HOW TO GET OVER A ‘TUMBLEWEED MOMENT’ (AND AVOID ONE IN THE FUTURE)

WHAT IS A ‘TUMBLEWEED MOMENT’? 

Have you ever asked a question that was greeted with nothing but silence? You look around and all you can see are blank faces.
The silence is scary because you don’t know what people are thinking. It could mean anything. You wait a little longer and still nothing happens. Just the sound of tumbleweed rustling by….
You’ve just experienced a ‘tumbleweed moment’ – a period of dead air or silence. 
And it’s awkward and uncomfortable – not just for you but also for your participants too.
You don’t know what people are thinking and your mind races to think of something to fill the silence. So, you blurt something out to fill the void and try to save the situation, but it leaves you feeling on edge and a little nervous of asking more questions of this group.
You really don’t want it to happen again either. So maybe you talk a little too much and forget to involve your participants as much in the rest of the programme.
But what if you had some steps to work though to help you get over this moment?
Well, help is at hand. Here are some practical ways to get over a tumbleweed moment.
And at the end I’ll be sharing some advice about avoiding these moments in the first place – so stick around and together we’ll make sure you never have to hear the terrifying sound of silence again!⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀

DON’T PANIC

First take a deep breath. The more often you work in an interactive way, discussion-based way, the more likely this is to happen to you sooner or later. So you need to be prepared. Stay calm. You have some strategies to help you.

BE PATIENT

Every time you ask a question you should be prepared to wait. Understand the importance of pause time. Don’t jump in too quickly to say something else or to rephrase. WAIT.
The moment after you’ve asked a question will probably seem much longer to you than to your participants. Remember they are thinking. They are looking. Give everyone the chance to look AND think first – replies to open-ended questions take longer to formulate in your head. So do be patient with your group and relax.

SET OR RESET EXPECTATIONS

 Ideally, you would set your expectations at the start of the programme in your introduction – where you introduce yourself, your role and the programme or tour you are about to follow. In the introduction you can also share what you would like the group to do and how you would like them to participate.
  • State at the start that this will be an interactive 2-way experience and the more they put into the experience, the more they will get out of it.
  • State that all comments and questions are welcome and that there are no ‘wrong’ or ‘right’ answers.
  • Suggest you are exploring and discovering things together and that you are their ‘guide-on-the-side’ rather than the expert, helping the process along.
If you haven’t stated this already, remember you can do this at any point during the programme and especially after you’ve asked a question and got crickets in response.

READ THE GROUP FOR SIGNS

The next thing you can do is to read your group. Discretely look for body language and verbal clues to tell you how your group received your last question. Do they look bored or fidgety? Maybe you spent too long at that stop and they were keen to move on rather than answer your question.
Maybe you got blank stares from some members, but a few encouraging smiles from others. Perhaps you could gently direct your re-phrased question in their direction.
Maybe everyone looks confused; time to rephrase the question to everyone and we’ll cover this in a bit.

REQUEST ANSWERS IN A DIFFERENT FORMAT

Maybe your tumbleweed moment has taken place at the beginning of the programme and everyone is a bit unsure of each other and what to expect. Maybe the group aren’t ready for that type of question just yet. Perhaps they need warming-up a little.
Also, have a think about whether the group feel intimidated by you or their surroundings or don’t want to appear unknowledgeable in front of other group members. These are all reasons for participants not wanting to speak up and participate.
So, instead of asking for responses to be shared with the whole group:
  • Ask for a show of hands, then do a follow up question directed to someone who raised their hand.
  • Do a think-pair-share – ask people to discuss possible responses with their neighbour. This breaks the ice and allows them to share what they thought collectively.
  • Divide the group up into 3 small groups as this allows discussion to flow and allows for more voices to be heard. Each group can nominate a spokesperson to report back. Also, if the group are quiet because they are low on energy, putting people into small groups really effects a change in the atmosphere – people get livelier and always come back to the main discussion with higher energy levels.
  • Write: Some individuals struggle to find answers when put on the spot so ask everyone (including yourself) to write down a quick response . Then ask if anyone would like to share what they wrote. (If no-one does, you can share what you wrote down). This is particularly effective when you are asking for personal responses to an artwork as not everyone wants to share their personal opinions.
  • Invite responses: Personally I don’t like calling on specific people or pointing at people to provide answers. It puts people on the spot and puts the more introverted members of the group on edge. I like to invite responses from everyone and ask ‘is there anyone we haven’t heard from yet?’ to encourage quieter group members to take part. I will also reposition the group frequently to move quieter members closer to me so that they feel more comfortable speaking.
  • suggest a possible answer yourself: If you have tried all of these methods and STILL haven’t had a response to your question, you could suggest a possible answer yourself and then ask for agreement or disagreement within the group.

REPHRASE YOUR QUESTION

To get answers, you may need to put more effort into your questions. Tumbleweed moments are quite often the result of a poor question phrased badly. Or a case of the wrong question to the wrong people at the wrong time.
Asking poor questions won’t drive engagement. And it can actually shut down a discussion and stop participants from taking part at all.
Asking questions that are open-ended, brief, relevant and clear will help you to avoid that tumbleweed moment – first by engaging participants and then by inspiring their thinking.
So, plan your questions in advance if you need to. Take your artwork or object and brainstorm questions for 5 minutes or more. This will then form the basis of your questions for your discussion. See what questions are missing.
  • How many closed questions did you ask?
  • How many open questions? Could I change any of the questions from closed to open? What effect might that have?
  • Is there a structure to your questions? You need questions about observation and description, interpretation, wondering, and summarising. Add questions for each section. Now you have the barebones of a structure for your questions.
You can use this to prepare in advance. You may not stick to your plan but it will help you to feel more confident in your questions throughout the discussion.
You may need to re-phrase your question. In the awkward tumbleweed silence, think about re-wording or rephrasing your question differently:
  • Maybe you included too much other information and your actual question got buried. So, when you re-phrase shorten the message and speak less.
  • Or maybe your question was too vague and the group are not sure how to answer.
  • For more help with common mistakes when asking questions, see 10 common mistakes to avoid when asking questions.
It’s good to suggest you are exploring and discovering things together and that you are their ‘guide-on-the-side’ rather than the expert, helping the process along.
If you haven’t stated this already, remember you can do this at any point during the programme and especially after you’ve asked a question and got crickets in response.

NEVER ASK ‘ANY QUESTIONS?’

This is usually a guaranteed ‘tumbleweed moment’. Throughout your session, check in with participants and ask for questions (rather than at the end) and ask for different viewpoints and considerations that have not yet been voiced. If you save up ‘any questions’ for the end of a stop or a discussion about an artwork most people will have forgotten the question they want to ask and then all you get is silence.
So that’s my advice for getting over a tumble weed moment. What about avoiding one in the first place?

TOP TIPS FOR AVOIDING A TUMBLEWEED MOMENT

  1. Set expectations for your role, the role of the participants and what they can expect on the programme at the start. Repeat as and when necessary throughout.
  2. Create a warm, welcoming atmosphere in your group. Make people feel comfortable as if they are amongst friends. When people trust the people around them, they are more likely to participate and ask questions and don’t forget to SMILE – can’t state this enough. Most people think they are doing this when actually they are not. It helps to relax you too.
  3. Do some warm-up questions and activities that require a low-level of effort from the participants first. Use observation as a tool to get everyone involved and participating. Create a level playing-field where no-one feels any barriers to participation. It makes sense to do some low-threshold activities at the start of the sessions so that people can build their psychological safety and feel confident about taking part. These are things like the observation exercises I just mentioned and also pair-share, turning to a partner and chatting, and getting participants just to write down a word or a sentence instead of relying solely on the whole group discussion. Sketching works well here too as long as you frame it as an observation exercise!
  4. Show appreciation for any comments, ideas and suggestions from your group. Make time to listen to them. Make sure you have understood what they say. As the group answers, you can acknowledge their responses in a non-judgemental way. Remember, you do not need to act or discuss every idea or thought that comes out; however, thanking people for their contributions and showing appreciation for their insights will go a long way in establishing psychological safety in the group.
  5. Go back to your questions and reflect. What type of questions am I asking throughout my programmes? Get videoed if you can – this will be very revealing. Ask open-ended questions rather than closed or leading questions
  6. Plan stops & activities to appeal to all learning style & personalities
  7. Divide your time equally. Do not spend more time with one person or group over another – even if one of the groups is more friendly, sociable, inquisitive etc than the others. Divide your time equally and pay attention to all the different groups equally. This will help you to avoid future silences!
So, there you have it – some helpful ways to get over a tumbleweed moment and some top tips on how to avoid them in the first place. I hope it’s been useful. Please do get in touch to share with me what you’ve found helpful.
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