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The Wisdom of Silence

Wisdom is the reward you get for a lifetime of listening when you would have preferred to talk. Doug Larsen

Recently, I’ve found myself spending more time listening than I ever have before. It’s a strange place for me. After becoming an adult and finding my voice, I discovered that I had things to say. Lots of things to say. Ideas to propose, advice to give, directions to offer, judgments to make. It wasn’t that I didn’t listen at all to other people, but I would often find myself waiting for a little pause in the conversation so that I could jump in and share my thoughts.

I don’t know when or how or why this changed. It’s not that I have stopped fighting for air time, but I definitely do it less. Perhaps it’s because I’m back to a more “normal” life of consulting, volunteering, attending meetings. Those activities mean being with groups of other people who also have opinions to offer and points to make. Maybe I don’t always have the energy or confidence to speak up. And several times of late, I’ve found myself in a group where another person has either taken a nasty shot at me or silenced me.

Regardless of the reason, I’ve learned some important lessons from sitting silently in a group.

  • There’s so much to learn from what other people say. I don’t mean the content, as that’s not always interesting, but the story behind why they feel the need to dominate a group or a conversation. My mother used to say, “She who puts pen to paper writes of herself.” I’ve learned that the equivalent adage holds true for talking.
  • Many people who go on at length don’t realize how much they dominate the conversation. Perhaps no one is listening at home. Perhaps they don’t feel like they’re being taken seriously. Perhaps their pain drives them to need more attention from others.
  • When logic and reason have left the room, sometimes the best course of action is to stay silent. In the meeting where I was silenced by another attendee, I realized that I wasn’t going to gain anything or help the situation by entering the fray and trying to win the argument. Instead of trying to speak when tempers were short, emotions were running high and some people weren’t listening anyway, I had coffee with the meeting chair a few weeks later and shared my ideas. And then, feeling heard, I left it up to her as to what, if anything, to do with them.
  • At the gathering where one of the attendees made a nasty crack about my consulting practice, I was initially shocked into speechlessness. Hurt and upset, I had to talk myself into staying at the table instead of making an excuse and fleeing the event early. But as I listened to the young woman who’d made the comment brag about her consulting, in contrast to mine, I realized how much more powerful it would have been if I had talked about the work I’m passionate about instead of what I do for a living. Staying silent and, more importantly, staying at the table allowed me to learn what’s proved to be an invaluable lesson instead of staying focused on my bruised feelings.
  • Most importantly, I’ve learned what a gift listening is. I’ve been so incredibly fortunate in my life to have friends and family, especially my mother, who are engaged, interested listeners. After Jimmy died, and I desperately wanted to talk, I was deeply grateful to the people dear to me who listened quietly, offering me as much time as I needed. But it was only after I created Salt Water and began meeting other people who were also in pain that I came to understand the power of listening. I would find myself struggling to find the “right” advice or make the “perfect” suggestion, only to realize that none of that was necessary or even helpful. What the other person needed instead was my presence, my undivided attention and silence in order to begin to heal.

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