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The Value of "Think-Time" in a Retrospective

Think-time gives retro participants time to process the ideas and thoughts of others

Five seconds can feel like an eternity when it is filled with silence. Ten seconds is almost unbearable. And yet, it is these silences that allow people to process information in their own time and enable them to participate in discussions effectively. 

What is Think-Time?

The concept of "wait-time" was invented by Mary Budd Rowe (1972). She discovered that when a period of silence after a question was posed lasted at least 3 seconds, both student and teacher behavior and attitude were positively affected. Educational researcher Robert Stahl (1985) further developed this concept as "think-time," which he defined as “a distinct period of uninterrupted silence by the teacher and all students so that they both can complete appropriate information processing tasks, feelings, oral responses, and actions.”   By waiting a few seconds longer than was the norm, it was found that students participated more often, provided stronger answers, and did better on standardized tests. 

How can Think Time be used in a Retro?

Although the initial research was conducted in a school setting, it can be applied similarly to any meeting in which people are being asked to participate and share their ideas, knowledge, and opinions. While a retrospective doesn’t end in a standardized test, the value of this wait time during a retro can’t be overemphasized.

A retrospective is positively affected in several ways when the facilitator uses the concept of think-time. 

  • More participants engage and share
  • Better quality answers/ideas
  • The thoughts and ideas that are shared are lengthier
  • Participants’ confidence increases
  • Those with longer processing needs are able to participate more meaningfully

Overcoming the Fear 

Providing think-time can be challenging, even scary,  especially for a new facilitator. Most people are not comfortable with silence. After posing a question, it can be unsettling to wait it out, hoping that someone will provide a response. Hoping for energy and conversation, the facilitator panics,  thinking people are disinterested or unengaged. He  jumps in quickly in an effort to fill the “dead” time. And while that may relieve that tension in the moment, the facilitator’s unease has essentially disallowed all of the well thought out contributions that might have been made if he had just held his tongue a few seconds longer. 

So, how exactly can you get over this fear? 

  • Make silence your friend. Lean into it. 
  • Give yourself something to do during the silence: Breathe deeply during that time. Count to 10. Recite the alphabet. 
  • If think-time is new to you, let people know ahead of time why  you will be using it
  • Practice, practice, practice! Like anything new, it gets easier the more you do it.

Though it adds a few minutes to a meeting  in the short term, the long term benefits of utilizing “think-time during your retrospectives will far outweigh the cost. 

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