10 May 2009

“Active Silence”

Posted by paulandrew

SilenceSeveral of my good friends have been going through challenging times, which means I’ve been doing a lot of Supportive Listening lately. And in my listening I’ve started to take a much more active stance towards the moments of silence that invariably happen.

But what is “active silence?” Consider this scenario: There you are, listening to someone talk through a challenge. And then they stop talking. What now? Do you ask a question? Share a WIG? Or just wait?

It’s easy to consider silence in conversations as being of little value. It can seem as if nothing is happening, as if it’s a time when as a listener you can just tune out while you wait for the speaker.

But I think that tuning out compromises the value of silence, for one simple reason.  Great Supportive Listening conversations are powered by the connection between the two people.  And that connection matters even when nobody is talking, and perhaps even especially when nobody is talking.

I’ve seen an active, connected silence give birth to many good things.

For one, when I sit in active silence with someone who has just expressed a worry, it often helps them to digest that worry and get more comfortable with it.  I don’t know what’s going on, but the speaker seems to take a step forward.

Another outcome from an active silence is the joy of the unexpected—a surprising new insight that seems to come out of nowhere. Sometimes the longer silences are the ones that yield these moments of creativity. I wonder if this happens because when one sits in silence for long enough, without the usual train of thought or interruption, it creates space for really new ideas to come up—the kind of ideas that move people in new directions.

Now how does one stay “active” during the silence in a conversation? Here’s what works for me.

First off, I handle my own discomfort with the silence, the part where I’m thinking, “Should I be saying something?” I handle it by taking three conscious breaths, which calms me down and allows some time to pass. By that time, the speaker will have either started talking again, or have given me clues through their body language as to what they need.

Secondly, I find that consciously reminding myself of the value of the silence really does help. Here’s how I do it: when I’m sitting in that silence, I’ll say to myself “Just wait, she’s still working, let her work,” while I make a conscious effort to remain present, connected, and quiet. I’ve seen so many people benefit from these active silences that I now get excited when it happens, wondering what surprises await on the other side of the silence.

Thirdly, I’ve come to trust that it’s OK to wait a little too long in silence. I’ve observed that when the speaker needs me to say something, they’ll let me know. And that even if the silence that goes on too long and they change the subject, I can still invite them to come back to the topic with a simple WIG.  And if they actually did have more to say about it, they will.

There is great potential for silence when it is properly appreciated.  Rather than meaning that something is wrong, silence can be good news. It can mean that difficult feelings are being processed and moved through. It can mean that surprising new insights are about to show up.

A key to having a valuable Supportive Listening conversation, whether there is a lot of talking or a lot of silence, is tending to the connection. Over the next few days, push a little on maintaining that connection through the silences, and see what it does to your conversations.


BTW, for more on silence, check out my blog entry Three Kinds of Silence.

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