For Better Feedback, Keep Quiet

Let Silence Do the Heavy Lifting

Written for Farm Futures and originally published in the January 2024 issue. 

The harvest went well, and the work got done, but the owner could tell it was more stressful for everyone since they picked up more acres.  There were too many balls in the air for the owner to juggle.  He wanted some ideas from his key employees.  He knew they shared the same frustrations and that, with their experience, they had good ideas on how to make the next season smoother.  What he really wanted was for the employees to “step up”  and take the initiative to solve their own issues.


So a meeting was called of the owners, key employees, and the next generation of owners (ie, the owner’s children working on the farm).  The owner asked the question, “What can we do to make next season run smoother?” After a couple of very long seconds, the owner, seen as the leader, jumped in with an opinion on how to fix some of the issues.  There was almost a collective sigh of relief as the person seen as the leader broke the silence.


Then there were a couple of small comments, mostly agreeing with his assessment.  The rest just nodded their head in agreement.  The owner came away feeling his crew wasn’t interested in stepping up and solving problems.

no one voicing their thoughts

Yet, looking back over the meeting, the owner wondered if the team really was on board or not.  They all nodded their head, but there wasn’t enough discussion, let alone debate, around some of the important aspects.  The owner estimated he talked about 80% of the time.  He was also frustrated that he brought up all the ideas.   Weren’t his employees paying attention?  They were a good team, but were they just going through the motions?


It really came down to the owner.  This guy is smart, driven, and has more good ideas before breakfast than some do all day.  He is comfortable sharing his ideas with others and doesn’t mind a good debate as long as it helps solve a problem.  What did he miss?


One of the best ways of building commitment and finding the best solutions is to ask someone to give their opinion.  Your best employees will help you solve your challenges if you allow them to and you hear them out on their ideas.  As the owner, you will have the final decision, but you need their input.


The farm owner above did that, but what did he miss?  The missing ingredient in his employee meeting was silence.  Yes, silence.  Silence enough for his crew to absorb the question, think about it, and think about how to respond.  Not everyone is a quick communicator and they need time.


What do I mean by silence?  It means asking a good question, a deep question, then waiting for a response.  Waiting and not saying anything, even if the silence is a little uncomfortable.  The best ideas, and the deepest thinking seldom occur at the surface level of thinking.  It is much deeper, and often deep thinking needs time and silence.


So how can we get better at letting silence do the heavy lifting in deep conversations?

My first-grade teacher would say, “Zip the lips!” No additional questions, comments, or anything.  Just ask the question and wait for a response.  The first couple of times, there will be a lot of silence.  Very uncomfortable silence because they might not be used to giving their opinion.  That’s OK, let the silence build.  How long?  At least two minutes and two minutes of silence is a long time!  Unless there are some real underlying trust issues with the group, they will talk.

Also, be careful in asking a genuine question so you don’t add your thoughts behind it.  For example, “What can we do to make the next season run smoother?  I just felt we had too many costly mistakes and broke stuff.” The comment on the back of the question gives your opinion and will shut down the discussion.


When you ask someone’s opinion, you are no longer the most important person in the conversation; they are.  Stay curious and ask follow-up questions, encourage other points of view.  As owners and leaders, we are often seen as having the answers; there is a time and place for that.  Elon Musk is famous for asking “Why” as a follow-up question at least five times in order to get to the deep answer.  I’ve never been with Elon, but I’m guessing by the third “Why,” there will be a lot of silence.


If we want our teams to grow and problem-solve, they must be encouraged to think deeply.  Deep thinking can accomplish heavy lifting, but heavy lifting needs silence.


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