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  • audreybevan

Listen to the silence

Imagine an internal workshop which gathers representatives of the global HQ team and representatives of Asian countries. The purpose of the workshop is to collaborate and find the best approach to launch a global change initiative in Asia. The Asian contingent remains silent through most of the workshop. After a few days the global HQ team flies back home to declare that Asia agrees with the global approach and no adaptation is needed. Change is rolled out and is largely a failure in Asia. Sounds familiar?


In change initiatives, the assumption is often that silence means agreement. Well, it doesn’t!


Silence has many meanings:

- I’m not sure what I think I need time to reflect on this information

- I disagree but I can’t say that to senior people who are present in the room

- I am not comfortable with talking in front of large groups of people

- I am waiting for someone to call my name which gives me permission to voice my opinion

- I don’t understand

….and many other meanings.


So when you hear silence here are a few ideas of how to get the feedback you need.


First you need to be comfortable with the silence. Sitting in silence in a meeting room whether physically or virtually, can feel uncomfortable. But allowing silence for a few minutes gives people time to reflect and express themselves. So after you have shared information, wait a few minutes without talking. If no one starts talking, that’s ok, sit in silence for a few minutes and then close the meeting. The key here is to fight the urge to fill the silence, regardless of how uncomfortable it feels for you.


If it is a relatively small group, you can call people by name and specifically ask for their thoughts. This method can only work if you have preexisting trust with the participants. Don’t attempt it if you don’t know the participants well; you would cause more damage by putting people on the spot than by doing nothing.


By far the most effective method is to close the call/ meeting and call people individually a few hours or days later. People will be much more open if there is no group around them listening, especially if the most senior people are not there. If it’s a large group, a pragmatic approach is to pick a few people that are representative of the group you want feedback from. This means getting a cross section of seniority/ age/ gender/ ethnicity etc.


Best practice in any change management approach is to have several sessions where the same information is shared. People have multiple chances to integrate the information, reflect on it and provide feedback. This is especially worthwhile when different cultures are at play and when silence is the default reaction to new information. Choosing a variety of channels and methods to explain the change, multiplies the opportunity to receive feedback. It gives people a choice to provide feedback in a way that is most comfortable to them.


There are many other ways to seek feedback - the trick is in finding the approach that will draw it out depending on your audience. But whatever you do, don’t make the assumption that silence means agreement.

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