A very good friend of mine was telling me the other day about her need to fill her life with sound. Music in a silent room, or small-talk in a conversational pause. I often act in a similar way: I fidget. I pace. I procrastinate. I distract – myself, and others! I fill that empty space I am experiencing with things that occupy it, anything that can occupy it.

Many of us find comfort in being engaged and surrounded by the warmth that sound or action can bring. It can energise us, and bring life to moments where things feel a little too still…

Blast music from the rooftops!

Well, maybe not – unless it’s good music 🙂

On the flip-side of the need to be engaged, there’s moments when we all need silence in our lives. The simplest example of this is in the dead of night, when we are winding down to drift off to sleep. At that moment even our own thoughts scream through our minds, and have the power to distract from peaceful slumber. Pity the neighbour who decides to actually blast music from the rooftops, at 2am, groannnnnn (you know who you are)!

So, what if…

What if that moment of peace and clarity in the minutes before unconsciousness could be harnessed? It’s certainly a point at which we find ourselves the most relaxed each day. Monks have been meditating to achieve clarity of mind for thousands of years, and it is a state that scholars regularly explore, debate, and pen. Surely there must be something to this…

Well, there kind of is.

But before we go there, let’s think about the other side of this coin. About the people who can be overwhelmed by constants and recoil at the exhaustive nature of continual small-talk. Introverts may be one way that we could describe them, however even that is perhaps an overzealous use of an unneeded stereotype. I think the best way to describe these people is simply that they can take comfort in the silence. They embrace the still nature of a quiet sunset over a meadow, in a way that those enveloped in motion cannot.

In organisations, these people may be the ones that will always wait for their turn to speak. If one’s never provided because there is constant noise or action, these people never get a real voice. It may be a missed opportunity, a missed insight, a groundbreaking idea from a place that would never have been reached before unless that opportunity to digest the conversation, and mull the thought, was provided.

Silence may be golden

A strong leader will always attempt to make space in dialogue for everyone in the group. Providing opportunity for contribution by everyone can often lead to more rounded outcomes. This is an easy thing to say, and can actually be quite difficult to do in practice. Many groups will often have strong-voiced individuals in their midst. By helping to provide a more balanced discourse and creating room for everyone to contribute in their own way, a stronger outcome is likely to be reached.

This might mean a certain degree of silence is actually required to get the best out of a group. Providing that space for everyone to reflect can have profound impact even on those individuals who need to keep going. In a way, it coerces introspection of the conversation and of ones own contribution to it. The place of silence can also often be most powerful in an authentic conversation, and even tip it over into real reflective dialogue.

Think about an argument you’ve had… one where you’ve all come out feeling stronger or better for it.

When was it that the conversation took a turn? Was it when things became a debate and moved into a space of telling people what you ‘really’ think? At that point, was there a pause or silence – maybe from the shock or awe of the particular contribution?

At that point, one of two things will normally happen in any conversation. Either it will break down, and people will head for the exits. Or the tension will be held, silence enables the space to look inward and think about what is being said. The conversation can then move into constructive, cohesive territory where people are operating on the same page, solving the problems like a group of DJ’s spinning with mad skills.

The power should not be feared

For those who love the sound of sound and fill their worlds with noise in every way possible, this can be a challenge. Escalation and yelling matches can continue until breakdown, and by this point in time the weaker contributors are looking to the exits.

The power of silence will keep those people in the room with their heads in the game, even while working through the most difficult problems. It gives them a voice and space to say what others might not be able to say. It also helps us to be in our bodies – and to observe.

And. It. Is. Tough.

Some psychologists and psychotherapists will say that the need to fill that silence is based around a physiological response to isolation. Humans are typically pack-animals and we need contact to survive, even in the modern and digitally disconnected world. People who stay silent can even often be shunned because they aren’t saying ‘the things’, and aren’t keeping up their part of humanity’s giant click.

On that same token, those professionals will also say that when fewer words are used, they can be more impactful. Maybe it was Confucius that said that… but much of a muchness! Talking less in a conversation means we will also be listening more. And learning to listen, and really hear what people are talking about is a fantastic and fascinating thing.

Physiologically, silence may be like turning off one of our senses. Our ears can’t be closed – they are always on, ever expecting ‘something’. Maybe this is why silence is unnerving to many…

So, being silent requires a lot of courage. The nervousness that can come from sitting in silence is hard. Especially in today’s day and age, we are continuously going, so breaking that norm is challenging. We don’t like being disconnected, because we are always connected.

Holding that tension will be a challenge, and will take aeons to truly master. Getting into the swing of things will take some time…

What to do with your silence?

It’s all good and well to challenge yourself and allow silence to enter into a conversation, but for beginners, what do you do once it’s there? How to you hold your own moment of nervousness and increasing stakes in a conversation, while still holding the tension and providing space in the group?

The practices of dialogue can come into play strongly here. The power of listening, and hearing without judgement, empathising, and generously and genuinely receiving others’ point of view is a fantastic space with which to channel your inner self. Suspending ones’ own contributions, taking that step back, and also respecting other perspectives as legitimate are also both very strong uses.

When thinking about your own behaviours, and especially in your own nervous moments of increasing stakes as you initially create that silent space in the group, techniques like holding your breath or biting your tongue can act as a physical reminder that the silence will not harm you. You’ll likely find that this reminder will have the fascinating and immediate effect of calming you. Everyone will have their own ways to lower the anxiety for themselves – however these few examples are often great places to start. Give them a try!

Practice makes perfect

As is the same for riding a bike, these things cannot be rushed, and will happen when they happen. All of a sudden, that balance will be found and the conversation will transform into something completely different – everything will just ‘click’.

The best place to practice the technique of silence is often alone. Instead of reaching for the headphones or the remote control, try and sit in silence. Allow your mind to wander. Pick a quote, a topic, a poem, and explore it with your mind. Unpack and unpick each piece of it until you have nothing left, and then keep going through. Master this, and you’ll have those monks in the Himalayas knocking down your door to learn the secrets!

And maybe, just maybe… providing that practiced, purposeful silence in a conversation might allow just enough introspection of self to see if people are interested 😉

Embrace it.

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