The Rule of Awkward Silence: An Effective Communication Weapon

Steve Jobs was once insulted while giving a lecture. He stopped speaking and encouraged a not-at-all-innocent silence, with which he sought to obtain a certain effect. We're going to explain his strategy.
The Rule of Awkward Silence: An Effective Communication Weapon
Sergio De Dios González

Reviewed and approved by the psychologist Sergio De Dios González.

Written by Edith Sánchez

Last update: 29 March, 2023

The rule of awkward silence is an emotional intelligence tool. It’s used by people like Jeff Bezos, creator of Amazon, and Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple. However, the figure who proposed it in detail was the consultant Justin Bariso. In fact, he’s written a book on the subject that’s been extremely well received: Applied EQ, A Guide to Emotional Intelligence in the Real World.

In reality, those who use the rule of awkward silence never tire of discussing its benefits. They suggest it’s not only an effective weapon for gaining control over an audience or a workgroup but that it also allows individuals to be far more assertive in their communication.

As the name suggests, the awkward silence rule involves staying silent for longer than usual in specific circumstances. Its defenders claim it captures the attention of others and helps in the better expression of ideas so it’s possible to be clearer and more specific.

“And when you practice the rule of awkward silence long enough, you’ll stop feeling awkward.”

-Justin Bariso-

The rule of awkward silence

As we mentioned earlier, the rule of awkward silence is to keep silent for longer than others would expect. But, for how long? As a rule, in a conversation or a dissertation, there are no pauses of more than four or five seconds, at most. However, in this case, the pauses last ten or 20 seconds, or even more.

Why are awkward silences uncomfortable? It’s because our brains are adapted to have an almost automatic interaction within the framework of a conversation. While one interlocutor speaks, the other’s brain is already preparing an answer. In addition, the normal thing is that they refrain from intervening until they understand that the other hasn’t stopped talking.

But, in awkward silences, the presenter who generates them stops speaking at a certain stage, one that’s not usually seen as an endpoint. In fact, they actually indicate that they’re going to continue speaking. Awkward silence can also occur when one of the interlocutors ends their speech and gives the floor to the other.

The awkward silence causes a delay in the other person’s speaking. Consequently, they feel uncomfortable and maybe even insecure. They might even find themselves asking if they’ve said something wrong or they wonder why the other person is having to think so much before answering them. In addition, their anticipation of what the other person is going to say increases. Therein lies the first great benefit of such a rule. That said, this isn’t the most important.

Speaker applies awkward silence rule
The awkward silence rule is a resource used by speakers to capture the attention of the public.

An emotional intelligence tool

Beyond the interest that may be aroused in the interlocutor, the awkward silence rule is valuable in that it offers the possibility of the individual better organizing their ideas, instead of responding to the first thing that comes to their mind. In effect, it could be said that it’s an antidote against impulsiveness in communication.

Along with the above, taking a long pause allows them to improve their speech. Instead of saying anything, they mentally process the information and offer a clearer and more direct form of communication. Therefore, they avoid digressions. Under working conditions, this saves time.

Regular users of the awkward question rule claim it offers eight specific benefits:

  • Promotes self-confidence.
  • Helps balance emotions.
  • Helps us to say what we really want to say.
  • Allows us to delve a little deeper into our thoughts and words.
  • Helps us offer more valuable answers.
  • Benefits the coherence of communication with our values and principles.
  • Exercises our thoughts, hence we don’t resort to automatisms.
  • By the speaker’s turn being muted, the environment is also muted.
Work team meeting in meeting
As a communication tool, the rule of awkward silence opens a margin to better think about what we want to express.

Practicing the rule of awkward silence

Big businessmen, like the ones we mentioned earlier, apply this rule on a daily basis. For example, it’s said that Tim Cook gathers his executives together at the start of the day, but spends the first half hour going through his emails in complete silence. This isn’t an arrogant gesture, but an invitation to silence. It means that, when the meeting begins, everyone has something valuable to say.

Of course, we can’t all be like Tim Cook or one of those people who basically can do whatever they want and still look good. Indeed, in more every day and habitual circumstances, taking such long pauses could be viewed as signifying rejection, being challenging, or trying to appear important.

However, those who know the subject well claim that, despite the fact that it can generate a certain shock, with time, the attitude is understood and comes to be valued. That said, in some instances, quick responses are required, particularly when the matter isn’t too important. At the end of the day, the key lies in knowing how and when to use the awkward silence rule.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.