On the plane earlier this week, I was reading a new book on narrative coaching that had been sent to me by the author, David Drake. I worked and studied with David a few years ago when we were trying to create the (sadly ill-fated) Canadian Centre for Narrative Coaching, and he’d included a piece I wrote at that time in the introduction of this recently released book. (I was pleased to discover that he also included a quote from me in a chapter on holding space.)
When I read the following sentence (a quote from Ram Dass) I had to stop and put the book down for a while…
Do not speak unless you can improve on silence.
That’s one of those powerful, weighty sentences that could change a person’s life.
“What would it mean to build that habit into my everyday life?” I wondered, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since.
What if I were intentional about speaking only when it improves on the silence?
Would I hurt people less frequently?
Would my words have more weight and less waste?
Would I pause more intentionally before interrupting or correcting people?
Would the conversations I’m in shift their tone?
Would I be more fully present for people’s stories?
Not long ago, a participant at a workshop I’d co-facilitated gave some feedback that hurt a little at first, but was valuable for me to hear. “Sometimes you talk too much,” he said. It caught me off guard, because I try to be very intentional about not claiming too much space and allowing all of the voices in the room to be heard. (That’s the nature of The Circle Way – especially when we pass a talking piece around, each person has equal space to be heard.) But after I sat with it for awhile, I realized that there was truth in what he said.
Sometimes, I do talk too much. When I’m feeling insecure about the content I’m teaching, I talk too much. When I notice people disengaging and I begin to worry that they’re not catching on, I talk too much. When someone disagrees with me and I feel the need to defend myself, I talk too much. It’s not just in teaching settings – it happens in my daily life too. When I’m frustrated with my children and I need them to understand me, I talk too much. When I’m feeling misunderstood by a friend, I talk too much.
For me (and maybe for you), talking too much is directly connected to my ego. When my ego feels threatened, I talk too much. When my ego needs attention, I talk too much.
When I am more grounded in True Self, I let go of my need to over-explain, justify, or defend, and I am more intentional about how much I speak and how much I honour silence.
In this noisy world, it’s counter-cultural to believe that silence can have more value than wasted words. Consider the last conversation you were in. When everyone fell silent, did you feel uncomfortable? Did you feel the pressure to speak, if only to fill the void? What would happen if you simply allowed the silence to happen?
One of the practices of The Circle Way is the council of silence. When anybody in the circle feels the need for a pause, they ask the guardian to ring the bell, and then we sit in silence for a few moments until the bell is rung a second time. It’s a beautiful and intentional choice to sit for a moment within the gravitas of someone’s words or the emotions that have arisen in the circle. The more I sit in circles, the more I wish we could incorporate a similar practice in our everyday conversations.
The pauses make our conversations more meaningful and they teach us how to be better listeners.
Intentional silence is one of the most important principles of holding space. To hold space for other people (and for ourselves) we have to know when to speak and when to remain silent. When our egos get in the way, we want to offer advice, improve on someone’s story, control the outcome, or at least let people know how smart we are. All of those things are detrimental to the process of holding space. They draw the attention away from the person you’re holding space for and draw it toward yourself.
“Silence is a place in which your restless minds, internal chatter, and fragmented attention can find the stillness you need to listen well.” David Drake
If you want to listen well, you have to learn when not to speak.
Sometimes our words improve on the silence, but often they do not. When we pay close attention, we will learn to discern the difference.