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 listening more than I ever have before.

It’s unfamiliar territory for me. Once I became an adult and found 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 frequently found myself waiting for a brief pause in the conversation so that I could jump in and share my perspective.

I don’t know exactly when this changed. I’m still guilty of fighting for air time, but I do it less. In part, it’s because I’m back to a more “normal” life of consulting, volunteering, attending meetings. Activities that involve groups of people who also have opinions to offer and points to make. Sometimes, it’s because I lack the energy or confidence to speak up. On occasion, it’s because I’ve found myself at a gathering where another person has quieted me, and in that strong-armed silence, I discovered a thing or two.

  • There’s so much to learn from what other people say. I don’t mean the content, which may not always be interesting, but the story behind why they feel the need to make certain comments or control other people with their words. My mother used to say, “She who puts pen to paper writes of herself.” The equivalent adage holds true for talking.
  • Some people who go on at length don’t realize how much they are monopolizing the conversation. Perhaps no one at home will listen. Maybe there is no one else at home. Perhaps they don’t feel like they’re being taken seriously. Perhaps their inner pain drives them to crave attention from others.
  • When logic and reason have left the room, the best course of action may be to remain quiet. In a meeting where I was silenced by another board member, I realized I wasn’t going to gain anything by trying to win the argument. Instead of speaking out when tempers were short, emotions were running high and some people weren’t listening anyway, I had coffee with the 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 a luncheon gathering where another attendee made a condescending comment 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 woman who’d made the crack brag about her business and compare it with mine, I realized how much more powerful it would have been if I had highlighted the work I’m passionate about instead of focusing on what I do for a living. Staying silent and, more importantly, remaining at the table, allowed me to learn what’s proved to be an invaluable lesson.

Since Jimmy died, I’ve been reminded over and over what a gift listening is. In those early days, when I desperately needed to talk, a small cadre of my essential people sat with me quietly, offering as much time, space and attention as I needed. Mad or sad, raging or resentful, they held it all, not trying to fix the unfixable or bright side the blow. Despite this gift, even after I launched Salt Water, I would find myself struggling to offer the “right” advice or make the perfect suggestion to another griever, only to realize again and again how necessary and unhelpful it was. That instead, just as my loved ones did for me, what the shattered soul in front of me needed most was my presence, my undivided attention and my silence in order to begin to heal.

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