The importance of silence and the art of paying attention
We often talk too much (and too quickly.)
We live jam-packed lives; time is of the essence and we often speak before thinking it through. Whether we speak to someone in person or communicate (“talk”) via electronic and digital media and devices, we text (email, tweet, SMS, post on Facebook, Instagram, or Pinterest) too easily and too much. We get caught up in our ‘busyness.’ We’re always in a hurry. We talk fast. (We even eat fast.) We zoom in and close the deal as soon as possible.
But we fail to recognize the importance of the strategic pause—short periods of silence. Truth is, it’s impossible to truly hear what others say if we don’t pause and listen. In short, we miss out because we have stopped paying attention.
Think of the dinner table (if we still share a meal around a table in the evening); each one sitting with a fork in hand and eyes nailed to a handheld device, shoving food into our mouths, with little mindfulness. The quality of our communication (with people that care about us and matters most), suffers as a result.
Is it any wonder we are lonely and stressed? We are anxious, can’t sleep, and are dissatisfied with our lives. We become sick and unhealthy. Our fix is to be even more active on social media (one more tweet, one more post, one more like), or to pop a Zopiclone or a Xanax or find comfort in food. And tomorrow we follow the same route, repeat the same scenario, hoping for a better outcome.
During meetings, negotiations, and even social gatherings, many (if not most of us) feel awkward and become uncomfortable with breaks in the conversation that last more than one or two seconds. We experience the pressing need to speak. Why?
According to Lennox Morrison, mother-tongue English speakers tend to avoid breaks in the conversation at all cost. Silence to them is awkward and they find long pauses hard to handle. ‘Avoid awkward, avoid silence,’ has become our mantra. The heterogeneity of society in North America and in England probably play a role in this ‘urge to speak.’ There is this anxiety to establish common ground through verbal communication. We can’t not speak.
In contrast, in countries such as Japan, silence is welcomed and its subtle power recognized. Pauses in the conversation (business or social) are not uncommon or deemed awkward. Pauses lasting up to 8.2 seconds are nothing strange—the philosophy is that it shows respect for the comment of the previous speaker, and gives time to reflect on what was said. During the silence, listeners are not passive but are engaged in studied thoughtfulness. This is more visible and common in homogenous groups and cultures. Think of a close-knit family or group of friends. Words are often not required. Being “present” can suffice.
In Rick Warren’s ‘Daily Hope,’ he argues that kindness begins with active listening. By learning to become a better listener, the more sympathetic you will be. Sometimes, sitting beside someone who’s hurting (without saying a word), can go a long way to ease their pain.
According to the psychologist, Guy Winch, emotional validation, is a basic human need. But authentic emotional validation can be hard to find. It has to be learned and mastered. Proper listening skills are required. Begin by letting the other person complete their story. Don’t interrupt. (Shut up.) Once they’ve vented, convey that you “get” what has happened to them, that you understand how they feel and that their feelings are reasonable. Make them aware of your empathy, and not your pity.
You can listen to his TED talk here, on why we all need to practice emotional first aid. It is for our own good. (In the case of a sudden loss of cabin pressure, put on your own oxygen mask first, before helping others.) We often take care of our physical bodies but neglect our emotional and spiritual health. We have to learn how to practice emotional hygiene, just as we practice dental hygiene and feed and rest and exercise our bodies.
Seven reasons why taking a pause (and listening) matters:
- A break in the conversation allows (and forces) both parties to reflect deeper upon what was said. Allow three seconds to lapse. The effect is profound.
- It shows respect for what was said by the previous speaker.
- Intentional pauses give you time to think the information through. Consider your options in greater depth. Learning this habit prevents you from suffering from foot-in-mouth disease.
- Giving a speech, or during tough negotiations, intentional pauses help you settle your nerves and remain calm. It helps you to remain focused. Pauses during your presentation also force your audience to pay closer attention.
- Silence teaches you discipline. It can be hard to learn to be quiet from time to time. Our instinct is to talk. (To text. To tweet) We have to learn to ask a question and then to shut up. Silence can teach us much about ourselves and others.
- Silence (active listening) enables you to feel the other’s emotions, their pain. If someone is hurting; (emotional, physical or spiritual pain), listening can be an effective form of showing kindness and compassion. You don’t have to say a word.
- Using pauses—learning to listen—gives validation to other’s emotions. We all crave to be recognized, to be emotionally validated. Give people this valuable commodity: some of your time—an ear that hears.
How do we apply this? How do we listen better?
- During a conversation, literally, count three seconds (or more.) Learn the discipline. Pause more. Not because you have nothing to say, but because you are actively involved.
- Learn to sit with people without talking. Practice silence. Give them time to talk. Show that you were “listening,” that you were paying attention.
- Learn to be present in every sense. Yours is not the only agenda.
- Stop with negative self-talk. Listen to yourself. Learn to practice daily emotional hygiene. Ruminating (chewing on and replaying) past or recent hurts drags us deeper into despair. It is bad for our immune system and cardiovascular health. Learn to battle negative thinking. Protect your self-esteem.
If we refuse to learn to apply intentional pauses, pay attention to what others are saying, or listen to our own self-talk, we miss out on great opportunities. Our impact on others’ lives is lessened. The next thing we discover we are lonely (deep down), and anxious; and over time, suffer the consequences of poor health.
We can change that. Start with a pause, some silence, and master the art of focused listening to others (and yourself.) You can learn it.
It is profound.
Thank you for reading and sharing!
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Image – Viktor Hanacek – picjumbo.com