Just awkward— the silence. I searched for more words, looked at the ceiling and floor.
The assignment: find a partner whom you do not know well, from among fellow students in Ingrid Davis’ Leadership Coaching course. Ask one good question. Then listen— without making any statement, or asking a follow up question— for five minutes.
It was my turn to answer, so I filled the first one or two minutes with phrases. Then the silence started.
A few years have passed since I took that class, but I think of those minutes, so silent yet so disquieting, often. Most recently, they came to mind while I was teaching Public Speaking at the university. My students had studied techniques for interviewing and reading feedback. They were assigned, as homework, the task of composing and asking excellent questions. They came back excited to share what they had come up with:
- “What do you want to be doing ten years from now?”
- “Where is a place you would like to travel?”
- “What job have you most enjoyed, and why?”
Goals, dreams, experiences— great things to ask about, I said. They were smiling and confident. What did you learn about people?
They kept their grins but avoided my eyes. I discovered that out of 30+ students, two had asked their questions out loud; the rest had kept them inside.
Their gazes met mine again. Hands shot skyward. “I didn’t want to offend anyone.” “I am afraid they will think badly of me.” “What if they can’t think of an answer?” They were held back, by the possibility of not being able to connect, from even attempting a connection.
Last week, I traveled to a small town in Germany to assist with a conference. Contrasting the noise level heard from my Middle Eastern basement— mosques calling people to prayer five times a day, gun shots fired for every wedding or graduation celebration, and a less dramatic but no less salient rooster in my backyard— the quiet of my second-story hotel room was as soft as their down blankets.
The silence pried my fingers loose from the things I had gripped when we first arrived. The busyness of preparations for the Young Leaders program. The goodbyes of loved friends moving back to the United States. The pressure I had been feeling with anticipation of new roles.
I try to escape silence, most of the time. Whether through filling time with activity, or filling spaces with my words, I avoid quietness because it is unproductive and inefficient. Or, that’s what I tell myself.
In truth, I might have the same fears as my students have when they resist asking deeper questions. Staying on familiar, comfortable ground makes me feel confident and pulled together. Silence is an undoing. Venturing questions of depth, waiting for answers, is risky behavior— human to human, human to God. Will He speak? Will there be a connection? Or will it just be space, empty?
In the coaching class, after a long pause, I found more words— deeper ones. The silence had given me space to take the question to a more profound place than my partner could have done with a follow-up question or a reply, so when the five minutes was up, I was still finishing my answer.
Before leaving the area, after the conference had ended, friends and I took a cable car to a mountaintop. Surrounded by a view that is beyond the words I know for splendor or scope, breathing in the cold, clean air, I could tell my iPhone pictures would be useful only for triggering memories. The sense of climbing and climbing, each panorama surprising in loveliness and scale. The broad space that was empty of construction, but overflowing with beauty.
Will I be able to carry that memory of silence and grandeur back with me to a desert in the Middle East?
I’ll have to try. Because the potential for the connection ushered in by stillness is greater, in my mind, than the risk of rejection or a discomfortable silence. Maybe, as my partner in class did, I’ll keep listening even through silence, and hear deeper things than I expected.
And maybe, just maybe, the deepest connections will take place in the silence.
This blog is a little shorter than some. Why not use the space for some silence? Let me know how it works…