Silence

Many years ago I worked with a man named Henry. He sat on the board of my employer at the time. Henry was not a talkative person. In fact, he said little during board meetings. But when he did speak, his words were profound and insightful. Behind Henry’s silence was an incredibly sharp intellect and perceptive mind. But Henry never spoke unless he had something constructive to contribute, and his words always seemed to bring forward ideas and perspectives that profoundly shaped the decision-making process at hand.

Henry’s silence was not disengagement. Quite the opposite, instead of talking, he was thinking. He was an internal processor par excellence.

Unsurprisingly, Henry’s opinion was in high demand around the boardroom table. Other committee members would often ask him for input, but his response would sometimes amount to, “I have nothing to say about this issue yet.” Henry did not talk for the sake of talking. He did not speak for the sake of just getting his two cents in the equation. He had clearly self-determined the criteria for thoughts that warranted verbalization higher than the rest of us — at least those of us whose ‘contributions’ to meetings often amounted to rambling paraphrases of one another.

Fast-forward to the present. Today I still talk far too much in meetings. But my memories of Henry remind me that when it comes to speech, quality is far more important than quantity.

Your silence will be more effective than idle chatter.
Speak (only) when you have thought of a solution,
for it is (only) the skilled who should speak in council.
Speaking is more difficult than all other tasks:
he who does it fluently makes it his servant.
(Teaching of Ptahhotep, trans. Wilkinson 2016:266)

In hindsight, what made Henry’s rare and short exhortations so valuable was the fact he was a spectacular listener. It was as if he invested the majority of his mental energy in absorbing, critiquing, and synthesizing the input of others. He weighed and measured what he heard, instead of responding and reacting to it on the fly. He didn’t improvise paragraphs. He did not need to be heard; he needed to hear. He did not need to get a word in edgewise because he knew that the room would eventually ask (perhaps even beg) for his perspective.

That’s the paradoxical thing about great listeners: we can’t wait to hear what they have to say.

If what is heard enters the hearer,
the hearer becomes a listener.
He who listens well speaks well.
The listener reaps the benefits —
listening benefits the listener —
for listening is better than anything else;
it creates goodwill.
(Teaching of Ptahhotep, trans. Wilkinson 2016:272)

I must confess that I’m a terrible listener. I suffer from the indomitable curse of being more concerned with having a coherent, fast-and-ready response than internalizing the words of my interlocutor. Unlike Henry, I’m afraid of silence; I’m afraid of not having something to say. To the extent that this fear and insecurity impedes my ability to listen, it impedes my ability to learn. And the less I learn, the less I have to contribute to the conversation.

Valuable words are born in the silence.

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