EQ Rule #5: Emotional Intelligence: The Rule of Awkward Silence

By Justin Bariso, Principal, EQ Applied

Reprinted with Permission

Have you ever seen an Elon Musk interview?

I still remember the first one I saw. It quickly became obvious that Musk is extremely intelligent…and while he may not be the most polished public speaker, what he says is so interesting I ended up hanging on every word.

Now, contrast that with Steve Jobs.

Jobs was the most polished of public speakers. His presentations were models of dramatic poise, a masterclass in rhetoric.

But despite these differences, the two men shared a somewhat unexpected habit. They both embraced what I like to call…

The rule of awkward silence.

The rule is simple: When faced with a challenging question, instead of answering, you pause and think deeply about how you want to answer.

But we’re not talking about any old short pause. An awkward silence is a pause of at least five, ten, or even fifteen seconds—and usually much more—before giving a reply.

If you’re not used to doing it, that will feel very awkward—at first.

Garrett Reisman, an engineer and former astronaut who left NASA to join SpaceX, described how Musk uses this technique in an interview last year.

“If you pose to [Elon] a serious question,” says Reisman, “he’ll consider it. And he’ll kind of go into this, almost like a trance–he’ll stare off into space and you can see the wheels turning. And he’s focusing all of his intellect, which is considerable, on this one question.”

Want to see it for yourself? Check out the 19:45 mark of this interview.

Jobs was known to do the same. Just check out this very entertaining example, where Jobs takes a full 18 seconds before responding to an audience member who took a shot at him—at his own conference.

The Lesson

As these examples illustrate, the rule of awkward silence is a great tool of critical thinking.

It can help you give deeper, more analytical, more thoughtful answers.

It can help you get to the root of problems more effectively, leading to greater understanding.

But the rule of awkward silence offers another major advantage, and it has much to do with the way our brains process emotions.

Remember what you learned earlier in this course about the brain. When it comes to calm and rational thought, we typically engage the prefrontal cortex. But when we feel attacked or under pressure, we engage another part of our brain known as the amygdala, which tends to take over in a type of “emotional hijack.”

That’s not always bad, as our emotions can help us get out of difficult situations.

The problem comes when those emotions go unchecked, and we say or do things that we later regret.

Think back to the example of Steve Jobs responding to the insult. This was one of Jobs’s first major appearances after rejoining Apple. By the time he left many years previous, he had built a reputation as being arrogant and unable to work well with others. With the wrong response, he could have lost the confidence of his company, investors, and the public before his turnaround plans got underway.

Instead, by embracing the rule of awkward silence, he was able to keep his emotions under control and deliver a perfect response.

When it comes to answering challenging questions, you might say what you think the other person wants to hear instead of what you truly believe. Or, you might just spit out anything…then cringe when you think about what you said.

Instead, the next time someone asks you a challenging question, take your time before giving an answer.

The more you practice, you’ll notice the “awkward silence” doesn’t feel so awkward anymore.

And the more you’ll notice how it helps you make emotions work for you, instead of against you.

Try This

When someone asks you a question that requires thought, do the following:

  • Pause and think deeply about their question before you respond. Take as much time as you need.
  • If you’re worried about the other person’s reaction, tell them: “That’s a great question. Please give me a minute to think it through.”
  • Of course, you might be more uncomfortable doing this with someone in a position of power over you (like your boss or a big client). So, start by practicing with friends and family. Then, gradually try it out on others.

In summary

Embrace the rule of awkward silence, and you will:

  • Increase your confidence and self-control
  • Increase the value of your comments
  • Say what you mean, and mean what you say

Use this handy worksheet to explore EQ Rule #5: Emotional Intelligence: The Rule of Awkward Silence


About the Author

Justin Bariso, Principal, EQ Applied
The founder of EQ Applied, Justin Bariso helps organizations and individuals develop their emotional intelligence. His thoughts on leadership and EQ draw over a million readers a month, and LinkedIn named him a “Top Voice” in the field of management and workplace culture three years in a row. His book, EQ Applied: The Real-World Guide to Emotional Intelligence, shares fascinating research, modern examples, and personal stories that illustrate how emotional intelligence works in the real world. Email: [email protected]


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Disclaimer: This article is written for educational purposes only. Every reasonable effort has been made to ensure its accuracy and completeness. It is the responsibility of the reader to refer to the definitions, descriptions, conventions, and guidelines specific to each coding classification, as well as relevant laws and regulations when selecting and reporting medical codes.

About the Author

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