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The power of silence – part 2 – when silence is not ok!

In my last blog I explained that silence can be pleasant, relaxing and even therapeutic. There does not have to be anything awkward about silence between 2 people who are comfortable with each other, it can deepen their relationship.

However…

I’m sure there are many people (men in particular) who have sensed there’s something wrong with someone (perhaps a girlfriend or wife) so they’ve asked “what’s wrong?” and this person has barked “nothing!” with such venom you’re glad you were out of spitting distance! What they actually mean is “there is something wrong but…” either, “I’m not sure what it is” or “I don’t want to talk about it” or “I’m not ready to talk about it” or “I don’t know how to put it into words” or “I wish you could mind-read, then you’d know what was wrong”. There are numerous reasons why they choose to say “nothing” at this point but it’s certainly not because nothing’s wrong!

What then proceeds is a period of silence, some (women) can keep it up for hours… during this period, the power lies with the silent party as the other wonders what they’ve done, maybe trying to “make up” for their unknown misdeed.

I can understand, when emotions are overwhelming it can feel impossible to put anything into words. For years, I didn’t have words to express emotions, I didn’t know what emotions were, I struggled to find words to describe what was going on inside my world. If this happens to you, if you can manage “I don’t know what to say” or “I don’t know what the words are” that’s better than saying “nothing” and pretending you’ve not shrouded everything in a black cloud! I find, if I manage to say something, anything(!) this gets the conversation going and I manage to explain a bit more, even if it’s just a few words, this helps the other person understand and at least I’m trying! If after 20 minutes (how long emotional chemicals last if you don’t perpetuate them with thoughts and behaviours) I felt I could verbalise a bit more, I could start where I’d left off previously.

Something else that helps me is writing things down. If I can’t say the words out loud, often, I am able to find the words to write, maybe it’s to do with slowing down the process or using a different part of my brain or breaking down the process. Whatever it was, even when very distressed (snot, tears, the works…), unable to verbalise anything, put a pen and paper in my hands and I could start writing, explaining all sorts of things that were going on in my head. There were periods of therapy where I would struggle to speak in sessions but could write reams in emails straight after the session! Fortunately, I had a understanding therapist!

At the other end of the spectrum – some people deliberately give someone “the cold shoulder” because they’ve annoyed them or “send them to Coventry” because they’ve wronged them in some way. In this way, they feel powerful for choosing to cut this person out of the loop. Going silent on someone is an unhelpful passive-aggressive trait that some people will be aware they use while others may not. In this instance, a bit of assertiveness never hurt anyone – it’s far more helpful to think through what’s going on, what the different perspectives are, what you want from the situation, how you could get this, how you could compromise and approach the other person with a level head.

If something needs to be said, don’t hope it will go away, say it – what’s the worst that could happen? If the other person gets annoyed or angry, that can be managed but if no-one is talking about anything, nothing will ever change!

The power of silence

Does anyone else find the world too noisy?

I think we’ve forgotten what quiet is like. Some people find silence awkward or uncomfortable, but I think that’s only because people feel a pressure to fill the gap.

Take the pressure away and silence is just that, some quiet time – there’s nothing intimidating or scary about that.

Yes, I know there are times, perhaps when meeting someone at a party, when small talk is polite, social etiquette is fine but that’s not what I’m talking about.

To be able to be silent with someone is a sign that the relationship has reached a deeper level. That you can just be with this person, without the pressure to fill the gaps says you’re totally comfortable with them.

Silence allows us to just be!

There are people who think out loud – I find this baffling but accept that’s what they need to do. It’s important to understand lots of people need time and space to think inside their heads.

I find it very difficult to concentrate when there’s extra noice around. I have make a conscious effort to block it out, it takes a lot of energy and this detracts from the actual thing I’m trying to concentrate on!

It’s amazing what we can discover in the gaps!

In my counselling training we’ve discussed how important it is to leave silence for our clients. It’s important to give them time to think, it’s only by doing this do we get beyond the practical facts of the situation and into the deeper feelings etc.

As a Christian, I pray daily. For me, this is not a formal process, I chat to God in my head. God does not need me to talk using my external voice. There are times I pray with other Christians. Praying out loud is something some people feel a pressure to do and can get quite anxious about saying “the right thing” – as far as I’m concerned there is no “right” way to talk to God, he knows everything that’s on our hearts, he does not need us to utter a word. The only reason to pray out loud is for the benefit of those around you, this is only necessary in specific circumstances. I pray weekly with a group of people where we share some prayers points, then we sit in silence for a few minutes – in this time God hears the prayers of every individual, instead of just the vocal one! Prayer is a 2 way thing – when Mother Teresa was asked what she said to God, she answered, “I listen”, when with excited anticipation she was asked “what do you hear God say?”, she replied “he listens” – I know this will not speak to everyone but for me it’s one of the most enlightening things I’ve ever heard.

Silence can be refreshing!

As a musician, I couldn’t write a blog about silence without mentioning John Cage’s 4’33”. I’ve never experienced it but I’m in no doubt, sitting in a concert hall full of people (adhering to concert hall etiquette), listening to nearly 5 minutes of ambient sound would be pretty powerful! Music is made up of notes of varying tone, pitch and duration with gaps of silence; John Cage challenges his audience to listen but he’s removed 1 aspect of the music. So, the debate continues about whether it’s music but there’s no doubt it’s an experience!

The therapy session that said to me “this therapist is for me” was one where I sat in silence. I thought he’d be angry that I wasn’t using the session productively – I felt pressure to fill the gap (it wasn’t silent, I was sobbing…) but I couldn’t put any of what I was feeling into words. Looking back, I was angry, but I didn’t have the word, I felt overwhelmed but didn’t know what it was. As a side note, my therapist wasn’t angry with me, he gave me what I needed – time and space to just be.

When I find silence, I can actually feel my ears relax! As a highly sensitive person, noise can be anxiety provoking, some sounds drill into my head as a physical sensation. But when I find silence, I feel my ears say “thank you”!

How about you try it? For a lot of people it will be difficult to find some quiet, but try, sit with your thoughts, don’t get caught up in them but mindfully notice them and see where they go! Quiet can nurture creativity, an inner calm or a deeper understanding of ourselves – it’s worth giving it a go!