How to improve your life and conversations with silence.

I’m fortunate to be able to spend a little time at a cottage during the summer.

One of my favourite things to do is to get up just before sunrise and take the canoe out for a slow paddle. 

As the sun creeps upward, it’s a time of awe-inspiring silence.
 
The water is like glass.  Only the bow of the canoe and my paddle cut through its smooth shiny surface. 

It’s not really silent though. You can hear some birds singing and the odd fish jumping out of water, but it’s as close to silence as I can get without finding an anechoic chamber somewhere.

I know that, very soon, the silence will be overcome by fishing boat motors or the splashes of an early morning swimmer, or worse, by jet skis and skill saws. 

I’ll often head over to an old beaver dam and just sit there in the canoe. I’ll let my ears search the forest and water for a chirp, rustle or splash. I hope for a chance encounter with a beaver perhaps. But my paddling has probably tipped them off long before I arrive so that’s never happened. 

This is a place where I remind myself how to listen. 

And that’s important. Because without an appreciation for silence, we can’t really listen to what others have to say.

We have lost our ability to listen

According to George Michelson Foy, author of Zero Decibels: The Quest for Absolute Silence, our stress levels and cognitive functions are suffering due to our fast-paced, multi-screen, multi-machine-laden environments. 

He also goes on to say that we are losing our ability to listen. 

It makes sense. Everything around us today is so fast. We move through life at a lightning pace, going from one thing to the next, packing our days full of commuting, working, and after-work activities. And, on top of that, we’re sleep deprived. 

 

We think of moving slowly as a sign of not being with it or on the ball. Go, go, go is our mantra.  Until we blow an artery or crash and burn in some other way. 

We don’t even take our eyes off our screens to make eye contact when speaking to someone. There was a time when that would have been considered rude or impolite.  Oh, wait! It still is -- we just do it anyway.   

Many people plough through conversations using someone else’s thoughts or clever sound bites.  As someone speaks, we have already formulated our response while they’re still in mid-sentence. We’re great assumers. We’re not great listeners. 

Assuming what people are going to say is way faster than listening and thinking. It avoids the silence. It lets us get on to the next thing. 

Perhaps we aspire to be like characters on the West Wing.  Those guys looked really smart because they all talked so fast.  It’s as if they knew what each other was going to say.  Oh wait… they did!

Truth be told though… fast talkers are easier to ignore. 

It's not about how many notes you play

Then there are those who have mastered the art of silence, the art of being able to use just one or two words that are surrounded by silence and filled with the power to make a thought come to life. This is what the greatest orators do. Churchill. Kennedy. Angelou, Obama, to name a few. 

Music is where I first learned about the power of using silence in conversation. It is an interesting parallel.

As a young drum set player, I only cared about how many notes I could cram into an improvised fill.  (A fill is when the drummer stops playing just the beat for a moment and fills in the space at the end of a musical phrase.) 

I played to impress by using many notes to show off my blistering technique.  (It wasn’t really blistering. I just thought so).  I played with a “Hey! Listen to me attitude”. But the notes I played had little meaning. 

The more mature player begins to realize that the audience is important. Working with others musicians is important. Playing music that holds people’s attention is important and using silence is a big part of that.

When I finally starting using silence in my playing, everything changed. Silence shaped what I was playing into musical sentences with a beginning, middle, and end. It gave the listener a chance to absorb what I was presenting.  

If I used a lot of silence, it made the notes seem more important when I played them. They became like a splash of colour on a white background.

The other great thing about using silence on purpose is that it gives you a chance to listen, which is what the best musicians do really well. It is also what the best communicators do really well. 

We need a listening culture

Better listening is the key to better conversations.  Better conversations are a key to better collaboration.  Better collaboration is the key to achieving great things. You can only have these things if you build a listening culture.

Do you need to have better conversations? Start listening more.

I know this is tough. As I said before, we live in a world that is built on busy and filled by distraction. 

 

Living like this makes it hard to be silent.  It makes it hard to listen. 

But you need to because if you don’t, you’ll eventually burn out.  See what the signs for burnout are here.

I’m not saying you need to go on a quest for inner peace and enlightenment (although that sounds like a good idea). I’m just saying you need to add some silence to your life and to your conversations.  And besides that, silence is good for your brain.

Get comfortable with silence.

The people I’ve known who are the best listeners have tended to be people who have developed an appreciation for silence. These things seem to go hand in hand. It’s more of a way of life that just a conversation skill. 

They make time to slow down, to decompress. They make time for quiet.

To be productive at what you do, you need to find time to recharge.  You may not have time to hang out in the quietest place on earth (or go to my beaver dam) but there are some things you can do to add more silence to your life.  Finding calm will get you thinking about using silence in conversation. 

You need to find at least two minutes a day. Only you can figure out where and when you can do this. Either book it into your schedule or make it a habit. But find it somehow. 

The point is, you’re thinking about giving yourself time for silence. 

You’re not being selfish! As a matter of fact, you’re doing the people you interact with a favour. Ever come home and barked at your family after a day at work? After a few minutes, they would have preferred you found some silence. It’s important so you’ve got to plan it.  

By the way, if you’re having trouble finding a quiet place, you might enjoy this app that is crowdsourcing the best places to find peace and quiet.

Some suggestions

1) Think like a smoker.  I’m not saying you should take up smoking, but I envy smokers for their ability to leave their desks and disappear for a few minutes. 

Get up from your desk, take a short walk, and stick your head outside for a minute or two. (I would suggest in another area than the smoking area). 

2) Take a break from your device. I think we’re finally starting to see how being connected 24/7 is affecting us.  I love my technology as much as anyone, but doesn’t it feel liberating to forget your phone at home sometimes when you go out (after you get over the shakes)? 

Just like saving 10% of your pay check is a good idea (thanks Wealthy Barber), try to make 10% of your day smartphone free. The beginnings and ends of each day are the best times to be "smartphone free".

 

3) Spend time in quiet places. Remember the library? They’re still quiet. And then there’s the park or the art gallery. Even a bathroom stall will do in a pinch. 

4) How about listening to silence? If you’ve got a pair of those great noise-cancelling headphones, put on the latest track of nothing or maybe some waves at the beach or frogs and crickets late at night

5) Meditate.  I was a long-time resistor of taking the time to do this.  I was far too busy.  And I never thought I fit the image of sitting there, legs crossed, saying Ommm.  That being said, it doesn’t have to be like that. Meditation comes in many forms. Here’s a great article about how to meditate anywhere for beginners.

I hope that I have now got you thinking about silence, because that is the first step.  Once you’re aware of how beneficial silence can be to your health, you can start using it in conversations.

Once you’re comfortable with silence, you can use it for impact or use it to help you think before you speak.  You might not use it all the time but you can when you need to.

Music CAn help too! 

One of my favourite and relaxing musical pieces I like to play reminds me of how to have a peaceful conversation. It's great because any group of people can do it.

I give everyone a ringing percussion instrument to play.  This can be some type of ringing bowl (a brass or Buddhist temple bowl), Tibetan cymbals, small Indian bells or a triangle, to name but a few. 

The piece I get them to play is about listening and finding the right time to speak. In random order, each person plays a sound on his or her instrument, but no one is allowed to play until the previous instrument has stopped sounding, until quiet has entered the piece. 

Sometimes two or more people play at once but that is quite beautiful. This makes for a piece that is as much about listening as it is about the teamwork involved in creating it. The result is often very calming and peaceful.  It’s a bit of meditation and music mixed together and I really like that.

Got some tips to share about how you add silence to your life? Please share them below.