Most people are uncomfortable with silence. A nervous speaker will usually plug any open space with “um”, “ah”, you know” and an assortment of fillers that lose an audience’s attention.
Silence is captivating. In music, it can draw stark contrast to the harmonious chorus of voices repetitively proclaiming “Hallelujah! In comparison, the modern philosopher Samuel Hagar declared, “Silence speaks as loud as war.”” Silence from one’s partner can be soul crushing.
I recently presented in front of a group of highly influential leaders. As a person who is blind, I have two choices. Learn braille or memorize what I need to cover. I sat at a large table full of human service professionals as I laid out details. Not the type of presentation where I could insert a joke to ensure the message was heard, I stumbled mentally on a transition. The absence of any sound accentuated by an inability to recount where I needed to be in the presentation. Silence rolled in like a Scottish fog. The sounds of my heart beat pounded my ear drums. I scanned my head from side to side, summarized the facts, recalled my transition point, and completed the case. Without the visual assurance, the stillness seemed to permeate the room.
After the meeting, someone told me they thought the pregnant pause, that made me feel insecure, was perceived to be planned in order to give time for the group to be caught up with their note taking. My body language of looking in the direction of the group lent credence to their perception. In actuality, the punctuated maneuver was a stalling technique.
I am reminded of a workplace that responded to a supervisor’s intimidation by no action whatsoever. The lack of anyone’s objection gave the supervisor more power to go forward unrestricted. Silence signaled a collective acceptance.
All too often, issues are swept “under the rug” or unspoken. It is the silence that enables the continuation of the perpetual cycle of violence, dependency, or dysfunction. Silence is rarely a preferred answer. Wouldn’t we all, at the very least, wish to hear a “no” than a lack of any response at all?
I have walked away from friendships and, even, a church. My only response was silence.
I knew exactly what I wanted to say but I couldn’t find the time or how to begin the conversation. It was easier to say nothing and walk away. I feared being consumed by the passion from my point of view. I, also, sought to avoid what I perceived as potentially an argument.
Truth is I am not sure if I cared enough or too much. Were these moments worthy of my opinion? Was my choice to hold my tongue assertive or passive aggressive? The combination of silence and time nurtures a cyclical, toxic coping mechanism. The conscious mind moves forward while the spirit never forgets the unresolved feelings.
I wish I could confirm that I always have the correct words at exactly the right time. In the awkward silence I discover that my heart fills with regret and my thoughts swirl like a tornado. I loosen up my body language and exaggerate my facial expressions to portray relaxation and inner peace. Nothing could be further from the reality. The inner turmoil swelling within my skin. Each bead of sweat shows a crack in the dam holding back the emotions. At any moment, a flood or rage and confusion could rupture my soul. “Keep it together,” really means send the pain below. Each lump in the throat swallowed to keep down the surge of emotion.
I committed to the silence. It would almost be a faux pas to bring it up since so much time has lapsed. Maybe they have gotten over it and I should, too.
Complicating the complexity is the realization that this avoidance tango is not a solo dance. The other person is a “silent” partner. They could just as easily tar down the Cold War walls that have been built up. Each brick baked in frustration, insecurity, and a deep longing to avoid confrontation. Cemented together, the bricks sealed upon the one mutually agreed condition: not to acknowledge the problem.
For five years, 20 professionals remained resolute and unflinching at the provocations of a bully. Everyone’s refusal to speak up reenforced inaction. These are the same individuals who would take a bullet for any of the people served; yet no one stood up to the abuse within the organization. Sadly, I was one of them. Afraid to be the only one to step forward and say the Emperor has no clothes. Each time, it became easier to sweep our frustration under the rug and pretend nothing happened. The expectation to continue the silence spread to each new colleague and normalize the dysfunction.
One of my favorite songs has the lyrics, “finding the words is as hard as finding the time.”
I can’t reframe the past and say what I did was correct. I can say that I am, now, more aware of the indicators. I am committed to becoming a stronger person and effective professional.
While silence can send a message that can be heard, there is another option. The use of our words is more thunderous and powerful than the choice to remain quiet. The process to find and use my voice only makes me stronger.