“Silence is one of the great arts of conversation.”
Marcus Tullius Cicero
It apparently takes 4 seconds (about the time that’s passed since you started reading this page) before most of us begin to feel uncomfortable with silence during a conversation, when in someone else’s company, or even from our own inner thoughts and chatter.
As humans we have a relentless need to understand, explain and question. We can feel threatened if we receive either a terse or no answer to our questions. It can lead us to fill the silence by giving further details and perhaps sharing more information than we intended.
Being comfortable with silence is so valuable. For example, in a meeting setting, silence can be an important skill. It can be used to provide thinking time and encourage participation from those who less readily share their thoughts.
Jumping in to fill silence when someone is upset or in a state of heightened emotion can give the wrong message. Our impulse may be to fill the silence by speaking as we feel uncomfortable with it. However, we can give a much more supportive message by sitting in silence with that person. It lets them know that they have the emotional space they need, but that we are there for them.
The world has become a noisier place both inside and outside our homes and workplaces. Depending on where we live, most of us noticed the difference in road and air traffic during the pandemic lockdowns. And many welcomed being able to hear birdsong again because of less traffic and aircraft noise within our external environments.
However, the spell of our temporarily quieter world may have been broken by our own or others’ mobile phone alerts. The accessibility of these gadgets can provide us with music and conversation wherever we are. They have perhaps led to us to being more uncomfortable with silence than ever before. It can feel like a foreign entity.
Add to this picture, the additional internal noise most of us experience from the constant chatter going on within our own heads. Is it any wonder when you ask someone how they are, the response is often “busy”, “tired” or “exhausted”?
How can we become more comfortable with silence?
Here are 5 tips to help us get started on becoming more comfortable with silence and to gaining some external and internal quiet:
- Being aware – those who we feel most comfortable with, are usually the easiest for us to be silent with. Observe your silences with them and the feelings they give you. Once we’re more comfortable with silence in our more intimate relationships, we can try rolling it out to other settings.
- Improve our listening skills – during conversation, rather than thinking about our reply, concentrate on understanding what the speaker is actually saying. It will reduce our urge to respond straight away. This short article offers some tips on how we can listen to understand.
- Focus during a silence – a useful tip if we’re trying to hold a silence to give others time to think and then speak. Focusing on something can help to try and lessen 10 seconds of silence feeling like 10 minutes and thus allow someone else to contribute before we do! So, concentrate your thoughts on (silently) counting backwards from 20, or on your breathing, or watching the seconds tick by on your watch or a clock in the room.
- The power of the pause – we may have noticed that those who speak most powerfully, often speak fewer words more slowly. Silence can cause some of us anxiety and an acute need to prove ourselves. Instead of instantly filling a silence, we can instead try to collect our thoughts before vocalising them. Taking a few silent seconds to do this before responding to a question can cause others to wait and listen more attentively to what we have to say.
- Practice settling our minds – often used as the first step in practicing mindfulness. With practice and patience, we can all learn to settle our minds and calm the chatter in our heads. You might like to try the exercise in this short video in which trainer Karen Barr guides us through a brief exercise to do just that.
Many other mental health, resilience and wellbeing tips are available on our website – please have a browse to find some that work for you.
This tip appeared in our Autumn 2022 newsletter. If you would like future editions of our quarterly workplace wellbeing newsletter sent directly to your inbox, please sign up here.