The rule of awkward silence is great for critical thinking–and a key in developing emotional intelligence.
Yet, despite their ability to process information, think critically, and identify key insights–many of which helped Tesla and Apple reach valuations into the billions of dollars–both men practice(d) an unexpected habit:
They’ve embraced 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.
But make no mistake, this is no short pause. You might go five, 10, or even 15 seconds before offering a response. Which, if you’re not used to doing it, 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 a recent interview.
“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.”
You can actually see this happen almost anytime Musk himself gives an interview. In fact, it’s not uncommon for Musk to take from between five to even 15 seconds to think before giving an answer. (Just check out the 20:00 mark of this interview.)
Apple co-founder Jobs was known to do the same. In fact, there’s a perfect example captured on video over 20 years ago.
It was 1997, and Jobs had just returned to Apple after being ousted from the company over a decade earlier. He was conducting a Q&A at the company’s Worldwide Developers Conference when an audience member took a shot at him, telling Jobs, “You don’t know what you’re talking about” and sarcastically asking what the famous founder had been working on for the past seven years.
He takes a sip of water … and sits.
For 10 seconds.
After making a short joke, he pauses again.
This time for eight seconds.
What follows, after Jobs reflects on the question and contemplates the criticism, in what amounts to 20 seconds of awkward silence, is a masterful demonstration of how to respond to an insult. (I broke down Jobs’s entire response here, if you’re interested.)
As these examples illustrate, the rule of awkward silence is a great tool of critical thinking. It can help you to give deeper, more analytical, more thoughtful answers. It can help you get to root problems more effectively, which leads 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.
Emotional intelligence and the rule of awkward silence
Emotional intelligence is the ability to identify, understand, and manage emotions–and the rule of awkward silence is a great way to show it.
When it comes to calm and rational thought, we typically engage a part of our brain known as 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.
Think also about Musk’s interview style, and the lessons we learn from it.
When it comes to answering challenging questions, you might be tempted to just spit out anything, even if doesn’t make much sense. Or, you might say what you think the other person wants to hear instead of what you truly believe.
But is that what you really want? Or would you prefer to take some seconds to pause, to think things through, and then to respond in a way you’re proud of later?
So, the next time someone asks you a challenging question, try to take your time before giving an answer. In doing so, you will:
- Buy yourself time to think
- Put yourself in the driver’s seat
- Keep yourself calm
- Increase your confidence
- Produce better, more quality answers
- Say what you mean, and mean what you say
The more you practice, the awkward pause won’t feel so awkward anymore–and the more you will be able to make emotions work for you, instead of against you.