The Art of the Awkward Silence
Bueller…..Bueller…..Bueller? I can’t take it. We’ve all been there when a presenter asks a question and no one responds. Everyone stares at everyone else or the floor but never look the presenter in the eyes. I was always the person that gave in and tried to answer the question. It was purely because I couldn’t stand the silence.
Wow, this weather is something right? You can almost feel the Titanic sink as these words fall out of your mouth with a donor. In my early days of fundraising, I would always backfill every silence with meaningless throw away dribble. I had a list of questions that I could ask them in case the conversation hit a lull. I knew I was in bad shape if I started giving a weather report. When I pulled out the proverbial weather report, I knew the conversation was in desperate need of saving.
I feared silence with a donor like it would burn me if our conversation didn’t flow as if we knew each other our whole lives. Obviously, I was going to have to figure out a solution besides avoidance and my bag of fake platitudes and fictious meteorological skills.
My organization hosted a speaking and communication workshop (not coincidental I am sure). My worst nightmare came true — I found myself face-to-face staring at a coworker for a whole minute as we said nothing but look each other in the eyes. This was truly the most awkward minute of my life — our eye contact felt intimate which freaked me out, we could not use our words to communicate, and I finally had to confront my fear of awkward silences.
When the exercise was explained at first, I had a horrible bodily reaction and tried to leave the room. Once I knew I couldn’t get away, I tried to find a friend but my panicked attempts to flee had wasted precious time and I was left with someone I barely knew. For the first 10 seconds I blinked uncontrollable as if my eyelids were going to reveal this was just an illusion. At about 15 seconds I could feel my eyes burning with awkwardness. At 25 seconds I tried to calm my face as it strangely started contorting into different facial expressions to mask my internal agony. I finally felt things change around 45 seconds and decided to give in to the exercise. Once the minute was over, I felt really free — I did it!
After this I started changing how I talked with donors. If there was a lull in the conversation, I would allow it to sit there for a breath and let the conversation naturally resume. What I found was a more comfortable communication style that didn’t torpedo the conversation. Also, by allowing a little silence particularly during an ask you allow your donor to process what you have said and have a more meaningful response.
So, my challenge for you is to do this 1-minute staring exercise (preferably with someone you are not close with). Put it into action and when you feel the need to fill any silence I ask you try to let it sit for a few seconds before you say something.
Cheers to awkward silences!