Allow a Little Awkward Silence

Holland & Hart - Persuasion Strategies

Holland & Hart - Persuasion Strategies

Trial lawyers work in words: language that is precise, economical, and influential. Those words are the water that litigators swim in, and for that reason, the absence of words can be a little uncomfortable. That can be an obstacle to using one effective technique in a variety of settings. That technique is silence. One of my colleagues shared a tip she learned from someone teaching an online class:  “When he wants people to speak, he is intentionally silent for ten seconds, with the idea being that that is the amount of time that people then feel compelled to ‘socially speak’…” In other words, after only a short time, it will feel awkward for both the speaker and the audience. But that awkwardness isn’t always something to avoid. In that example, the teacher’s silence is a small social violation that gets the class to the desired behavior: participation.

A business consultant named James Sudakow, wrote about why target audiences should sometimes get the silent treatment. In “The Science Behind Why Awkward Silence Works,” he shares advice he once received regarding a creative planning meeting: “Let there be awkward silence.” In an evolutionary or tribal context, silence is uncomfortable because it feels like rejection. The amount of acceptable spans of silence tends to differ by culture, but in the United States, Sudakow reports on research indicating that the awkwardness threshold may be as low as four seconds. In this post, I’ll emphasize three settings where a little awkward silence can help.

Silence in Voir Dire

When attorneys are able to conduct group oral voir dire, there is typically some ice breaking that needs to take place. Presuming that you don’t just want jurors to say “Yes” or “No” in response to leading questions, you will want jurors to share enough information that you’re able to get a full and nuanced appreciation of the personal experiences and attitudes that will bear on the case. You want them to talk. Sometimes they will without much prompting. But sometimes, you need to make it happen. When you ask an open-ended question to an individual or a group, go ahead and wait for the answer, even if you need to wait through a few seconds of awkward silence. Don’t cut the process short by suggesting answers that they can then simply agree with. Instead, wait them out in order to get the conversation moving.

Silence in Presentation 

When delivering an opening, a closing, or any presentation, the pause can be powerful. For example, I recently wrote that the rhetorical pause can be a powerful way to encourage the audience to process what you just said. When you are presenting a CLE, you will sometimes want the audience to not just process, but participate as well. And every speaker knows it can be hard to get them talking. I recall one speaker who asked a question that was greeted by awkward silence from the audience. He successfully broke the ice and started some interaction by quipping, “We can wait…I can do this all day.” Don’t be afraid if a pause creates a little discomfort for the audience.

Silence in Testimony

In testimony, for deposition or trial, silence can work for both the questioner and the witness. For the questioner, a pause can sometimes induce an unprepared witness to fill the awkward silence by adding to their already-complete answer. That can work well if the witness is defensive or unfocused. For the prepared witness, however, the thoughtful pause can be a reliable way to break out of the rapid-fire chain of questions that are coming at you. The space can also provide an opportunity to consider the question, collect your thoughts, and frame the right answer before you give it.

In each of these situations, and probably more, the power of the pause gives you a little control. So instead of relying on the relative comfort of continuous speech, go ahead and allow a little silence. Even when it is a little awkward, silence gets results.

Image credit:, used under license

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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