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.
Now that it’s September, I’m getting back into the rhythm of writing weekly reflections. This one’s fairly short.
I have a few more thoughts about holding space to share with you…
In the past six months, since my blog post went viral, I’ve done more than half a dozen interviews on the topic of holding space. The nice thing about talking about something so much is that I gain a deeper understanding every time I talk about it. Sometimes I say things I didn’t know I knew!
This week, I was doing an interview for an upcoming podcast, when I heard myself say this…
Sometimes the hardest thing about holding space is it can feel and look a lot like doing nothing.
When we’re holding space well, we’re keeping our ego out of it, not controlling the outcome, not giving unsolicited advice, and not taking people’s power away. That can feel a lot like doing nothing.
We all want to DO SOMETHING. When a friend, family member, student, or client is hurting, confused or overwhelmed, it’s really hard not to step in and fix the situation, offer resources, or give advice. Think about all of the food that people give away when someone is grieving – everyone wants something to do in response to the gaping void this person is feeling. Or think about the last time someone confided in you and your first instinct was to rush in and offer them something that might help.
I see it (and feel it myself) often when I host circles. When someone in the circle is crying, people lean in and really, really want to have something to offer – advice, other ways of framing the story, tissue, SOMETHING. But the practice in the circle is to remain silent and to listen with attention when someone else is holding the talking piece. And the greatest healing I have seen take place in the circle is when people feel genuinely and unconditionally listened to.
It’s true that often there are perfectly valid and practical things to do in response to someone else’s pain. I am eternally grateful for all of the people who brought food, looked after my dad’s farm animals, helped us prepare the farm for sale, etc., after Dad died, for example.
But just as often, people need our presence more than they need our actions or advice.
Giving people our presence can feel a whole lot harder than giving them our advice. It can make us feel vulnerable, useless, and unproductive. And yet, when I think back to the people who were the greatest support during my own difficult times, it was often those people who knew how to show up, listen deeply, withhold judgement, and trust me to know how to find my own path through it that were the most memorable. I remember people who showed up after my son died and simply sat there and held his lifeless body while we cried together. And I remember people who came when my husband was in the hospital who sat on park benches or in vehicles or coffee shops and let me talk or cry or scream. They said little and “did” less, but it was just what I needed.
I find the same thing in my work of hosting retreats and workshops. The ones that are the most successful are usually the ones in which I speak the least. When I give people gentle guidance and a safe container to do their own work, they get much more out of it than when I dump a lot of content on them. (The same can be said for parenting.)
This has been well modelled for me by my mentor, Christina Baldwin. At a recent writing retreat, we had a 24 hour silent, solitary, writing period. “I will be in the kitchen area all day, holding space for you,” said Christina. Ostensibly, she was “doing nothing”, and yet we all felt incredibly supported, knowing that she was there, gently holding us. While we did our deep work, we could trust that she was present for us, even though she never said a word. We also knew that the next day in the circle, she would hold the container while we talked about whatever came up.
The next time you’re inclined to do something in support of someone you care about, pause for a moment and consider what they really need. Is there a practical need you can fill, or would it be best to show up and offer deep listening, trust, and unconditional love?
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There are many reasons to be silent.
Violence (or the threat of violence) is one reason for silence. When cartoonists are murdered for satire and young school girls are kidnapped or murdered for daring to go to school, the risk of speaking up becomes too great for many people.
Sometimes the violence backfires and the voices become stronger – as in the case of Charlie Hebdo, now publishing three million copies when their normal print run was 60,000. Why? Because those with power and influence stepped in to show support for those whose voices were temporarily silenced. If the world had ignored that violence and millions of people – including many world leaders – hadn’t marched in the streets, would there have been the same outcome? If these twelve dead worked for a small publication in Somalia or Myanmar would we have paid as much attention? I doubt it.
Far too many times (especially when the world mostly ignores their plight, as in Nigeria) violence succeeds and fewer people speak up, fewer people are educated, and the perpetrators of the violence have control.
Violence has long been a tool for the silencing of the dissenting voice. Slaves were tortured or murdered for daring to speak up against their owners. Women were burned at the stake for daring to challenge the dominant culture. Even my own ancestors – the Mennonites – were tortured and murdered for their faith and pacifism.
Most likely every single one of us could look back through our lineage and find at least one period in time when our ancestors were subjected to violence. Some of us still live with that reality day to day.
There is no question that the fear of violence is a powerful force for keeping people silent. It still happens in families where there is abuse and in countries where they flog bloggers for speaking out.
Few of the people who read this article will be subjected to flogging or torture for what we say or write online, and yet… there are many of us who remain silent even when we feel strongly that we should speak out.
Why? Why do we remain silent when we see injustice in our workplaces? Why do we turn the other way when we see someone being bullied? Why do we hesitate to speak when we know there’s a better way to do things?
- Because we have a memory of violence in our bones. The more I learn about trauma the more I realize that it affects us in much more subtle and insidious ways than we understand. Some of us have experienced trauma and are easily triggered, but even if we never experienced trauma in our own lifetimes, it can be passed down to us through our DNA. Your ancestors’ trauma may still be causing fear in your own life. Witnessing the trauma of other people subjected to violence may be triggering ancient fear in all of us, causing us to remain silent.
- Because our brains don’t understand fear. The most ancient part of our brains – the “reptilian brain”, which hasn’t evolved since we were living in caves and discovering fire – is adapted for fight or flight. That part of our brain sees all threats as predators, and so it triggers our instinct to survive. Our lives are much different from our ancestors, and yet there’s a part of our brains that still seeks to protect us from woolly mammoths and sabre-toothed tigers. When our fear of being rejected by a family member for speaking out feels the same as the fear of a sabre-toothed tiger, our reaction is often much stronger than it needs to be.
- Because those who want to keep us silent have learned more subtle ways to do so. In most of the countries where we live, it is no longer acceptable to flog bloggers, but that doesn’t mean we’re not being silenced. Women have been silenced, for example, by being taught that their ideas are silly and irrelevant. Marginalized people have been silenced by being given less access to education. Those with unconventional ideas have been “gaslighted” – gradually convinced that they are crazy for what they believe.
- Because we have created an “every man for himself” culture where those who speak out are often not supported for their courage. We’re all trying to thrive in this competitive environment, and so we feel threatened by other people’s success or courage. When I asked on Facebook what keeps people silent, one of the responses (from a blogger) was about the kinds of haters that show up even in what should be supportive environments. In motherhood forums, for example, people get so caught in internal battles (like whether it is better to be a working-away-from-home parent or a stay-at-home parent) that they forget that they would be much stronger in advocating for positive change in the world if they found a way to work together and support each other. It is much more difficult to speak out when we know we’ll be standing alone.
- Because we don’t understand power and privilege. Those who have access to both power and privilege are often surprised when others remain silent. “Why wouldn’t they just speak up?” they say, as though that were the simplest thing in the world to do. It may be a simple thing, if you have never been oppressed or silenced, but if you’ve been taught that your voice has no value because you are “a woman, an Indian, a person of colour, a lesbian, a Muslim, etc.”, then the courage it takes to speak is exponentially greater. Years and years of conditioning that convinces a person of their inherent lack of value cannot be easily undone.
Several years ago, I visited a village in the poorest part of India. Though I’d traveled in several poor regions in Bangladesh, India, and a few African countries before that, this was the most depressing place I’d ever visited. This was a makeshift village populated by the Musahar people who lived at the edges of fields where they sometimes were hired by the landowners as day labourers but otherwise had to scrounge for their food (sometimes stealing grain from rats – which was why they’d come to be known as “rat eaters”).
There was a look of deadness in the eyes of the people there – a hopelessness and sense of fatalism. Our local hosts told us that these were the most marginalized people in the whole country. They were the lowest tribe of the lowest caste and so everyone in the village had been raised to believe that they had no more value than the rats that ran through their village.
There was a school not far from the village, but we could find only one boy who attended that school. Though everyone had access to the school, none of the parents were convinced their children were worthy of it.
It was a powerful lesson in what oppression and marginalization can do to people. In other equally poor villages (in Ethiopia, for example) I’d still noticed a sense of pride in the people. The Musahar people showed no sense of pride or self-worth. Essentially, they had been “gaslighted” to believe they were worthless and could ask for no more than what they had.
The next day, my traveling companions and I took a rest day instead of visiting another village. We had enough footage for the documentary we were working on and we needed a break from what was an emotionally exhausting trip.
My colleague, however, opted to visit the second village. He came back to the hotel with a fascinating story. In the second village, a local NGO had been working with the people to educate them about their rights as citizens of India. It hadn’t taken long and these people had a very different outlook on their lives and their values. They were beginning to rally, challenging their local government representatives to give them access to the welfare programs that should have been everyone’s rights (but that people in the first village had never been told about by the corrupt politicians who took what should have been given to the villagers). On the way back to the hotel, in fact, he’d been stopped by a demonstration where the body of a man who’d died of starvation had been laid out on the street to block traffic and call attention to the plight of the Musahar people.
The people in the second village were slowly beginning to understand that they were human and had a right to dignity and survival.
In the coaching and personal growth world that I now find myself in, there is much said about “finding our voices”, “stepping into our power”, and “claiming our sovereignty”. Those are all important ideas, and I speak of them in my work, but I believe that there is work that we need to do before any of those things are possible. Like the Musahar people, those who have been silenced need to be taught of their own value and their own capacity for change before they can be expected to impact positive change.
First we need to take a close look at the root causes of the fear that keeps us silent before we’ll be able to change the future.
When we begin to understand power and privilege, when we find practices that help us heal our ancient trauma, when we retrain our brains so that they don’t revert to their most primal conditioning, and when we find supportive communities that will encourage us in our attempts at courage, then we are ready to step into our power and speak with our strongest voices.
Like the Musahar, we need to work on understanding our own value and then we need to work together to have our voices heard.
These are some of the thoughts on my mind as I consider offering another coaching circle based on Pathfinder and/or Lead with Your Wild Heart. If you are interested in joining such a circle, please contact me.
Also, if you are longing to understand your own fear so that you can step forward with courage, consider joining me and Desiree Adaway at Engage!