The fact is, lack of back-and-forth chatter makes us uncomfortable. Research by Koudenburg, Postmes, and Gordijn has shown that, in the United States, it takes only four seconds before an extended period of silence becomes uncomfortable during conversation. Four seconds! Why the disgust for hush? Long story short, humans equate silence with rejection. We have an evolution-driven desire for conversation because it makes us feel connected and accepted. So why would we want to intentionally create periods of “awkward” silence with participants in workshops or research activities?
The power of intentional silence is well-known and utilized among many professional groups: Sales people pause after their pitches for dramatic effect. Counselors practice waiting five seconds after a patient stops speaking before responding. Nurses and physicians employ intentional silence in order to demonstrate compassion and respect. And negotiators adhere to the saying: “He who speaks first, loses.”
As UX professionals, we, too, can harness the power of intentional silence. If we can just become comfortable with that brief period of unsettling silence during our user interview sessions, usability tests, and workshops, we’ll get more out of our participants. Intentional silence, used strategically, can create space, invite response, and signal interest. And it is in periods of silence where participants often offer crucial and most-poignant information.
This is a difficult lesson in so many situations; something that I had to learn not just for holding customer interviews but for any kind of conflict resolution or negotiation. I have found it to be an essential skill in Taiwan.