Ever noticed how uncomfortable silence makes most people? It’s as if any unfilled space is a vacuum they must rush in to fill. People abhor it, indeed.
I’ve come to appreciate silence, those golden but seemingly interminable seconds between what most people consider the “active” moments. Because so much really does happen in those quiet spaces between.
I’ll use a church setting as an example. Sunday School teachers often ask questions, because they’re told that’s part of being a good teacher. Typically, however, they’ll make one of two mistakes: they’ll ask a yes/no question or one with only one short “right answer” that’s so obvious and “easy” that everyone feels silly answering it, or they’ll ask a really great thought-provoking question and then shut down any potential for discussion if no one raises their hand within about three seconds. The best teachers, however, are comfortable with waiting and letting their listeners’ minds work, even as silence descends on the group. If given a moment, participants can really create an invigorating or inspiring (or both) discussion.
Think about time you’ve shared with someone you’re either trying to get to know better or with someone you do know well but with whom you’d like to have a kind of serious or challenging talk. When you ask a question, do you sit patiently and quietly, showing with your facial and body language that you support them and respect them enough to give them some time to think and respond in a way that they’ll feel comfortable with? Or do you rush to reframe or redirect or say, “Oh, never mind” or “Don’t worry about it”?
My oldest daughter and I have talked about how many people tend to talk to us and share things with us. I think it’s because we’re active listeners. We’re comfortable with quiet and that space that is silent but most definitely not empty. We’re interested in what others have to say and don’t always have to respond to give our two cents’ worth. And maybe it’s nice to know that people feel comfortable confiding in us, trusting us with their “secrets.”
I’ve also realized that keeping my mouth shut for an extra minute or two when I might be inclined to respond quickly with an easy answer or snap judgment can yield some surprising results and make me glad I didn’t say anything. Just yesterday, my little 6-year-old, who can easily cause some frustration and annoyance in her older siblings (and parents), said to me, “So, there’s this new girl in my class, and she’s really annoying!” I admit I immediately thought, “Oh, really!? Pot, meet kettle.” But I held my tongue. Then she went on to say, “Yeah, she goes around choking people.” What? (Still not sure what exactly “choking” entails, and we’ve made sure to impress on her that if anyone at school is trying to hurt her, etc., to immediately tell a teacher; my point here is that “annoying” in her mind wasn’t quite the meaning I usually attach to it.) If I had responded what I’d been thinking rather than just continuing to listen, she might not have shared that last vital bit of information that allowed us as parents to teach her something important.
Keeping silent has value and can allow us to learn much we wouldn’t know otherwise. Unfortunately, it’s a skill that we don’t emphasize nearly enough in our culture of nonstop information. Turning off the TV, the computer, the smartphone, and other devices has power; turning off our tongues does as well.