The Bible says God speaks in a still small voice. We often think we have to yell to be heard. Wrong, wrong, wrong.
Silence can be hostile and violent, as when a person refuses to speak to us. But silence can also be a friend. It can be a sign of intimacy. Ever see a happy couple who have been married a long time? They can be together without speaking all afternoon. They feel safe in each other’s presence and don’t need words to be understood.
Quakers use silence to get centered. To go deeper. To open the heart. To pay attention to what matters. In a tough conversation silence can be very helpful, as long as nonverbal signals such as attention and a friendly expression are present.
When I first became a mediator – after 16 years as a judge – I had to train myself not to rush in with a solution or advice. Not to anticipate a question and answer it before it was asked. Not to interrupt when the other paused to think.
I’ve learned it’s especially important to pause and wait when you’ve asked an open question. The person may not be sure what the answer is, may need time to bring it to the surface and turn it over. You’ll learn a lot more about what’s really bugging him/her and how to reach agreement if you wait.
Choosing silence can be especially helpful when you’re under attack. The other accuses you or calls you names or threatens action that leaves you feeling disrespected or unsafe. Adrenalin floods in triggering your reptilian brain impulse to run away or fight back. There’s a third way. Pause. Breathe. Give yourself time to calm down and think. Let the other person finish. Instead of firing back, just quietly stand your ground. If he/she says, “Well, say something!” you might simply say, calmly and quietly, “Is there anything more?” Or “I need to think about what you’ve said and how to respond. Could we take a 15 minute break?” This allows you both to calm down, reframe what was said (and what was heard, which may not be the same), and de-escalate the situation.
Finally, tough conversations can be painful. If another is weeping it’s more helpful to sit silently, making sympathetic eye contact , and let his tears flow. Eventually the person will regain control and the conversation will move forward. Your nonjudgmental silence will have deepened the other’s feeling of safety and trust.
Once as I sat on a bench in the ER at Sibley Hospital where my husband lay unconscious, a light began to flash above his cubicle. Alarms sounded, people ran toward him. I heard “Code blue!” and started to weep. I knew it signaled a cardiac arrest. A complete stranger sitting beside me silently embraced and held me. I never knew her name, but I needed that hug far more than any words she could have spoken.*
I wish you a peaceful and quiet day.
*My husband lived and, thanks to good doctors and a pacemaker, is now fine.