Justin Bariso¬†recently wrote an article entitled¬†“Why Brilliant Minds Embrace the Rule of Awkward Silence”.¬†

Bariso often writes on the theme of EQ and explains the rule this way:

“The rule is simple: When faced with a challenging question, instead of answering, you pause and think deeply about how you want to answer.

Make no mistake, this is no short pause. You might go five, 10 or even 15 seconds (or longer) before offering a response. Which, if you’re not used to doing it, will feel very awkward at first.”

Reading about this rule was like catching a glimpse into the “Known to others, Not known to self” quadrant on Jahari’s Window – which is why we started blind-spot-leadership.

The fact that I am uncomfortable with silences is no surprise to me. The fact that being comfortable with silence is a sign of emotional intelligence is new.

If anything, my uncomfortableness with silence causes me to think that fast answers are what everyone wants. Quickly responding is what smart people do, right? Unless those smart people are Elon Musk or Steve Jobs (in another article by Bariso).

Why are silences, sometimes long and awkward silences, a powerful EQ tool?

Primarily because by using longer pauses, you create space to handle and get in touch with your emotions and gift yourself time to think instead of reacting.

In certain settings, quick wits and rapid responses are valuable. No one wins a game show by taking their time. Bar Trivia contests are not won by those who slowly consider their answers. Comedians do not become well known because they cannot come up with fast zingers.  

In our normal settings, the rest of us would probably be a lot better off if we would slow down in our responses. Doing so displays the value of giving honestly engaging answers. If we value speed in responding (as I do), this will be initially uncomfortable. 

Slowing down and introducing awkward silence also includes written responses.

Dopamine is triggered when we receive messages on our phones. Simultaneously, our brain processes the alerts we receive as messages arrive as potential threats, which causes our body to engage in hypervigilance. Dr. Sanam Hafeez PsyD, a licensed psychologist and professor at Columbia University in New York City, is quoted in Bustle. “The alerts from phones or even the anticipation of them, shuts off the prefrontal cortex that regulates higher-level cognitive functions, and instead, forces the brain to send emergency signals to the body.”  

If we want to respond to messages rationally, calmly – in an emotionally intelligent way – we have to from the prefrontal cortex. To do this, we have to pause and give our brain time to stop reacting out of stress and fearto the incoming information.

The advice about not immediately sending an email or message that you have emotionally hammered out after receiving disturbing news is a sound recommendation. Reading through a message written in the fervent heat of “battle” the next day, when the temperature has cooled a bit, helps many people rewrite or not send messages that could do more harm than good.

However, for others, their emotions are only reinforced when they reread their angrily typed out messages the next day. What if the rule of awkward silence meant that instead of typing a message when you were still emotionally responding, you waited until you could respond rationally. Or, at the very least, react less emotionally.

What if you waited a full day before typing out a response? What if you let a Slack message wait several hours, or even overnight? This silence is awkward. It violates some social norms. It may force you to address workplace expectations (what is valued most? Speed of communication or quality of communication?)

This is also not to imply that all good communication is devoid of emotions. Of course, people do, and should, feel emotional about important topics (while realizing that not every topic is that important!) Emotional Intelligence is not the removal of emotions – it is the ability to perceive, assess, and manage emotions – not only in others, but also (and often primarily, since leadership starts with ourselves) in ourselves.

The perception, assessment, and management of emotions takes time. Deliberate, albeit awkward, silence gives you the time to process those emotions and determine whether or not they are appropriate in the communication method empoyed.

I think of insensitively worded questions I have received in the past. There are certainly times when an awkward silence would have given me the opportunity to ask myself, “Why is this question causing you pain? Am I being attacked or do I feel attacked (stress and fear response)? Does an emotional response put out the fire or throw gasoline on the flames? Can I wait 24 hours before responding until I am no longer reacting?”

I came across the 2007 interview between the recently deceased Larry King and Jerry Seinfeld. In one segment of the interview, Jerry reacts very emotionally to a question Larry asked. An awkward silence here would have created space for Jerry to assess his emotions. Many of my rapid text responses remind me of Jerry’s “There is a big difference between being canceled and being number 1!” reply.

Here are the questions I am learning to use to process incoming communication, especially written:

What is the intent?

When a comment, email, or message causes an emotional response – I need to take the time to step back and ask, “What was the intent of the message written?”

I am not asking what I initially perceive the intent to be. My initial perception often has more to do with my emotions than the sender’s desired impact. Even though one rule of communication is “The message received is the message”, a leader working on improving their EQ should never resort to this to justify hasty responses.

The sender of a message communicated with an intent in mind – if I take time to discover it, I may find that my fear-stress response begins to be removed.

Why am I so emotional?

Mining through perceived threats to dig into the message’s real intent requires assessing my emotional response.  

Am I emotional because I feel personally attacked? Is there a danger to the organization? Am I emotional because a project or the projects of others are unnecessarily endangered? Do previous messages contribute to my level of irritation?

Would I feel better if I had gotten more sleep? Would I take this differently if I was not dealing with Covid-exhaustion? 

What emotion am I truly dealing with? If I go through the emotional color wheel, can I isolate an emotion that helps me understand myself more?

Who am I making responsible for my emotions?

If I respond too quickly to others because I feel personally attacked, I pass the buck on my emotional issues. 

My unresolved emotions create a layer around the issue. Repeated emotional interactions can cause the core issue to become insulated (and isolated). The core issue, which may have had an organizational impact, will not be dealt with as effectively as it could have been had the individual players dealt with their emotions before responding.

One way I am slowing down the process is to import the written reports I receive into Liquidtext, where I can highlight, mark them up, and type or write up responses before I send a response email.

The very act of processing the reports instead of simply responding to them forces me to engage instead of react.

Of course, this cannot be done with every message – but becoming more comfortable with awkward silences (and being the initiator of them myself) is one blind-spot I will be working on addressing in 2021.