The rise of the silent meeting

The silent treatment.
The silent treatment.
Image: Unsplash/Marvin Meyer
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Everyone appreciates silence—in theory. Poets and philosophers have paid tribute to its depth and resonance for centuries, allowing silence to stand in for God or the mystery of life itself. Most of us, however, find silence between people to be awkward and anxiety-provoking, particularly in a professional setting. So at work meetings, it’s usually all talk—sometimes painfully so.

But a handful of well-known companies have adopted, and adapted, the idea of the silent meeting, gathering around the real or virtual conference table and saying nothing while getting things done.

So how does this work, exactly?

Jeff Bezos likes his meetings quiet

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos may be the originator of the silent meeting. When he gathers his senior executive team, everyone sits and reads a multi-page memo, scribbling notes in the margins, for about 30 minutes before they begin to speak.

The memo is part of a quest to save time, since forcing someone to write a memo means they’ll have to distill their thesis, gather all the relevant data, and touch on counter-arguments. But it also cuts down on theatrics and bluster. Without having that time to read, Bezos once explained, you’re asking for people to bluff, like high school kids who didn’t do the homework.

Eventually, when the speaking begins, what’s left to say ought to be only the essential.

The silence at Square

Silent meetings are also in practice at the payments company Square, where Alyssa Henry, product manager and VP of seller-facing products, has tailored the practice for her purposes, forgoing paper and pens in favor of laptops and Google Docs. A recent Medium blog post  by Pierre-Yves Ricau, a software engineer at Square, suggests it takes some getting used to.

“Picture this: a room full of senior Square leads, gathered for an important review meeting,” he writes. “Everyone is looking at their computer, in complete silence, interrupted by bursts of clickety clack. 30 minutes later, the conversation starts…”

Henry had written a persuasive defense of her silent meetings, which she allowed Ricau to post online. She states:

Lots of research says that minorities, women, remote employees, and introverts are talked over in meetings and/or have trouble getting their voice heard in traditional meeting culture. It sucks not only for the people that are disempowered by the traditional approach, but it sucks for those that unintentionally talk over/shut down conversation, and sucks for leaders that want to hear the best ideas but can’t because folks are being shut down — usually unintentionally.

Her method works for anyone who can sign into the doc from anywhere, not just those in the room. The noble objective she writes, is to create a culture where “it’s not the loudest voice heard, or the most politically adept, or the most local to SF, but the most right.”

Another benefit of the silent method: It minimizes repetition, or at least it should. When everyone is working on the same document, you can’t miss that someone has already made the same comment or asked the same question that’s occurred to you. Plus, you’ll leave the meeting with a record of what was, and by whom. Whatever the reason, Square founder and CEO Jack Dorsey is clearly a fan.

Quiet’s cognitive surplus

Two silent meeting advocates from the nonprofit Post Growth Institute once wrote about their version of the system, calling it an “incredibly productive, flexible and democratic means of virtual collaboration.” Instead of paper or Google docs, they used “Silent Skype,” logging into Skype accounts but only using the chat function. (This was 2012, when better options for chat software were pretty much nonexistent.)

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“In contrast to video conferencing, silent Skype allows us to continually leverage the cognitive surplus of our group,” they wrote. “Participants have the ability to reflect on what’s being shared without the distraction of someone speaking and the constant need to actively listen. In typed meetings, there is also no need to toggle between video and chat when someone sends a file or link.”

At their silent meetings, participants would type phrases like “action item” or “key resolution,” in capital letters (the online equivalent of yelling), beside any significant note. Later, a keyword search would help the team find those crucial comments again within the meeting transcript, which also worked as minutes.

At Quartz we use Slack, the group messaging app, so we’re arguably holding a silent, usually asynchronous meeting—with people wandering in and out of various rooms, or channels—all day. And yet we wouldn’t want silence to descend on every meeting. While the zen of a quiet gathering has its appeal, we’re already spending an inordinate amount of time outside of meetings looking at screens and typing into chat boxes, allowing our verbal social skills to shrivel.

Indeed, we may one day need a retronym for speaking out loud.