Often, when we think of silence it sounds like nothing, and it looks like nothing. On a superficial level this is certainly accurate; however, silence can be extremely powerful and meaningful. Silence provides us so much information about ourselves and about others. Our awareness of silence and what comes up during silence can be a helpful tool when used with intention. I have felt motivated by my therapeutic work to share how silence can be used in a beneficial and intentional way, specifically in relationships.
Both verbal and nonverbal communication offer us a means of sharing in addition to a means of understanding what is being shared. Silence falls in the category of nonverbal communication and in the silence there is significance to what is NOT being said. Allowing the space for silence in any interaction offers an opportunity for us to observe body language, facial expressions, physical distance between ourselves and others. Being mindful of how others present during silence can tell us a bit about how they are feeling, how the interaction seems to be going, and their comfort level in the current space/time. Silence also provides us an opportunity to notice what emotions stir up inside of us during silence. Maybe we feel uncomfortable, unsure, unsafe, self conscious, OR we may feel relaxed, relieved, neutral. We might also notice what is our “go to” response to silence in relationships: attempting to fill the space with words, avoidance, safety behaviors (i.e. playing with our phone, fidgeting). Rather than placing judgment on ourselves or others for what appears to come up during silence, I invite you to simply notice what happens both outside and inside of you when silence occurs.
Once we have practiced noticing silence and what comes up for us and others during silence, we are able to use it intentionally for a variety of purposes to enhance our relationships. Ever heard of the “silent treatment”? This is when we use silence to punish someone for doing us wrong. While this may or may not be an effective tool in any particular relationship, this is an example of how individuals may use silence with intention. Rather than using silence as a punishment, we can use silence in more assertive ways to promote understanding, safety, and mutual respect in relationships. See below for some strategies for using silence to enhance relationships:
Practice active listening in your relationships
Reflect on what you see and check in with others if your hunch on how they are feeling or what their experience is, is correct
Practice mindfulness of your emotions and mindfulness of others’ emotions
Practice sitting with and tolerating uncomfortable emotions
Demonstrate that you can not only sit with someone else’s silence but you can maintain the safety of that silent space without trying to change it
RECAP! Practice noticing the silence you experience in relationships, what comes up for you emotionally, what you observe in others, and reflect on how you can use silence as a means to deepen your connection with another person.
“Silence is the most powerful scream”