Can you stand the silence? Why it happens in meetings and what to do

Blog Silence 3

A participant in a recent course asked us this question, “How do you handle ‘dead air’ in meetings?” My immediate inner response was, what is ‘dead air’ in meetings? I imagined the person meant that there was not as much participation or engagement by the meeting participants as they had hoped for. The silence felt uncomfortable because the facilitator or meeting leader could not solicit the thinking of the participants. In this blog, we’ll address why ‘dead air’ happens and what to do about it. In other words, can you stand the silence? Or, could you stand with the silence?  Sometimes the silence is there for a very good reason. We’ll discuss that too.

“Oh dear!” The Reaction to Silence

There are several reactions when there’s silence in the room. One, if you’re a relatively new facilitator, it can feel very intimidating. Your thought process might go like this, “Oh dear, no one is responding to my questions and I don’t know how to draw them out.”  Rest assured, even experienced facilitators feel that inner reaction.  It usually goes like this, “Oh dear, I’ve asked the wrong question.” Or, “Are people really thinking deeply about this? What should I do next?”  My intention of this blog is for you to feel more comfortable with silence both inside and out of the meeting room. One day, perhaps more of us will be very comfortable with the gift of silence. (By the way, you might enjoy our blog on Pauses).  But if it’s really caused by an under developed facilitator competency, we’ll give you some ways to deal with it.


Why might there be silence in the room after asking a question when you thought everybody knew what input was needed?  Here are 4 reasons we’ll explore:

  1. There is not enough safety in the room for them to honestly say what they think without feeling judged or criticized for their ideas.
  2. People are actually deeply thinking about a profound question that they’ve been asked. They need time to process it.
  3. You’ve asked a closed (yes or no) question or the question is in the wrong order.
  4. People are distracted or have “checked out”. This may be because they haven’t committed to being at the meeting or they have not  prepared ahead of time.

There are probably many other reasons and likely you can think of more. We’d like to hear your ideas!  Today we’ll just address these four.

Not Enough Safety

All of the reasons above are interconnected. It’s good to know that once you create safety and trust, almost all of the other reasons go away. Then you’re not likely to experience awkward silence. So establishing safety and trust is our first recommendation.

People need to feel like they’re part of a group. An easy way to do this is to start with a fun, energizing question that helps people connect to each other.  It can simply be to share something that went well this week. Or, a surprising thing they learned about themselves in the last month. Starting off your meeting with something unrelated to the meeting is well worth the time and effort.  Once people have laughed and shared personally, they are more likely to be authentic with themselves you, even if you happen to ask an unskillful question.

See our blogs:

Ten Tried-and-True Team Building and Trust Building Techniques

Mistrust: It Doesn’t Get Any Worse Than This – But You CAN Change It

Thinking Deeply

BINGO!  With this scenario, you’ve hit the mark!  Don’t worry about them taking time to answer your question. They need time to ponder  it thoughtfully. However, the hot tip we’d like to share is that you can warm up people’s brain before you ask a beautiful question. You do this by knowing for example, the ToP Focused Conversation question method. Or by asking easy questions before asking the harder questions.  Examples of easy questions are: What do we know about this situation? What have you heard others say about this situation? What worries you about this situation? What interests you about this situation? Then you can ask your deeper question such as: What have you seen others do to resolve similar situations?

One way to deal with this “thinking” silence, is to just sit down and smile at the participants. After about 30-60 seconds, you could say, “Let me repeat the question…” Or, “I’m going to rephrase my question in case it was not clear…” Or, “How much more time  would you like to think about this?” In this case, you can play some gentle music while giving them time to process some questions on paper before sharing in a chat or a room.

See our blog: Be Known For Your Razor Sharp Meeting Principles

Use of Questions

You have been unskillful in your questioning. Related to #2 above, it may be that your question was asked in the wrong order.  You may have to start with easier questions before going into heavy duty questions.  People need to hear their data and memories about a situation before they can analyze or interpret the situation (i.e. in the ORID method, make sure you’ve covered the O and R before moving on to the I part of the conversation). Or, you may have asked a closed question and this is often the case when you get silence in the room.  It just means that people are not going to give you much data if you’re asking a yes or no question.  For example, you may state your question like this, “Do you think this is a good idea?” Instead say, “Let me rephrase that. What about this idea may be worth pursuing? ” And, after they have answered that question, ask the reverse of this question, i.e. “And what is not worth pursuing?”

See our blog (and videos): Want to open the door of dialogue? Don’t use closed questions!

Distractions or Unprepared

A really important thing to do before the meeting is to let people know what the agenda is and what you need each person to do to prepare well for the meeting.  People will engage more actively in the meeting if they feel informed about the topic. If they need to read something, give them enough time to read it. Let them know if you need them to just skim it and will give them more time to thoroughly digest it in the meeting. You can use some of the tips in #1 to help people to arrive at the meeting and be less distracted.  You can also have group guidelines that suggest people put their phones away and engage in the meeting appropriately.

See our blog:

People Dozing in Your Meetings? 7 Ways to Get Their Attention

Creating Group Guidelines for Terrific Teamwork

Video: Easily Create Guiding Principles with a Group

In conclusion…

One last thought about silence. There is a stance you can take in your life that comes to accept silence as a beautiful part of your life. The more you practice being comfortable with silence in every aspect of your life, the more comfortable you will be with quiet in a meeting. Participants will sense you are ok with it. When that happens, they will engage as and when they need to. My yoga, meditation and co-counseling practices have helped me immensely in being comfortable with silence. Perhaps you have your own practices that will help you with this. Think of it as the essential time for the breakthrough to happen.


All photos in this blog were taken recently in my wanderings in my new home town of Victoria, British Columbia and the Vancouver Island area.


Barbara MacKay

Barbara loves “everything facilitation”. She thinks BIG! She loves working with other facilitators around the globe to create transformational results for client groups. She loves teaching others how to do that. She loves presenting at global facilitator conferences. She loves certifying new professional facilitators. If you also love what process facilitation can do for the world, connect with her – virtually or in person. She believes facilitation processes, used well, will provide the roadmap to a more just and sustainable world.

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