Thursday, August 03, 2017

Silence: Good or Bad?

Written by  Janan Broadbent, Ph.D.

In the last issue, I discussed the topic of talking and communicating in a relationship. So it seems appropriate today to look into what silence may mean, when practiced by one or both or all parties.

As a child, I remember my mother complaining that my father was “giving her the silent treatment.” As an inexperienced therapist or instructor, I remember the discomfort I felt if I needed a moment to gather my thoughts, or think of what to say or do next. When I started teaching, those moments gave me the misplaced motivation to start smoking. Thankfully, that remedy lasted less than a year. But the issue of long, drawn-out silence in therapy haunted me for a while, until I started to see that it worked to give the other person time to think.

In a relationship, especially when you want to talk about resolving an issue, there are those who tune out or disengage because they do not want to deal with the matter. This does not necessarily make the problem go away. If anything, it starts a vicious cycle of accumulation. When you don’t acknowledge what your partner wants to talk about, are you not removing them from your radar screen? Are you not telling them that they or their issues do not matter to you? Even if this is not what your conscious desire is, it will come across as that way.

There are cultural differences in how people regard silence. For the Japanese, silence shows respect. For the Finns, it means thoughtfulness. For the English-speaking world, however, it seems to bring in a sense of awkwardness. Yet there are occasions when it can be a very powerful tool. If you are making a work presentation, or a sales pitch, it can signify control. In a relationship, it can be soothing when you respect each other’s need for solitude. How relaxing it is when you can sit with your partner and each reading or doing your thing, taking comfort in sharing space and focusing on your own activity.

It is when silence ensues after a significant question that one may start to wonder what lies behind it. I am specifically thinking of when a partner asks if the other is happy. Most often, we expect an immediate and clear answer so we can be reassured. Even a four-second silence followed by a “yes” starts doubts: Are you sure?

Important in this subject is getting to know a partner’s communication style. Fast or slow? Focused or going from one subject to another? Logical, linear, emotional, or always-moving-the-goalpost? The work of building and strengthening a relationship involves accepting each other’s style and making the communication flow despite differences. If one person needs long pauses to think and the other wants an immediate answer, it does not even allow the content to be addressed because we get immersed in the mechanics.

The contrasting attitudes towards silence may best be illustrated in the following two sayings:

“Silence is golden.”

“The squeaky wheel gets the oil.”

What do you think?


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