Diane M. Millis: Silence and the art of conversation

Some of the most essential practices for genuine conversation include not only the words we speak but also the silence that surrounds them. A leadership coach and facilitator offers tips on the practice of pausing.

For me, it was a familiar scene, a meeting with a group of pastors that was supposed to have been a conversation about best practices in ministry. Unfortunately, it was all too familiar.

Before the facilitator had even finished posing the opening question, a pastor we'll call Larry launched into a discourse about all the great things his congregation was doing.

As he rambled on, Larry seemed unaware of, or at least unconcerned about, how much time he was taking. He didn't seem to understand that he was in a conference room, not a pulpit. He was oblivious to the fact that a third of his "listeners" were soon on their phones, checking emails.

All the while, I could hear a voice in my head growing increasingly annoyed:

"He really likes to hear himself talk."

"I can't imagine working on my phone in the middle of a meeting."

"This facilitator needs to provide more structure."

I was frustrated. Folks had spent weeks planning this gathering, and I felt as though I owed them my attention. As I struggled to focus and listen, another voice, one deeper inside, invited me to "keep paying attention."

Even so, the same image kept popping up in my mind: me, in a plane at 13,000 feet, parachuting out the door.

Three conversations

Whether it's a meeting at work or a talk at home, any important conversation among human beings has at least three conversations occurring for each participant.

The first is the external conversation -- the words that we and others speak and the related nonverbal aspects of communication such as tone of voice and body language.

The second is the internal conversation. It's the dialogue that we have in our own heads, the one that helps us interpret what we are hearing and seeing, and what we are imagining, thinking and feeling in response.

The third is the interior conversation, the one that happens in the deepest core of our being. Thomas Kelly, the famous Quaker educator and mystic, describes this interior place as a "divine Abyss within us all, a holy Infinite Center, a Heart, a Life who speaks in us and through us to the world."

As founder and director of the Journey Conversations Project, I work with institutional leaders in settings such as education, business and the church to cultivate and strengthen their ability to attend to all three of these conversations. In the project, we introduce people to various practices that help them increase their awareness of the three conversations and how to engage in them more effectively.

Strangely, we are finding that some of the most essential practices for genuine conversation include not only the words we speak but also the silence that surrounds them. Rather than an empty space that we must rush in to fill, silence can be the most important element in any conversation, the catalyst that makes genuine communication possible.

As Alfred Brendel, the Austrian musician and poet, noted, the word "listen" contains the same letters as the word "silent."

There is a profound relationship between intentional silence and our capacity to listen. When we get quiet -- really quiet -- we become more aware of all the noise around us, between us, and within us.

Time in silence, both personal and collective, prepares our hearts for conversation. In particular, time in silence helps us grow to recognize and distinguish the still, small voice within us from all the other voices in our lives.

The practice of pausing

Whenever possible, leaders should aim to begin, end and punctuate important conversations, whether among a group or with individuals, with pauses for intervals of shared silence.

Open conversations with some time in shared silence. It helps the participants turn their attention to the present moment. At the Journey Conversations Project, we invite participants to take time to quiet their minds and bodies, to remove any unnecessary distractions around them, and to focus on their breathing. Pausing before a conversation helps prepare our hearts to listen deeply to all three conversations -- external, internal and interior -- throughout our time together.

Insert one or more pauses in the midst of a conversation. Short breaks, even for only a moment, encourage us to suspend our self-oriented, reactive thinking and contemplate what is going on within ourselves as we listen to others speak. Ask yourself:

What am I sensing right now?

 

What am I imagining?

 

What am I feeling?

 

What am I thinking?

Use the pause to sort out how best to respond and contribute to the conversation. If we want to respond soulfully and compassionately rather than superficially and impulsively, we shouldn't speak out loud the words on the tips of our tongues or the thoughts off the top of our heads -- at least until we've taken time to let such sentiments descend to our hearts.

In her book "The Sacred Art of Listening," Kay Lindahl encourages us not to ask ourselves from our egos, "What do I want to say?" but to ask from within our souls, "What wants to be said?"

The more time we spend in silence, the more we will learn to distinguish what wants to be said through us from what we want to say. In some cases, what wants to be said through us may not need to take the form of words. Our listening presence is more than enough.

Pause and reflect at the conclusion of a conversation. That final moment of silence encourages participants to notice and name which aspects of the conversation they have found particularly significant.

Ask yourself:

What did I notice in today's conversation?

What stirred or moved me deeply?

What did I learn about myself or other participants?

As it says in Ecclesiastes 3:7, there is a time to be silent and a time to speak. Leaders who want to facilitate conversations that foster deeper engagement need to be intentional about silence. We can encourage those who feel compelled to speak to honor silence and practice restraint. We can invite those who find it difficult to speak to listen within for a nudge.

Silence is a foundational practice for any meaningful conversation. Shared silence is a spiritual practice that transcends and can unite participants and build understanding.

When we pause in silence, we learn that our ability to be present to one another doesn't always depend upon words. We remember that the deepest level of communication is beyond words; it is an invitation to communion.