Stop, Listen, and Be Silent

Silence is never silent; it is behavior and like all other behavior, has meaning—Psychiatrist Irvin Yalom

Every day we are met with a cacophony of noise; whether we are negotiating the hustles of the day, interacting with people, immersed in traffic, being blitzed by endless advertising and social media, engaging the internet, television, or news, or dealing with family or friends, the effect of noise can be exhausting. Noise predominates our environment.

It can be a beautiful symphony of sounds and meaningful to our lives.

But there is another aspect of noise that can instigate stress and create harsh reactive internal states within us.

Our voice can be a contributing element to the world of noise. I am referring to those person-to-person interactions that one might consider agonistic or threatening, such as an offending remark, familial disagreement, or a negative communication of some kind. Activating aggressive rhetoric is what I might refer to as unsympathetic psychological noise.

It is produced by people and then perceived, encoded, decoded, and responded to by our nervous system, and so we are activated by such noise (Kou et al., 2020).

However, this post is not about noise, but rather its inverse, and the power of strategic silence, or silence that is intentional and serves a purposeful function.

Silence becomes a “tool”

As a teacher, I have often deployed strategic silence in my classes. It is what some refer to as the “10-second rule.” In a classroom, asking a question of students might initially generate a sea of expressionless faces and non-replies.

But if I wait, it either serves to allow students to consider the question more thoroughly, or is experienced as a mild discomfort that usually generates a response that gets us talking.

As a business leader, I have used it constructively to demonstrate active listening with employees. As a therapist, silence expressed may be deeply profound, such as providing space for clients as they relate troubling experiences from their lives.

As a parent, silence may be even more comforting than words when our children simply need us to sit with them in reflection of their experiences or issues.

Silence can also allow us “mental room” to reflect more deeply before addressing questions too quickly, or allow us to demonstrate empathy, or convey a powerful emotion that we simply do not have the words for at the moment. Silence is a useful experiential medium that can speak louder than our symbolized language of words (Martyres, 1995). Let’s look at a variety of ways you can use this unique aspect of communication in your own daily life.

A silent pause speaks volumes

Our voice is episodic [used as needed] and is a functional tool utilized to express a variety of things. But when we strategically pause for silence, it demonstrates something thoughtful and introspective going on within us.

Research by Bavelas et al. (2002) has demonstrated the power of silence in “conversational dynamics,” finding that silent pauses in conversation can signal attentiveness, encourage speaker elaboration, and facilitate empathic turn-taking. When we are asked questions, “silent pausing” conveys to the speaker introspect, and respect for what is being said.

Silence gives us time to collect ourselves, filter out untimely elements and irrelevant elements, inspect issue readiness (holding elements that are not quite ready to be shared), and consider target responsiveness (receptiveness based on current cognitive or emotional states” (Parke et al., 2022).

Silent-pausing can also down-regulate emotional conversations, helping stave off cortisol spikes and momentarily defuse argumentative triggering. By incorporating these brief moments of silence into our responses, we open up space for the possibilities of interaction, ultimately enhancing their quality.

Conveying comfort and affirmation in meaningful silent moments

Silence tends to have a “texture” to it, as it carries the embedded feelings that come along with it. It can serve an affiliative function, linking us together through a deeper communication channel.

In a study by Back et al. (2009), the researchers mention that “some forms of silence can feel awkward, indifferent, or even hostile, but there are also silences that can feel comforting, affirming, and safe.” When we respond to others with silence, especially in emotionally charged situations, we signal to the other our willingness to consider and validate their experience.

This kind of silent acknowledgment can actually deepen interpersonal connections and foster trust within relationships or simply add the right kind of texture to a given experience.

According to researcher Martyres (1995), emotions may arise where “descriptive words” from one’s objectively understood language may fail to provide an accurate articulation of what one is experiencing. The use of silence may help another person make space for their feelings where words simply can’t.

Silence may cultivate mindful responding

Within the practice of mindfulness, we curate a way of being “present” and “nonjudgmental,” and a way of honoring silence before responding. With mindfulness, a person learns to self-monitor their present-moment experiences with non-reactivity and acceptance, thus increasing a state of meta-awareness (Larsen et al., 2023).

Research by Creswell et al. (20013) has highlighted the beneficial effects of mindfulness training on our response inhibition and self-regulation.

Other research notes that when we incorporate mindfulness techniques into our daily interactions, such as taking a moment of silence before responding, we cultivate greater self-awareness, we emotionally down-regulate, and we can feasibly remove impulsive and overinflated reactionary responses (Diao et al., 2021). Silence thus allows us to respond thoughtfully, possibly leading to a more constructive and meaningful communication outcome.

Silence as part of conflict resolution

In certain conflict situations, silence can be an influential tool for de-escalating situations in working toward resolution. When parties with disagreements are brought together, they also bring with them the emotional content of the conflict as well.

Further research by LeBaron and Pillay (2006) reveals strategic silence during negotiations can leverage opportunities for reflection and perspective-taking, leading to more collaborative outcomes.

Instead of escalating tensions with hasty or inflammatory responses, mediators may require silence to defuse conflicts and promote mutual understanding as part of their rules of engagement.

By listening actively and responding mindfully, we can navigate conflicts with empathy and respect, ultimately strengthening relationships and fostering resolution. Phyllis Pollack, President of PGP Mediation in Los Angeles, California, believes that silence can help minimize cognitive biases where people come with issues already framed, and that silence allows you to “go to the balcony” as she puts it, which allows greater perspective (Pollack, 2021).

Also, silence allows for respectful turn-taking, listening over calculating responses, digesting what we are hearing, and effectively moving away from cognitive anchors [anchoring bias] that we believe to be true. Silence allows parties in conflict to dig deeper and do the necessary vertical descent to uncover the real issues.

Whether used to signal to others our attentiveness or disapproval, cultivate empathy, provide space, or facilitate conflict resolution, silence can become a powerful tool for controlling our environment, both internal and external, as well as deepening interpersonal connections.

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