The Best Tool For a Good Conversation is Silence
One of the hardest lessons I learned when I took Peer Support classes was that when people come to us for advice, it is our explicit job not to give them advice.
What we need to do instead is help them walk through what they feel, what they think, and come to the inevitable conclusion themselves. And it’s hard, honestly, when someone comes to us for help, to feel like we’re withholding it.
But if you truly want to help someone, it’s the only way to do so in a lasting way. And strangely enough, the best way to do that is by not talking at all.
We have a tendency to chatter too much.
We feel a need to fill the spaces between words, to bubble over as soon as we detect the start of quiet. We don’t like the discomfort of an awkward silence. We spill over in conversations, excited for when it’s our turn to talk.
There’s a lot of work around what words to use, which tone of voice is most effective, how you can command a room with your speech. By contrast, there’s a staggering lack of research on why and when it’s important to be quiet in a conversation, to let the other person continue speaking, uninterrupted.
Sometimes a pause in the dialogue is more than an invitation for you to jump it — it’s a necessary break for the person you’re speaking with to continue on with where they were going.
Silence is the necessary precursor to listening.
It is impossible to effectively listen to someone if, during every conversation, you’re waiting for your turn to talk.
Good listeners don’t just passively hear what people are saying — they’re actively absorbing and reflecting on the meaning behind what people say. In order to do that, you need to not be planning what you’re about to say, not be thinking about how your experiences relate to this person’s story, and not be about to jump in with your time to talk.
Listen closely to conversations around you and notice how little silence there is. In fact, there’s often more interrupting and talking over, millisecond pauses which someone interprets as an invitation for their turn to speak. You can’t truly listen to someone if all you’re listening for is a space for you to start talking.
This is why in order to truly listen to others in conversation, you have to be silent.
Silence encourages others to talk
If you want to try this out for yourself, there’s a simple test: next time you’re speaking with someone, notice what happens when you allow longer pauses in between speaking with them. Wait two seconds — count them out in your head — and see how often the person you’re speaking with keeps talking.
A lot of times, we cut ourselves off short. We stop talking even when we’re not done. We do this because we feel like it’s rude to talk too much in conversations, so we speak quickly. We finish before we’re through. We don’t want to bore other people, and so we just stop talking.
The problem is that this isn’t conducive to good conversations. We leave half our story untold, and it feels like nobody even notices. So when someone doesn’t immediately jump in to fill the silence with their own words, it feels like you’re genuinely being listened to, like your voice is wanted.
If you want someone to feel heard, there’s no better tool than judicious use of silence, employed at just the right time.
It’s an invitation: Keep going. Keep talking. I’m here, and I’m listening.
We’re afraid of silence
This goes hand-in-hand with the rise of the anti-boredom brigade. Whether it’s the silence in our heads or the silence in a room, we think of it as a problem to fix, a gap to patch.
Silence indicates awkwardness, a lack of something to say. So we rush to fill it, whether it’s by consuming content non-stop, or by speaking incessantly to others instead of listening to what they have to actually say.
If someone shares a sad story about themselves, it’s OK to take a few seconds of silence — see if they’re truly done, or just let the words sink in without cheapening them by jumping in with your own unrelated anecdote.
If someone asks you whether they should break up with their partner, give them a couple of moments of silence to let them ponder the question themselves. They know the answer, and your silence gives them the space to work it out for themselves.
We shouldn’t be so afraid of a few seconds of quiet that it handicaps our conversations.
Silence is just as effective a conversational tool as words are
Words are the domain of humanity. We invented them to communicate with one another, to share the previously unsharable. They’re the keys that unlock our relationships, the tools that allow us to describe our worlds to each other.
But people tend to forget that by definition, silence has to be a part of conversations, too. Whether to let someone know you’re actually listening to what they have to say, to invite them to continue speaking, or even just to have a pause and reflect on what was said, silence is a crucial component of any conversation.
A good conversation gives and takes, ebbs and flows, speaks and is silent. And for too long, folks are focusing on the former and not the latter. But the best tool for having conversations with the people who matter to you is silence.