Agile Coaching Tip: The Quiet Power of Silence

I once had a supervisor who was an excellent person, always seeking to create concensus and positive interactions. Mostly this worked out fine but at times his desire for always keeping things positive was actually a problem. When difficult conversations about design or priorities or such would come up, he would smooth things over between the parties. Many hard disagreements were not addressed because he would not allow the resolving discussions to happen. This led directly to the loss of a key engineer when a festering disagreement between two engineers exploded one week.

Agile Coaches Know When to Keep Quiet

This manager did not understand the power of silence and the need for constructive conflict.

Sometimes, Silence is Coaching

All managers are coaches at one time or another. ScrumMasters and agile coaches certainly are in positions of helping people see new ways to work, directing toward better paths. When conflict exists in a team or organization, lasting solutions come from the people who are in conflict, not from outside command. This means the agile coach needs to guide the conflict to a place where resolutions is possible. The conflicting parties need to talk, not the coach.

Silence as a Tool

The team retrospective is a place where silence can be used in a powerful way. As difficult questions about improvement come up, we need to learn to allow time to think, to give space for solutions to emerge.

“What kept this story from being ready for the sprint review this morning?”

Silence.

Don’t fill in the gap. Go to your “happy place” and wait for the team to answer the question. Wait even though you know the answer, even though the need to fill in the space is driving you crazy. And when the team fills in the space (and they will), listen carefully to determine whether the information is answering the question or just filler.  If it is filler, steer it back to the question:

“That is interesting information. How does that apply to our incomplete story?”

And be silent.

In this way you are slowly helping the team learn to focus on the current question and solve its own problems. Powerful!

Silent Group Exercises

Nearly any team includes a number of quiet people, individuals who are perfectly content to come to a meeting and not say a word. The creative input from these people needs to be included for the team to reach its potential. Silence is a powerful way to allow these quiet people to “speak.”

Here is something you can easily try that can bring out the hidden desires and data from the more quiet members of the team. During your next retrospective, do all the exercises in silence. Such a retrospective might go like this:

  • Each person writes eight stickies, four of things that went well and four things that can be improved. (6 minutes)
  • Everyone passes his eight stickies to the person on the right. That person takes all eight and puts them in priority order according to her own opinion.  (2 minutes)
  • Each person now takes the top three stickies and puts them on the wall. (1 minute)
  • The team all together, still not talking, goes to the wall and groups like stickies into duplicates and themes. (10 minutes)
  • Now give each person a vote or two and allow each to vote for the theme that he feels is most important. (2 minutes)
  • The theme with the most votes is the theme or area where the team wants to work on improvements in the next iteration.
  • Now break the silence. Allow the team to talk about the issues in this theme and the actions they will take.

This is just an idea of how different retrospective exercises can be done in silence. And you may find that people who don’t participate much might suddenly have something to say!

Learning Silence

Are you able to be silent? Can you just be while the team works and discovers?  Can you hold your tongue to allow learning and discovery to happen? As an agile coach, ScrumMaster, or even a team member, cultivate your ability to let the right people communicate. You can find satisfaction and increased trust when the quieter members learn that others are listening and their input is valuable. You also can solve those hard conflicts as the people who need to talk are allowed the space to do just that. 


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