence work?
Let’s be real: you need to either be in a position of power to use awkward silence effectively, or condition those around you to understand what you’re doing. Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are powerful men who can get away with making people wait for an answer, but a mid-level manager in a weekly meeting is going to come off as stumped, weird, or both. If I suddenly try making my wife or child wait on me 20 seconds for an answer, I’m more likely to be shouted at than to impress them.
If you can make it work though, both Bariso and Boone insist there are huge benefits, and their arguments make sense. Using an instance where Jobs was insulted and used silence to compose his retort, Bariso notes:
“The rule of awkward silence is a great tool of critical thinking. It can help you to give deeper, more analytical, more thoughtful answers. It can help you get to root problems more effectively, which leads to greater understanding.”
But not everyone is Steve Jobs, and someone taking too long to respond to an insult could just as easily become George Costanza, blurting out something about Jerkstores.
Boone suggests a different way for the rest of us to apply the Rule of Awkward Silence, instead using it as a deliberate approach to structuring meetings, much as she used it in classrooms. She extolls the benefits of doing so as a way of finding new answers to old questions (in her case, finding new meanings in old works of literature), rather than relying on previously accepted correct answers.
How can the Rule of Awkward Silence be applied at work?
Boone notes in her paper that in her syllabus, she passes out John Cage’s 10 rules for Students and Teachers, and reassures them that silence will be an accepted answer. The rules, as listed below and adapted for business, need to become a culturally accepted part of business meetings, and specially brainstorming sessions, to have any chance to work, and that can be found in the first rule:
RULE ONE: Find a place you trust, and then try trusting it for a while.
Everyone has to buy-in, essentially. You can to trust that other people are using their silence wisely, and that you can be trusted to do the same. That results in bad Costanza jokes. But if everyone trusts that they can sit in silence and come out with better answers, you just might.
RULE TWO: General duties of an attendee: pull everything out of each other
RULE THREE: General duties of a facilitator: Pull everything out of your attendees.
These two rules should be pretty easy to understand. The reason you’re having the meeting is for everyone to have a voice, and for everyone to contribute. Specially if it’s a brainstorming meeting, make sure everyone has had a chance to think on the topic and add to the end result.
RULE FOUR: Consider everything an experiment.
As the rules will reinforce a couple of times, just because someone uses deep thought to come to a conclusion doesn’t mean its always right. Don’t be afraid of that, but explore the space and see what works.
The rest of the rules can apply to life generally, and to business in a few creative ways.
RULE FIVE: Be self-disciplined: this means finding someone wise or smart and choosing to follow them. To be disciplined is to follow in a good way. To be self-disciplined is to follow in a better way.
RULE SIX: Nothing is a mistake. There’s no win and no fail, there’s only make.
RULE SEVEN: The only rule is work. If you work it will lead to something. It’s the people who do all of the work all of the time who eventually catch on to things.
RULE EIGHT: Don’t try to create and analyze at the same time. They’re different processes.
RULE NINE: Be happy whenever you can manage it. Enjoy yourself. It’s lighter than you think.
RULE TEN: We’re breaking all the rules. Even our own rules. And how do we do that? By leaving plenty of room for X quantities.
HINTS: Always be around. Come or go to everything. Always go to classes. Read anything you can get your hands on. Look at movies carefully, often. Save everything. It might come in handy later.
If you chose to start emulating Elon Musk and taking a while to answer a question, or find a way to incorporate John Cage’s techniques at the workplace, you might start opening the door to new possibilities, new innovations, or just a deeper understanding of what you’re trying to accomplish.