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The Newsletter | Edition 039
In our Off-White Papers, we provide practical guidance on how to respond to our rapidly-changing world. This weekly newsletter explores those topics in real-time, with information and action steps on how to make progress now.

When used with intention, silence can be a communication superpower. In fact, at certain moments, it can be more powerful than any words. But as a leader, it’s easy to get caught up in the moment and dominate conversations or workflows. So how do leaders balance their actions with their inactions? And how can silence, or knowing when to pause and pick back up again with power, benefit our work cultures overall?
  1. Resisting the urge to fill the space, from Sherry Rahmatian
  2. A moment to gather your thoughts, from Trevor Larry
  3. Getting distracted by long emails, from Jess Vander
And this time, our illustrations from Nora Mestrich.


From Sherry Rahmatian


Despite what Western culture tells us, silence can be a beautiful and meaningful thing. Understanding the significance of silence across cultural contexts can help us show respect to, and get the best from, colleagues sitting anywhere in the world.


In American culture, silence can be seen as a negative—a sign that something has stopped or gone wrong. But in other cultural contexts, leaving a gap of silence can suggest a show of respect for the speaker. In fact, not consciously creating space for silence can be seen as a sign of poor listening. For example, as Erin Meyer explains in her book The Culture Map, “Chinese people leave a few more seconds of silence before jumping in than in the west.” Learned the hard way, she describes a scenario where she unintentionally prevents a colleague from contributing by speaking continuously in a meeting. One person’s habit of speaking up is another person’s signal to stay quiet. The Chinese custom has roots in religious tradition, but similar customs are true in Japanese culture, and even across the globe in Nordic countries.


Model a positive view of silence that invites others to contribute.


Regardless of the cultural makeup of your team, try the following:
  • Resist the urge to jump in immediately after someone makes a point in a group meeting.
  • Encourage your team to make space in conversations, taking the time to fully listen and absorb a point before piling on.
  • In 1-1 conversations, practice leaving 2-3 moments of pause after someone shares a nascent thought or question, and notice how they respond.


From Trevor Larry


It’s easy for virtual meetings to slide into suboptimal conditions. The most common meeting format—get on a call, go through talking points, take turns speaking up—tends to overemphasize areas of agreement and stifles diverse and unique thinking. Silent meetings, when used effectively, can create the necessary conditions for greater quantity and higher quality solutions, broader team participation, and more complete examination of a solution set.


We spend a lot of time in virtual meetings. Classic experiments in information sharing and social psychology have highlighted the pernicious effects of the traditional meeting format ranging from information bias to exclusionary power dynamics to production blocking. Teams at Square and Amazon (to name a few) have embraced silent meetings to let team members form opinions and brainstorm solo during a designated period of time—this approach allows people to share ideas simultaneously and without influence or pressure from others.


Build a period of silent reflection into your next meeting.


For your next meeting to brainstorm ideas or hear honest feedback from everyone attending, carve out some silent time.
  • Before the meeting, create a space where team members can capture their personal thoughts and reactions (any digital whiteboard or shared space like Google Docs, Jamboard, or even the chat in a video call can work).
  • In the meeting, be clear about the purpose and desired outcome.
  • Carve out a period of silent time for attendees to read and write their own thoughts.
  • Cluster similar feedback or ideas together.
  • Get back together to discuss and compare.
Who knows? You may be surprised by what you hear in your next silent meeting.


From Jess Vander


A good email is the Baby Bear of communication formats: long enough to be clear, short enough to get across key thoughts or requests, and just the right signals of tone to communicate what we mean.


Most agree a courteous email keeps things clear and concise. Where teams, companies, and industries may disagree is how to convey tone—particularly, long vs. short emails. The Pro Long Email-ers say, “Short emails are terse and make you sound demanding or passive aggressive.” Those rebutting say, “Long emails sound unprofessional, wasting time with flowery bulk and niceties.” But if tone is what we need to get across, consider the email length debate a red herring. Conveying tone is more often a matter of structure (nothing says “I respect your time” more than a summary preceding a longer email, am I right?), strategic use of punctuation (I advocate the grace of a well-placed exclamation or interrobang), and context (so...what are you saying‽). Email length matters, sure, but so does tone in communicating effectively. Basically: less is sometimes more and also sometimes, less is actually less. Got it? Good.


Try shorter emails with exclamation points and longer emails with handy summaries.


It’s not lost on me how, in this otherwise thoughtful newsletter about the potency of silence and restraint, this is a superficially practical interpretation of today’s theme. But I am definitely one of those people who used to universally believe when emailing, “less is more”: it was my personal Everest to be more concise. And if I’ve learned anything from the many people in my life telling me I’m a terrible texter, it’s that this “negative bias” towards text-communication is real (countless at-work interrogations about why I punctuate my texts): in aiming for concision, my messages muddied my tone. While I can’t say I’ve ‘improved’ as a texter, I am more conscious of my “punctuation bias” and supplicate you know that if you get a ! from me or anyone like me, you know what we mean.

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