Get comfortable with silence

Good engineering managers are good communicators. Good communicators are comfortable with silence, and often they luxuriate in it. Pausing after making a point conveys confidence and clarity. Waiting and considering a response to a question shows trust. Giving feedback or otherwise, uncomfortable news with few filler words delivers impact. Asking probing questions to a broader group can lead to awkward silence; good managers know the difference between contemplation and disinterest.

Admittedly, I’m still hit and miss managing silence, but I’ve come a long way since my start as an engineering manager.

Be succinct and to the point. Say what’s necessary, pause, and look for your audience’s comprehension. It might be non-verbal (e.g., a nod, leaning forward, flutter of the eyes) or verbal (“uh huh,” “ok,” “yes”). If you don’t connect with your audience, you’ll lose any further momentum you built up.

If your points could be misunderstood, ask. Say something like, “Does that make sense?” or “Could I clarify any part?”. Listen carefully to your audience’s response.

You ensure your points are understood and heard by leaning into pause-friendly communication. In waiting to clarify or check-in, you build empathy. You can also adjust or pivot your message on the fly.

But leaning on succinct communication isn’t exactly novel advice. Many management courses, books on speaking or communication, and most of my past managers all extoll brevity’s benefits. The real challenge is being concise and pause-friendly in practice, which requires real work.

Leverage editing before opening your mouth. A few minutes before that big meeting, capture everything you want to convey, then cut the content down to what’s essential and relevant for your audience.

Self-awareness is also important. Remember how long you’re talking in one go, and moderate yourself. One mental trick I’ve used is to consider the entire message but artificially limit what I say to only the first part and then force myself to pause and check-in. I may have five points to speak to, so I only open my delivery with the first two. It’s arbitrary, and there are ways to end your message so suddenly you lose a larger relevant point. But if you notice you are losing the audience and rambling long, it’s better to self-correct to start a bit too short and add back on details as you go.

In rare cases, I privately set a timer for myself. For meetings where I know I’ll have a small window to make an impact, I might put that timer for as little as thirty seconds. When I have the floor and know I have to reach a larger point, that timer extends out to several minutes. When the buzzer goes off, I know that’s my cue to wrap up.

For distributed work where the discussion forum is on video, timers are trivial to hide in an app on your phone, computer, or watch. In person, it is trickier; I rely on a side glance at a clock or practice beforehand roughly how much I can speak over a given period.

Addressing emotions

Smart self-pacing and editing can only go so far. Emotions can still get in the way, especially when you have to chat about more uncomfortable topics like critical feedback or bad news to a report. Maybe they blew a big deadline, or you’re setting their new compensation in a way that they will see as well below expectations.

At times like these, in my first months as an EM, I had a habit of filling in “good news” to surround the bad. I had to deliver some tough feedback, but as a way to avoid diving into an uncomfortable conversation, I would spend more time giving praise or adding caveats (“I’m sure you didn’t mean it that way,” “It’s a minor deal”). It was about as “anti-pause” in delivery as I could have managed; my overall message came off as muddled and rant heavy. In the worst case, the person on the receiving end would end the meeting, thinking the feedback wasn’t necessary and wouldn’t change.

In retrospect, I was factually prepared but not mentally prepared. All my time spent in prep helped build a strong message but didn’t calm my nerves. Often, good communication requires being in the right headspace.

Work related stress and psychology are personal and idiosyncratic enough that universal recommendations are difficult. That said, I generally get into a good mental space for difficult conversations with two techniques: a block of time before a tricky conversation begins and some visualization techniques the night before.

Stress filled events can carry for me into the rest of the day. Or I’ll be grumpy about something that happened earlier and won’t be able to let it go. A solid half hour without anything on my calendar can make all the difference. I’ll leave my desk, walk around the house, and do something non-work related for a few minutes. The changeup helps me reset my emotions and refocus for the rest of the day. I factor this in by blocking off my calendar before a challenging or otherwise stressful conversation arises. Or when I might run into multiple potentially fraught discussions, I’ll purposefully space them out.

I also like practicing visualization the night before having to deliver difficult news. More specifically, I imagine myself achieving a positive outcome from my communication. For example, maybe a report was confident they were ready for a promotion, yet I must tell them their promo wasn’t successful. I imagine diving in with them to tell them the news. There’s a flash of anger, followed by listening to them vent for a few minutes. I walk through our next steps and how we’re going to set the report up for success, and we leave the meeting with the report disappointed but understanding and calm.

Per my example, my visualizations are positive yet imperfect and realistic. Human relations are messy; imagining what I’m about to say for what it is versus the ideal helps keep me grounded and calms me down.

Pausing on the receiving end

While most are familiar with pauses to keep messaging succinct as a communicator, we don’t talk enough about a pause as the receiver of said information. A thoughtful response requires at least a moment to consider and think through what you want to say.

We rarely pause long enough. Early in my EM career, I thought a rapid fire response was the way to go when in reality, a few seconds more to craft out the message often led to a higher quality response.

Many associate anything less than rapid fire responses as a sign of disinterest or a lack of knowledge. But there’s a way to balance speed with craftsmanship: respond immediately to show you’re considering a response, but wait long enough to craft a good one. Demonstrating active listening is respectful, and quality improves by slowing down your answer.

Non-verbal cues like nodding and quick comments like “Let me think about that” show attention. Or, to better comprehend (and often gain more time to consider in the process), repeat their points in your own words. If you don’t have much to work with after a pause, admit you need more time and follow up later.

Measuring improvement

If you take any advice from the tools and techniques noted here, also factor in a way to measure how far you’ve come. Be humble and ask your coworkers and reports for feedback. Am I easier to understand? Is alignment more natural? Be self aware, reflexive, and honest in reflecting on your latest conversation.

Some sort of measurement or reflection is critical because succinct verbal communication and peppers in a healthy amount of pauses don’t come naturally to most. It certainly didn’t for me; my pre-EM life as a developer was filled with long rants and rambling explanations. But step by step, I got better. It takes practice, and a suitable investment can up level your career.