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There’s a distinct difference between not being able to speak, and deciding to keep your mouth shut. It doesn’t feel the same, doesn’t have the same impact on those in your immediate vicinity and doesn’t come from the same place inside of you. People might confuse not saying anything with being unable to speak, but it is wholly different.
When I was in college, I was in a computer lab during class, working away at my station. I glanced up from the screen and noticed my wife standing in the hallway. The door to the classroom had one of those long, tall, rectangular windows in the door, so I could see her well from my seat. It was somewhat odd for her to show up there, as I couldn’t remember another time when she unexpectedly visited me in that particular class. As I sat there studying her face, I knew in less than one second that she was not okay. Her body language spoke volumes - hunched over shoulders, hands clasped in front of her like she was waiting for something to happen. Her facial expression is burned in my memory...something between pure agony and sadness, but with a hint of hopefulness mixed in. Her face was streaked with tears and her eyes strained from crying.
I slowly rose from my chair and walked toward her, all the while staring at her through the glass. It was the longest forty feet I’ve ever walked, like one of those movie moments when everything shifts into slow motion. When I opened the door and heard her speak, I was unable. I literally could not say anything.
I once twice went through the well-known financial planning program Financial Peace by Dave Ramsey. He has countless recommendations and suggestions for getting out of debt, planning for the future and the like. In one part of the curriculum, he talks about negotiating and getting good deals when you buy. One of his suggestions is to “demonstrate patience” and to say “that’s not good enough,” and then keep your mouth shut. I decided to give it a try on the first car I bought when I got married. The vehicle was a used 1997 Honda CR-V, and I bought it from a guy who ran one of those hokey wholesale lots in a run down area of town. He was a nice enough guy, but I thought he was asking too much for the car. I went to see him and to try and negotiate for a better deal.
I test drove it, crawled underneath it, and looked it over in fine detail. After he reiterated the price to me (I believe he wanted $8,000 for it), I somehow stammered out the words “that’s not good enough,” and just kept standing there looking at the car. I was super nervous - I had never negotiated before, and $8,000 was a LOT of money to me at the time. My mind raced with the possibilities: would he laugh at me, tell me to get lost, be upset and get in my face?! I didn’t know what to expect.
The absolute hardest part was not saying those words; it was waiting in dead silence for him to say something. I was literally shaking. It was probably five seconds of silence but felt like fifteen minutes.
It was excruciating.
He uttered some kind of rebuttal that I could barely hear...I was too busy obsessing over my negotiating tactic.
Ultimately, we settled on $6,500 for the car. I felt like I had struck the greatest deal in the history of mankind. I actually NEGOTIATED! I was thrilled.
Have you ever noticed that people hate silence? I’m not talking about long, drawn out periods of nothingness. I’m talking about brief, ten second snatches of time in meetings or with colleagues or in a family setting. People absolutely loathe silence. I find it quite funny.
Why do we hate it so much? Are we nervous? Excited? Bored? All of the above?
Silence is an awesome motivator. People will do almost anything to end silence. It’s so awkward and clunky, especially in today’s fast-paced culture.
In business, it’s a negotiating tactic. If you’re a parent, it’s a sign that you care (no, really - actually care) what your kid has to say. In a relationship, it can mean a coldness and distance or a trust that is unwavering.
Silence is bizarre.
I think silence is a lost art form. You should be good at silence.
Imagine negotiating a much-larger deal than my 1997 Honda CR-V. Imagine sitting confidently at a large table with dozens of other professionals, and imagine that you (or someone else in the room) has just dropped a verbal bomb on the meeting. Go there mentally. Are you there, at that table?
Now imagine yourself sitting there full of confidence, not afraid of the silence, not sweating the detail of who is going to speak next. That’s a position of authority, and that’s a good position to be in.
Imagine yourself in a tense family scenario - around the Thanksgiving table, for example. Imagine that someone wants to talk politics (ugh) or religion. Imagine the fighting and bickering and huffing and puffing. Now imagine someone has asked you a question. Most people just come out guns-a-blazin’ without any regard for how it’s received. But instead, you take short moment in time, scan the room calmly, and sit...in...silence...for a second or two. Or five. Or ten.
Feels weird, right? But feels strong?
You own the room at that time. It’s not about power - who cares about power at family Thanksgiving. But strength...strength is something that draws people in, piques their interest and pushes you to the head of the table. Strength in silence. Beautiful.
Imagine hearing some life-altering news. Imagine sitting in a doctor’s office when they tell you that a parent has cancer. Or that you have cancer. There’s no true preparation for that kind of news, but we can be better with the silence.
No matter who you are or what you do or what age you are - you need to be better at silence. I need to be better at silence. Be comfortable with periods of nothing. Gather your thoughts, prepare the room, get your head on straight. Those people who blathers on at the drop of a hat. Good lord, please be quiet, guy.
A measured, controlled silence:
- Brings calm to the situation
- Tells people what you’re about to say has weight and meaning
- Asks people to pay attention
- Draws the listener into your story
Everyone is so excited to answer quickly and to get their idea out there. Relax. There’s plenty of time.
Back to the front end of this story: my wife was there to tell me that she was pregnant (surprise!) and that some testing had revealed that the baby had serious health concerns that would become chronic and lifelong. I was devastated, and couldn’t say anything. It was the hardest and lowest point of my life. My silence was forced upon me, and I wasn’t ready for it.
(My daughter will be 16 years old in August. She is a magical, wonderful, beautiful young woman. I wouldn’t change anything about her or our life together.)
- There’s only one: spend time in silence this week. I once heard a talk where the speaker recommended everyone to “divert daily, withdraw weekly, and abandon annually,” meaning get away and spend time in silence on a regular basis. It sounds trite, but most people spend zero time in silence. Try five minutes tomorrow - do it first thing in the morning (that’s what I do, and it will blow your mind). Focus on absolutely nothing - just be silent. One of my best friends goes on a “silent retreat” at least once a year, where he and some friends spend an entire day in silence at a nearby monastery. I think that’s amazing. I have another friend who went with a group of buddies to Joshua Tree National Park and spent an entire WEEK in the wilderness alone, in complete silence. Boom.