The Sound of Silence

You have a grand gift for silence, Watson. It makes you quite invaluable as a companion. – Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes)

Twenty years ago, I scheduled a lunch to introduce two of my friends that had never met. It was a pleasant afternoon, full of good conversation and laughter, but there was one aspect of it that I found unusual and of particular interest.

Within the space of an hour, one of my friends found out things about the other that I had never discovered. Her talent for conversation impressed me then, and years later, I still admire it. She seems to know exactly the right questions to ask; gentle inquiries that uncover the very things people love to talk about or have a passion for- things that bring you true insight into their character. She does more than just put people at ease; you can actually see someone light up as they talk to her. It’s a joy to watch.

For a long time, I attributed this phenomenon to an uncanny ability to draw people out with the perfect topics of conversation. That’s partly true, but over time, I’ve discovered there’s more to her talent.

She also knows how and when to be quiet in conversation.

That’s sometimes easier said than done for me because I’m enthusiastic about my own ideas and interests. I also tend to save up news and information to share with people all at once if we’ve gone a long time between visits. That style of communication is fine as long as it’s reciprocated, but I sometimes walk away from conversations wondering if I spent too much time talking, and not enough listening.

For good or ill, I communicate through words. Both the written and spoken word are therapy for me, and even in times of crisis, I want to talk. I enlist my support system by speaking up, and it works for me, but it also means that I sometimes make the mistake of not understanding that silence can be someone else’s form of communication.

These days, I am trying to learn to hear what someone is saying with their silence.

I’ve missed the mark with several people I care about in recent years by not being attentive enough to what I wasn’t hearing from them. I’ve realized, much later than I should have, that they were struggling with something that they couldn’t verbalize in short interactions or written conversations. They needed a deeper, face-to-face connection, and even then, some things were very hard to say.

When we have these important conversations, I remind myself that I need to cultivate silence in the moment. I must be quiet and still, and not rush in with my words in an attempt to rescue someone who is uncomfortable or hesitating. That’s not what they’re asking for, or what they need, and it’s too easy to say the wrong thing- to tell them how they feel, or how I think they should “fix” their problem.

It’s far more important to allow someone time for self-reflection than it is to dispense unsolicited advice, however tempting that might be. I’ve learned that some people become silent when they are deep in thought, processing emotion, or are framing their words, and I can help empower someone to do these things simply by being quiet. When I get out of the way, it allows someone else to fill that space with themselves, which is sometimes desperately needed when they’re facing life-changing circumstances.

There’s a lovely phrase in the medical community – a tincture of time – that refers to the idea that time can be medicine, and the body can often heal itself if given time to do so. The concept also applies to our hearts and minds, when that “tincture of time” is comprised of the quiet moments we spend with someone while they explore uncertainty, anxiety, or grief.

Sometimes the best medicine we can offer… is the sound of silence.

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