Practicing Silence

One of my friends and I reconnected last month after a year or so apart. We ended up talking for a few hours. At the end of the evening, he mentioned he was the only one who spoke and that I didn’t speak much. I told him that I was only happy to listen what he had to share. Of course, this isn’t to say that I don’t like talking, but sometimes it’s nice to hear others talk, particularly when you can see they have so much to share with you. In these cases, it’s best for you to give them that space and allow them to be heard.

When you are talking with others, you may be guilty of listening to them while thinking about what you’re going to say next, but that’s not listening at all. In those instances, we care more about being heard rather than listening to the other person.

We are quick to fill moments of silence with our own words. We don’t allow any gaps in our conversation so to speak, and while that may be okay when talking to acquaintances in order to be polite, it would be less so when your conversation becomes more intimate.

We are uncomfortable with silence. In this day and age, we are so used to getting new information all the time (audio, video, etc.) that we find ourselves uncomfortable in the absence of sound. When was the last time you drove your car while not listening to any music, radio, or podcast and simply used that time to think instead? It doesn’t happen anymore because we don’t give ourselves the time and space to get bored. We fill every bit of time with checking this and doing that. As I wrote in an earlier draft, we don’t need more time. If we had more of it, we would fill it with more of the same things.

Here’s another example. I am the kind of person who prefers having solitude in the mornings. I like to keep my conversations to a minimum (and if I can avoid it, that’s best). I like to be in my own space during this time. I guess you could say that it also prepares me to do my creative work. I also try to avoid any kind of everyday thinking during this time (such as what to eat or what to do).

So what do I mean by silence? A few things, actually. Listening more than talking with others. Observing more. Giving yourself the time and space you need to think about things and not fill every minute doing things. Pausing before responding to things, especially in difficult situations that require empathy with others. For me, silence is spending some time in solitude every day by way of practicing mindfulness meditation, writing, reading, and generally keeping to myself in the mornings.

Silence is not only about speaking less and listening more with others, but it’s also about listening to yourself. As it turns out, you can learn more from an hour of listening to yourself sitting by a stream than by reading books all year.

Here are some reasons why we want to practice silence.

Nearly every influential person I know advocates for talking less and listening more, not by saying so but by being that person.

Here’s the thing: when we are talking, we are only repeating what we already know and not really learning anything new about the world.

Conserve energy and only talk when absolutely necessary, so then when you do talk, people take notice of what you’re saying. That person in the group who generally keeps to themselves are heard more when they finally speak.

You learn to observe more by doing this, which means you learn more about things. It gives you the chance to improve your self-awareness and helps you be mindful of things, not to mention being more proactive. It gives you a chance to hear differing views and opinions. Most of all, when you listen to what others have to say (with the intent to understand), you make them feel understood, and that’s what we care about more.

I think we all want to be heard, listened to, and understood, but it’s easy to feel depressed when you think that no one wants to hear you.

When you can practice silence in your conversations, it also means that your comfort level with that person has greatly improved. There is also something to be said about speaking slower as well. I think it’s a nice complement to talking less.

Here are some ideas for practicing silence.

Listen more than you talk. Be mindful in your conversations with others. I am particularly conscious of this when I think I am talking a bit much, at which point I might simply call it out and say I am talking too much so as to let the other person continue the thread.

Stop thinking about what you’re going to say next. Instead, listen to what the other person is saying by being curious and staying interested.

At some point, there will be a lull in your conversations, and that’s okay. Don’t feel rushed or obligated to fill that gap. Think about what you just talked about and let that simmer.

You will often see this in motion pictures when a character adds a silence at the “right time” for effect. Practicing silence in your conversations with prospects or customers can be equally powerful. I think most sales people are guilty of talking too much and not listening nearly as much. Rather than having their prospect or customer talk, they are quick to fill that gap with something.

Consume information sparingly and mindfully so as to not overstimulate your brain. I wrote in my draft on the downsides of modern conveniences:

If you get bored, then that’s great. We don’t remember what it’s like to get bored anymore because we’re so used to stimulating the reward circuits in our brain all the time with new information.

Spend your mornings and evenings in silence. That way you know how your day will begin and end no matter how busy it gets during the day. Spend some time in the morning practicing mindfulness meditation. Keep your mornings sacrosanct for doing the same things every day. Learn to speak slower and pause in your conversations to respond (not react).

The next time you drive, try to resist turning music or the radio on. Listen to yourself. Have dinner with your friend or partner and keep your phones and smart watches at home to savor the silence and avoid getting distracted and interrupted. Go for a silent hike or ride your bike on a trail on a Sunday afternoon in the midst of nature.

Of course, silence is a virtue that doesn’t come easy. I think it was Gandhi who said, and I paraphrase, that we have two ears and a mouth, so we must listen twice as much as we talk. It also helps us be slower, calmer, and more empathetic with others. It improves our self-awareness greatly. By not feeling the need to speak at every turn, you give yourself the space to learn and observe things. Practicing silence can be powerful at the right times in your personal and work life. Once you understand that silence is not inherently bad, you can use it in ways that work to your benefit rather than against it.

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