Teachers for Teachers | Slice of Life: Help Me Interpret the Silence #SOL19 #TWTBlog
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Slice of Life: Help Me Interpret the Silence #SOL19 #TWTBlog

You know that moment.  You are in front of a group, be it colleagues, parents or students, and they appear to be completely disengaged.  They are not sharing, making eye contact or laughing when you planned for them to laugh.   Your mind races:

  • Am I boring them?
  • Am I being unclear?
  • Have I misunderstood how they wanted to use the time?
  • Did I somehow offend the group?

All you want to do is run and hide, but you can’t.  Instead, try this simple phrase:


Here is how it works.   When all seems to be lost and you have tried everything …you stop, look the group head on and say, “You are all being very quiet.  Please, help me interpret the silence.”  Then let the silence hang in the air.  Wait them out.  If no one says anything, have them turn and talk with a partner and then share out.  I have never had a group not share what is going on when I use this strategy.

I love it because it addresses an issue without being confrontational.   It lets the group know you are aware that something is off and you care to make the experience different for them.  I always want to respect the time, feelings and point of view of the group.  I can’t do that if I don’t know what they are thinking.

Next time you find yourself in this situation… give it a try.  I would love to hear how it goes!


Thank you, Betsy, Beth, Deb, Kathleen, Kelsey, Lanny, Melanie, and Stacey for this weekly forum from Two Writing Teachers. Check out the writers, readers, and teachers here.

  • Avatar
    Glenda M. Funk
    Posted at 11:39h, 07 March Reply

    This technique does work. In the classroom I have students stand, find someone new to speak with, and then ask for discussion. The movement gives them a break, eases tension, lets them affirm their thinking w/ others, and return to the lesson more comfortable and confident. And since I teach speech, this informal sharing helps students get acquainted w/ their audience.

    I need to do more asking for help interpreting the silence, however.

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    Mandy Robek
    Posted at 11:56h, 07 March Reply

    I love how you used turn and talk with adults – I wonder if people come ready to learn and not sure where the session is going. Turning and talking helps them connect with others, feel a bit relaxed a bit, and put their guard down. It also provides a moment of face to face connection – that in itself is so important.

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    Diane Dougherty
    Posted at 11:59h, 07 March Reply

    Yes, waiting out the silence is key I think. Most audiences become uncomfortable with silence, and somebody speaks up. “Turn and talk” is a good option too. But I think the most important thing about your post is your ability to read an audience.

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    Holly Mueller
    Posted at 12:00h, 07 March Reply

    I LOVE this strategy Clare! I clicked on your link because of your teaser on the linkup. Since becoming a consultant and frequent presenter, those silences have become inevitable. I found it easier to engage kids, to be honest. 😉 I will put this in my tool box of techniques to keep adults actively participating. Thank you!

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    Karen Szymusiak
    Posted at 12:09h, 07 March Reply

    Clare, thanks for sharing this great strategy. Those moments of silence or the lack of response from a group can feel awful and undermine what you are trying to do as a presenter. This strategy would also be helpful in staff meetings. I hope principals and educational leaders take this strategy and learn from it.

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    Posted at 18:16h, 07 March Reply

    Thank you for sharing the phrase. Yes, the first instinct is to run all sorts of stories in the head and somehow pull oneself inward.. Your approach is proactive, respectful and caring.

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    anita ferreri
    Posted at 20:06h, 07 March Reply

    I teach grad students at night – usually after a long day for us all. I do use turn and talk a lot even though they sigh when I wake them out of the slumber. I also use 4-corners to answer questions and stop and jot before sharing. In fact, i use just about the same strategies I do with kids! Even if they moan in the moment, I get good reviews at the end of the semester and they say I force them to stay awake!

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    Lisa Keeler
    Posted at 22:46h, 07 March Reply

    Oh wow Clare. I love this and cannot wait to try this. Thank you for sharing such a great strategy today.

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    Paula Bourque
    Posted at 01:00h, 08 March Reply

    Great advice! Wish I had read this before I taught a lesson in 6th grade today. It was a very subdued group for some reason and now I’m wondering what they might have said if I’d tried this. Thanks. I’m going to keep this one in my toolkit.

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    Posted at 01:56h, 08 March Reply

    I love the way you put this….this happens too often. Good idea to give control back to the audience if they are not engaged.

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    Melanie Meehan
    Posted at 02:41h, 08 March Reply

    HELP ME INTERPRET THE SILENCE… I can’t wait to use this one. I’m going to write it on my bulletin board though so that I have it ready when I need it. HELP ME INTERPRET THE SILENCE. That’s excellent!

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    Susan M Kennedy
    Posted at 22:07h, 09 March Reply

    thank you for another tool (which I’ve seen you use) to shift confrontation to inquiry.

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