The one way great leaders use silence

Apply this rule to make your silence speak louder than words.

The Surdek Team
January 23, 2023
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While working with our clients to help them develop their co-creative leadership, we often hear this common issue. They do not feel that their teams fully participate in group meetings.

To overcome this, it is important to be aware of how you occur to people in meetings. One of the easiest places to start is noticing if you are leaving space for people to speak. Do you feel like you need to jump in and fill the empty spaces all the time?

Noticing this is a part of getting to know your leadership game. As an example, when you think about your team meetings, how often do you speak vs how often does your team get to speak? Did you ever notice yourself answering your own questions before your team has a chance to say anything?

In this article, we will explore how silence can be a powerful tool to engage and motivate your teams.

How do you feel about silence?

We tend to dislike silence. It is tied to uncertainty, to what is left unsaid. But what you need to understand is that silence is not necessarily negative. On the contrary, there are many reasons why you should leave space for it.

Have you recently asked a question to a roomful of people and got nothing in return? This silence can make you jump to conclusions about what your people are thinking.

You may think one of the following about your team in that moment:

  1. They have nothing to say or no thoughts to offer
  2. They want me to tell them what to do
  3. They are disengaged and they refuse to cooperate
  4. They are bored or falling asleep

These are examples of what we call telling yourself disempowering stories. In turn, what happens when you interpret silence in one of these ways? As a leader, you may take over the meeting and speak the whole time, thinking that your team needs your guidance.

You may give them your solution on a silver platter because you think they have no ideas. You may also add a joke to try to wake them up or use sarcasm to engage them. More often than not, all you end up doing is derailing the conversation.

But what if silence means something else?

There are many reasons someone may stay silent in a meeting. For example:

  1. They are confused by what you are asking
  2. They do not agree with you, but they are afraid to stir things up and contradict you
  3. They think you are asking a rhetorical question and that you are not really looking for an answer
  4. They believe you already have a solution in the back of your mind
  5. They are digesting the information and gathering their thoughts to offer a solution

Now you can probably see what happens if you are jumping in immediately to fill the void left by silence. You are not leaving space for these reactions to occur. You are missing an opportunity to truly listen to and understand what is going on with your people.

How to use silence to be a better leader

The one trick you can apply to use silence to your advantage is the seven second rule.

The rule is this: When you ask your team a question, leave seven seconds of silence to allow people to answer.

The trick here is to let the moment linger. Tolerate the discomfort that the silence creates for you. Do not start running wild with your interpretations for the silence. Count to seven in your head. If they have not answered after the first seven seconds, repeat your question and leave seven seconds once again to see what happens.

One very important thing to remember: Make sure to stop at the question mark every time! Do not ask your question and then go on and on by adding explanations or even worse, start answering your own question. Learn to make friends with the silence. You could be surprised by what comes up.

Different people, different approaches

There are differences in personal styles when it comes to silence, depending on someone's personality traits as an introvert or extrovert. Have you ever noticed that some some people on your team will usually come up with great answers, but they will be the last to talk?

Introverts and deep thinkers may need more time to speak up than others. They are often waiting for a gap in the conversation that is usually being led by more extroverted people. Leaving a moment of pause gives them the opportunity to jump in.

It is also interesting that in certain cultures, silence is appropriate in conversations. This can be to make sure someone has had the time to finish what they had to say, as interrupting is frowned upon. It can also be to show that you have listened carefully to what the other person has said before answering.


Learning how to use silence will actually create space for your people to speak in group meetings. So leave a pause and do not be afraid to let it hang in the air!

This skill is what we call being a voice among many in conversation. It is one of the five key skills of co-creative leadership, a concept that we teach our clients everyday. When co-creative leaders speak, the people around them feel free to challenge or reject their input. Co-creative leaders also know how to listen and they recognize good ideas.

If you would like to know more about co-creative leadership, make sure to check out Steffan's upcoming book: The Way of the Co-Creative Leader. Sign up to the special mailing list here!

How often do you end up talking in meetings? How could you apply the seven-second rule to create powerful conversations with your team?