How To Handle Awkward Silence In A Small Group

Margaret —  June 6, 2011 — 7 Comments

How To Handle Awkward Silence In A Small Group

I recently posed the following question on Facebook and Twitter:

When you are leading a small group and you ask a question and no one responds how do you handle the situation?

The question launched an interesting discussion on the topic. For some leaders, it's best just to smile and keep on going. Others try to answer the question themselves in order that someone will chime in. Still others advocate pausing, a reminder that silence isn't just acceptable but beneficial particularly when a thought-provoking question is being asked.

One leader suggested rephrasing the question, and waiting through the silence. If no one speaks up, the leader will share a transparent story from their own life knowing that the honestly and vulnerability often provokes a response.

I thought all the ideas and suggestions were helpful, and depending on the group, highly effective. I know that when I'm leading a discussion I've learned to make silence a friend. Sometimes it's hard. In the process of asking a question sometimes I feel like I'm putting myself out there, and when I'm met with silence, I tend to squirm uncomfortably. But if I take a deep breath and count to ten, someone usually speaks up.

The ace card that I always keep in my back pocket and am not afraid to use (though some leader's don't like it) is simply calling on people by name as in, "Mark, what do you think about this?" If it's an easy or what I call an "all-play" question, meaning something that's not threatening and almost anyone would have an opinion on, then I'll call on the newer or more reserved members of the group.

But if it's a deeper, stump-ya kind of question, then I'll only call on veteran members of the group who won't be embarrassed or even bothered if they don't have an answer.

So what advice do you have on how to handle the awkward silence that sometimes happens in a small group?

7 responses to How To Handle Awkward Silence In A Small Group

  1. I like the idea of calling on people and especially the way you introduced here – not just anyone, but being strategic. Making a specific choice to end the silence could very well lead to another wave of silence. That being the case, a leader has to be comfortable with silence – it may actually mean something is happening. The discomfort isn’t always being felt by the person being asked, but as you eluded to, by the one doing the asking. If we as leaders always fill the space, then who benefits. I may feel off the hook from my discomfort, but the answer that was being formed in the silence is never given birth.

  2. I think silence and thoughtful pauses can be a very important part of a small group discussion, especially if a difficult or complex issue is on the table. Reflecting and contemplating about a topic or question is important and should be cherished rather than avoided. I think a good small group leader will recognize when silence is the result of people really mulling something over, when the silence is because the question at hand is irrelevant or downright silly, or when people are just being lazy or shy. Occasionally I’ve been surprised when a group leader has called on me for an answer and I’ve come up with a response that I didn’t think I had in me…pulling people out of their shells and pushing them a little bit can be a very good thing when done appropriately.

  3. I learned to like the silence. It is uncomfortable sometimes, but I have learned that I can usually out wait the folks in the group. What usually happens is that when one person responds… just one… some pretty great participation breaks out with the rest of the group. And suddenly that uncomfortable moment is passed and turns into a blessing!

  4. Noelle Goodlin June 6, 2011 at 3:27 pm

    In my counseling classes, we learned that silence is just as important as the time when someone is talking. We were taught to allow silence to grow and “speak” for itself. It is often the space people need to wrestle with an idea or emotion, gain the courage to share or simply sit with what was just suggested and allow it to sink in. Often our own vulnerabilities as a leader are what cause us to hurry the silence. And I am a fan of addressing the silence directly if it becomes so obvious. “So it is pretty quiet in here, would someone be willing to share?” or “Wow. My question seems to have provoked some silence. Would someone like to share why they think it suddenly got so quiet?” In my experience, sometimes people don’t understand what I am saying (LOL!) but most of the time they are just looking for the extra encouragement to speak and the directness of addressing the silence seems to disarm the discomfort.

  5. I like what you said, Noelle. I’m going to try addressing the silence itself. You have a great point that sometimes there is a reason no one wants to speak up. I’ll give that a go next time I hear crickets chirping!

  6. Rebecca,

    Yes–Noelle’s idea of addressing the silence directly makes a whole lot of sense! Great tactic.

  7. In teacher school they teach you about WAIT TIME. Wait it out, it takes people up to thirty seconds to process a question, look around, see if anyone else is going to say anything, then they will decide if they want to share. By you rephrasing the question you re-start the clock.

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