Tuesday, February 08, 2011

The Importance of Silence in a Good Conversation

Last year, during a radio interview, I was talking with David Dark about the first time he and I met, nearly 15 years ago, at a Bible study discussion group he was hosting down in Nashville, with about 20-25 people in attendance. As I mentioned in the interview, one of the striking features of this group was their comfortableness with silence during the discussion – what many people would consider undesirable “lulls” in the conversation. Silence was not something to be avoided or filled as much as possible in this group, it was rather time for people to think about what had just been said, and to think about what (if anything) they wanted to share. Only when someone actually had something to say did they say anything at all. This was very different from discussion groups I had participated in previously, where silence was something to be avoided on pain of embarrassing discomfort. Silence was Pressure, and as such, its avoidance usually trumped reflection and thoughtful response. I believe what I experienced in David’s discussion group for the first time (at least conversationally) was what I would later come to understand as the idea of a Free Space (more on this another time…).

The idea of silence as an important part of a good discussion may seem counterintuitive to many, but I have come to believe it is an essential element in any meaningful conversation, especially when the offering of a free space to others is a foundational concern. Not only does it give one time to reflect on what the other person has just said (allowing one to truly listen to the other rather than using the time the other person is talking to think of what they themselves want to say next), but it gives the person who has just spoken time to reflect on what they themselves have just said.

In C.S. Lewis’ book “Till We Have Faces”, there is a passage at the end where a complaint is voiced to the gods, ignorantly and redundantly. The gods do not offer a response. Instead, they offer silence, and in that silence the complaint is heard by the speaker herself, as though for the first time, heard for what it really is, and that realization of what she has just ignorantly dared to utter is her answer. Her eyes are opened and her mind is changed when nothing else has been changed and only silence has been offered to her. This response of no response is something we could learn a lot from in our personal interactions.

One of our most basic personal needs is to love others and to be loved in return. An essential part of this is the need to have something to offer, and for that to be accepted. One of the ways we can see this expressed is in the desire to be a part of the conversation, to have something to say, to be heard and appreciated, without being judged. Sometimes this desire to be a part of other people’s lives in this way takes priority over whether a person actually has something of their own to say or not, or whether they’ve thought through what they have to say. Often, people are in the process of finding their own voice (and all of us are in the process of refining our own voice). But to find one’s voice, one has to try on a variety of voices (opinions, ideas) to see what “fits”. And in one sense, *what* is said isn’t nearly as important as the fact that it is being offered as a way to participate in this life with others, one person reaching out to another person. Sometimes it is this much deeper intention that is important, and too often this deeper desire to connect with others is disregarded and damaged simply because of what was actually said, what words were used, which may have been of secondary or minor importance.

Too many of us (myself included) are “right-fighters”. When we hear someone say something we disagree with, we immediately feel the need to “correct” them. This puts the conversation in an “attack and defend” paradigm. And of course the first instinct one has when being attacked is to defend oneself. One of the major problems with this is that, as I’ve said, people often say things that they haven’t really thought through or internalized. Sometimes people are just “trying ideas on for size”. When we respond with an immediate attack on what they just said, putting them on the defensive, we often cause others to defend a position that was never really theirs in the first place. When a person’s “voice of the moment” is attacked instead of received for what it is, they have to defend that position in order to save face. “You don’t really believe that nonsense, do you?” If they say “oh, no I didn’t really mean that”, it can seem like something akin to giving in to bullying, or a protective way to hide their true selves and try to gain a false, conditional “acceptance” for something they are not. And so, the only other alternative is often to say “yes” and defend a position they might not have even held onto otherwise.

Silence, however, offers a way out of both of these undesirable alternatives. It offers a free space for a person to try out an idea and to hear it for themselves, and if they choose to, they can retract it, change their minds, without the feeling that they are giving-in to pressure or back peddling. And sometimes this might not happen for quite some time. But it will never happen in an “attack/defend” scenario where the only way a person can change their opinion is to be considered the defeated loser of the argument.

Besides, as I will talk more about in another entry, all we have in regards to truth are our own personal stories to offer. None of us have a monopoly on what’s “right”, and when we understand that people, at their core, desire relationship far more than “correctness”, we might start paying more attention to intention and relation, and start asking more questions about who this other person is, what kind of life led them to the place we now meet them, and why they really said what they did. And (horror of horrors) we might actually find our own opinions, rather than theirs, being changed in the process…

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