Time to Think

“silence is the language of god,
all else is poor translation.”
― Rumi

Standing at the podium in front of his adoring fans, the man began to speak as he had so many times before. The room grew still as he stood saying nothing. Once a great speaker, the man had suffered a stroke and now found himself able to think of the words but unable to articulate them. And so, he stood. In the awkward silence, Ram Dass stood in front of the expectant audience until at last the words emerged from his lips. Imagine the collective sigh of relief. Often avoided and usually undervalued, silence is golden for many reasons. How can we hope to hear, to translate the language, when we are so concerned with filling the space?

Several years ago, I experienced an unusual illness. During that time, there were many moments when I knew what I wanted to say but couldn’t find the words to pull from my mouth. “Just spit it out!” I would think to myself, impatiently. Similar to dementia patients and stroke victims, I felt helpless, but I came away very aware of how uncomfortable it is for everyone (speaker and listener) when we have a void in the conversation. I am thankful to be healthy today, rarely at a loss of words. I wonder, though, why we are so anxious to fill any space in a conversation. What about you — can you sit comfortably in silence?

Meeting with a group I enjoy, we have only a handful of rules, but the one that matters most to me is Don’t speak when someone else is speaking. Of course, that should be a simple guideline in our daily lives but rarely is that the case as people on talk shows and in private conversations hurry to utter the words they think need to be heard, often at the expense of the others in the conversation. I have found in this group that I am able to just listen without rudely missing someone else’s words thinking of my own response.

I simply listen.

Because of the decision to listen, many of us sit thinking about what was said in silence before anyone speaks again. The silence can sometimes last a few minutes. At first, it was awkward, and for some it probably always is. But I have come to enjoy and look forward to the stillness and quiet in a room of many other people. Do you ever feel that you long for silence?

There are a few reasons we might need to embrace a little quiet.

  1. If you can’t say something nice — You know the old saying. Sometimes, you just need to guard yourself from saying things you’ll probably regret.
  2. The world is so loud — Professor Arline Bronzaft (CUNY) reported at the end of a study, “Quiet gives your body the opportunity to repair itself, to just rest.” Even the noise of traffic is proven to affect people who live on the ground floors of apartments differently than those who live on higher floors. Make small changes to give yourself some quiet, protecting against the physical and psychological suffering from so much noise.
  3. The struggle for quiet is real — Pascal said, “All the unhappiness of men arises from one simple fact: that they cannot sit quietly in their chamber.” I don’t want to be unhappy, so I take his words and the research very seriously. You might be surprised to know that embracing silence in your day will increase your productivity. Maybe when the kids or grandkids are playing you think you’ll never find even a sliver of silence, or maybe you think playing quiet music or listening to the birds counts as ‘quiet’, but neither does. In a study of the brain, people were watched while quiet music was playing, and surprisingly it was in the silence between the songs that the brain was proven to be more productive.
  4. Think before you speak — if you aren’t dealing with aphasia, (think stroke and dementia victims), you are going to have to train yourself to take a breath and really think about the words about to leave your mouth. By training yourself to use silence as your friend, you will surely discover that you apologize less and are appreciated more.

In all of the reading regarding the importance of silence, nothing struck me as much as an experiment a small design agency decided to conduct. Beginning with three hours of silence each day, the company (NAVY) worked to see how absolute silence impacted their workplace. There was no email, no texting, no phones, no music, no social media, and no stopping to ask a co-worker a question — there was silence while each person worked in his/her own office on their projects. After the three hours of silently working, they would come together and talk about any questions they had. It really was remarkable to see that in finally settling on four hours of working in silence each day, they found they had a 23% increase in productivity. They were so happy with the effectiveness that they now only work four days a week. I find that to be encouraging in my own efforts to be productive every day. Don’t you?

Walking in the quiet of nature is wonderful, but it isn’t the same as sitting in and/or working in pure silence. Even though we might think we work better with music playing, all of the research, studies, and experiments can’t be wrong. Noise distracts us.

Maybe it’s time to put an end to multi-tasking, to listening to a Ted Talk while we try to finish that project for the team. It’s definitely time to put an end to rushing to fill the quiet with empty words. Imagine what is getting lost in translation. Instead of rushing someone who is trying to find the words, appreciate the silence. Instead of hurrying to fill the voice, listen to the silence. You just might find that you hear much more clearly.

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