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The Value of Silence in Relationships

Image of a turquoise mountain lake. Raleigh Psychotherapy, Counseling, silence, Katherine Broadway

Life is about communication. If we are not good communicators, then there is no way we can effectively achieve our goals in life. There is a presumption that communication and silence are opposites. Let's examine that.

Pause for a moment and consider what you've been taught about silence. Chances are good that it includes one or more of these ideas, in some form:

  • Silence is a relationship killer. If you do not talk, then how will anything get resolved?

  • Silence is withholding and a power play designed to defeat and punish the other person.

  • Silence in any relationship (friendship, family, or couple) only has negative impacts, which means there is no value to it.

  • We all go to “talk therapy” to talk. If you do not talk then no therapy can be done.

In each of these thought processes, we see a clear indication that it is necessary to talk in order to communicate, and that choosing to remain silent will only hold us back from getting what we want. I have another theory.

I propose that silence is an essential part of communicating.

Without the ability to be silent and to tolerate silence, there cannot be effective communication or self-knowledge. For many, talking and noise become a defense against hearing their own thoughts and feeling their own feelings.

For example, Karen is afraid to go home to a silent house. She is married, and on the nights that her husband has commitments, she makes plans of her own. Karen feels anxious about being at home alone.

John is single and has activities many evenings because he does not want to be alone. On the rare evening he is home, he turns on his televisions – yes, plural - so that he will have noise and distraction. John is terrified to hear his thoughts.

Betty and Bob have been married for 20 years and know little about one another. They spend long stretches of time together, nearly always surrounded by friends and hobbies. Their jobs involve long hours, and when they get home, they are exhausted. What little time they have alone is spent talking about jobs and their activities. They talk to one another a lot, but not about themselves and their relationship. Activity and talking is a way to fill the silence between them.

Ruby goes to therapy every week. She arrives with her agenda and spends her time focused on all the details of what is happening in her life. She even talks about her feelings. She allows little time for interaction with her therapist. If there is a moment of silence, she jumps in immediately with a detailed description of some event in her life or the life of a friend. If she can think of nothing else, she will talk about current events.

In all of these examples, the people are living honest, productive lives and have relationships. What is missing is the time to go inside of themselves and become aware of what they are thinking and feeling. They have an idea who they are, but it is superficial and unprocessed. They are afraid of silence and have not stopped to seek the value in it. They are missing something important and worthwhile.

The Value of Silence

1. Silence creates the space for you to give your full attention to yourself:

We forget that we are people, too. It may sound silly when it's phrased that way, but the people in the examples above forgot that they needed to be heard.

There is a constant monologue going on in each person's head called your “stream of consciousness.” We have many things to say to ourselves; some are important, some are true and some are not true. We need the monologue to become a conversation with ourselves. That helps us decide what we believe, who we are, and who we want to be.

2. Silence creates the space to give your full attention to another:

We spend way too much time trying to solve other people’s problems, find

answers and formulate an answer to what is being said. We miss the point of the story or are simply not present to the person talking to us. What people need more than anything is to be heard, to feel valued and important. The best possible way to accomplish this is through attentive, silent, listening, and not through problem-solving.

3. Silence in therapy creates space for experiencing deep thoughts and

At times, words will not come, or the ones that do are insufficient to express what is being experienced. Forcing yourself to find words to express what is happening will get in the way of the healing experience that is also happening for you in the moment.

Silence also gives you the time for the threads of thought, feeling and experience to come together in a way that brings you insight and understanding that might otherwise be missed. Talking becomes a way to take yourself out of your feelings and experience.

4. Silence at work can make you more effective:

Silence is the fertile soil of creativity and new ideas. Stuck on a problem? Sitting in silence can make it possible for new ideas and solutions to emerge. It allows you to approach the problem from a different angle or perspective. Being silent and listening to coworkers or clients will help them feel valued.

5. Silence gives you the opportunity to “be":

We are so inundated with the value of succeeding, producing, accomplishing and doing that we have not learned the value of being human. We are valuable simply because we exist.

Silence is a gift and tool. A gift you can give yourself and others, and a tool for hearing, understanding and empathizing with yourself and others in all areas of your life.

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