Most people have a very difficult time with silence when they’re in conversation. You’ve already seen this many times, but if you need confirmation, simply look at someone without diverting your eyes, and say nothing.
Recently I was speaking with Julia, and after she had delivered two minutes of monologue, she stopped talking. I looked at her and said nothing for a full minute. She began to look quite uncomfortable. Finally I spoke: “You don’t know what to say, do you?”
“No,” she said.
“You don’t know what to do with the silence. It makes you uncomfortable.”
She thought I was waiting for her to speak, but I wasn’t. “What do you think when I’m not speaking?” I asked.
“I’m wondering what you’re thinking?”
“Are you wondering what I’m thinking about global warming? About Avogadro’s number?”
“You’re wondering what critical thoughts I’m having about you, yes?”
“Understandable. When people have looked at you in the past—especially silently—the results have been almost uniformly negative, right?”
“Am I like any of those people?”
“But you still assume the worst—out of habit. When I’m quiet, I’m simply enjoying being with you. Love is in the silence. I enjoy the silence with you. No thinking. Kind of hard to believe, eh?”
“But not really. Why in the world would I give you my time except for your benefit? I can think of a hundred other things to do, you know.”
“And the silence has the same motivation. Still about loving you.”
Julia calmed down immediately.
There is a vulnerability in silence, an opportunity to be open without the distractions—or defenses—of words. It’s unfamiliar to us, but we can benefit from practice. In social situations, we can try being quiet instead of filling every moment of silence with noise. While sitting with a loved one, we can offer a gentle touch instead of the multiplication of many words. The benefits can be appreciated only as we try it.