Tim Cook and Jeff Bezos run two of the most valuable companies in the world. From the outside, they seem to exhibit very different personalities. But within their companies, both men are known for a fascinating practice:
They each embrace the rule of awkward silence.
The rule of awkward silence is simple: When faced with a challenging question, instead of answering, you pause and think deeply about how you want to answer. This is no short pause; rather, it involves taking several seconds (10, 20, or longer) to think things through before responding.
If you're on the receiving end--and not used to this type of communication style--it can seem very awkward.
At Apple, Cook has engaged in the practice for years. Back in 2008, a Fortune article said that in meetings, Cook was "known for long, uncomfortable pauses, when all you hear is the sound of his tearing the wrapper of the energy bars he constantly eats."
At Amazon, Bezos also utilizes the rule of awkward silence, although in a more methodical way. It involves taking time at the beginning of meetings, reportedly up to 30 minutes, to read printed memos in silence. The idea is that meeting participants have time to peruse the memo, to think, and even to scribble notes of initial thoughts and ideas--all without interruption.
"For new employees, it's a strange initial experience," Bezos once said in another Fortune interview. "They're just not accustomed to sitting silently in a room and doing study hall with a bunch of executives."
But these "silent starts" ensure the undivided attention of participants, who may not dedicate the needed time to think through such a memo if it were assigned as preparation.
Cook and Bezos aren't alone in embracing the rule of awkward silence. Elon Musk often takes anywhere from between five to even 15 seconds to think before giving an answer when he's interviewed. Steve Jobs once took almost 20 seconds to respond to a personal attack, delivering a perfect response.
The rule of awkward silence has always been valuable as a tool of emotional intelligence, because it allows you to balance thought and emotion, instead of simply reacting based on feeling.
But today, the rule is more useful than ever--because of how the world has evolved in the past decade.
Why the rule of awkward silence is more valuable than ever
We live in a world that demands instant gratification.
Emails should be answered on the same day. Slack and text messages should be answered right now. You forgot about the Zoom meeting? No problem, you can still join. And the meeting immediately following, too. (After all, with everything virtual nowadays, you don't even have to leave your desk, right?)
But there's a major problem with all of this instantaneous communication: It doesn't leave time to think.
That's right--think. As in, think critically.
Critical thinking calls for deep and careful consideration of a subject. It requires introspection and retrospection. It involves weighing and analyzing facts, and careful reasoning. And it results in making insightful connections.
None of this is possible without time.
And time has become the biggest luxury on the planet.
But when you embrace the rule of awkward silence, you steal back time. Time that used to be wasted on nonsense answers. Time that used to be wasted on telling another person what you think they want to hear, as opposed to what you truly believe.
Once you practice it enough, you will no longer find the rule of awkward silence, well, awkward. Because while taking an extended pause to think things through may seem strange at first, you'll begin to realize many of the advantages it provides.
For example, the rule of awkward silence allows you to:
- Put the outside world on mute
- Exercise your thinking faculties
- Get to root problems more effectively
- Give deeper, more thoughtful answers
- Bring your emotions into balance
- Remain in harmony with your values and principles
- Say what you mean, and mean what you say
- Increase your confidence
That may sound like a lot for 10 to 20 seconds, but you'll be surprised what your brain can accomplish once it's given a little more time to do what it was designed to do: think things through.
So, the next time someone asks you a challenging question, or even what seems on the surface to be a simple one, resist the temptation to respond with the first thing that comes to mind.
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