Jan 18, 2015

awkward silence

Welcome to my blog post; please enter and have a sit at the discussion table. I'm going to tell you that the way we behave during discussions seems to be terribly impolite no matter what we do, and then I'm going to ask you not to say anything for the next thirty seconds. 

Can you handle awkward silence in a business meeting?

I can't. It's so bad for me, that I can't even handle the sound of one single voice in the meeting, and I’m always ready to jump right in, mid-sentence, to finish it for the other person, to start answering or to rush objecting. I was not taught the science of patience, of waiting and pondering. I was taught speed, active listening, reacting instantly and interrupting in order to push the discussion forward. I used to measure the success of a business meeting by the lack of silence and by the balanced share of voice (and of interruptions) between the participants. Friendly interruptions, to show you’re knowledgeable and you understand, means you’re clicking with the other person. In the Balkan business environment, in which I've been active for 12+ years, interrupting, when done properly, is regarded as the act of a quick-witted individual who knows his field of activity.

However, being in a room with people from the German-speaking countries changes the communication model; add one or two participants from Japan, and someone like me is in big trouble. Keeping quiet until the other person finishes the sentence / question is the norm for the DACH culture. Interrupting, right next to being late, shows a total lack of business etiquette. It’s also unpractical, not just rude, since the verb (and sometimes the negation, too) comes often at the end, so the risk of misunderstanding is considerably bigger because of the language structure. For the Japanese participants, interrupting cuts not only into the actual message, but also into the reflection part that follows, when they remain quiet and think about what they've just heard, in order to prepare an answer.

I find both communication models a form of torture tailor-made for an individual with a Balkan communication habit. Where I come from, such behavior would look suspicious. Not paying attention to the conversation, being unprepared or insecure, come to mind. It’s so uncommon, that it’s used as a negotiation trick in the consultative sales manuals: when the sales rep. makes the price proposition, whoever speaks first, “loses”.

Right now, when I manage to shut up until the other person finishes the whole sentence, I feel very virtuous. In reality, even when I don’t (verbally) interrupt, I actually do – the other person can read in my face, posture, gestures, how I react to what I’m hearing. 

Which communication model do your business meetings have? Can you refrain from interrupting your counterpart?  If you're trying to educate your patience, like me, it's important to know your triggers. Mine are, just to name a few: 
  • Speaking about a subject that I'm passionate or very knowledgeable about
  • Hearing a mistake
  • Understanding the question faster than it takes to finish it
  • Catching exactly the right moment to make a point, before the conversation moves on
  • Boring, prolix talking style.

What makes you interrupt - and when everything is said and done, do you think your interruptions helped to come out ahead?

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