Befriending Silence

Noise is a tenured resident in our modern lives. Whether it’s the whirl of a tumbling dryer, the muted voices of sportscasters calling a game, the hum of an automobiles’ engine, or the buzz of the florescent fixtures in our offices, all manner of noise is with us and rarely yields to total, opaque silence.

The same holds sway in client conversation. We begin a scheduled visit with the expected small talk about work, family, and the weather as a prelude to weightier topics on the agenda. Times are, we kick off the back-and-forth asking if there have been any changes in the client’s life since last we visited. Hopefully, we remember to ask about a parent struggling with failing health or of another personal matter needing resolution.

Regardless, we talk. And the client responds. If we are observant, we note the voice inflection, the body language, the phrasing of a tough question, or the degree of calm in the client’s bearing. Wanting to be in control, we may dodge the investment that has not performed as expected or avoid revisiting a risk issue we both know needs addressing.

Then it happens. Without warning, silence descends upon the space between us. Unaware of its origin, suspicious of its intent, the aural void, the absent waves stirring the air joins the meeting. There is a reason we associate the word “awkward” with “silence”: we do not know what to do with it. Words like uncomfortable, suspicious, and even eerie are hitched to silence like a trailer joined to a tractor. Wherever it goes, the dis-ease seems to follow.

Having wrestled with silence for years, I offer a way to deconstruct these unchallenged associations. What if we could make a friend of silence? Taken a bit further, what if we guided conversations in such a way that silence was both expected and welcome? Rather than it showing up awkwardly, we would ask questions in such a way that the client would speak into the silence with words they most want to share.

For example, we might ask, “Have you given much thought to how a typical retirement day might look and feel two or three years from now?” Or, “Given a choice, what would you most enjoy doing in your current work environment?”  Or, “With the challenging health issues facing your mother, what are her choices?”  And then wait until the other person speaks. Refuse to dive in silence’s deep end to rescue the conversation. If the other person does not speak right away, wait. And if you must prompt the conversation, say something like, “You can share whatever it is you need to say or say nothing. I know you will work through this season and make a wise decision.”

Perhaps our clients’ greatest need is for us to listen to them and with them, even in silence. When those moments show up, be so comfortable in your skin that silence becomes a welcomed friend.

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