I can be pretty verbal. Thirty plus years as a lawyer gives me a well practiced arsenal of words and Socratic debate skills that let me hold my own in the political discussions that surge around my family, friends, and community. I seem to thrive when faced with a point of view that begs for a counter argument, a voice in opposition.
Often, I speak without first asking myself if I should even speak, should I take up the cause. Not every conversation is a call to a debate, or a heated argument worthy of a case before the Supreme Court.
I learn more when I listen, and the proverb that observes we have two ears, but only one mouth, is always worthy of a revisit.
Am I speaking to change someone’s opinion, or am I just arguing for the sake of being a dissenter, knowing that, of course, I am right?
So I often try to practice the art of falling silent, of not engaging in debate. My silence isn’t saying that I agree, either. Let the other person’s words echo and be contemplated in unexpected quiet. Let the speaker’s words and their ideas linger, so that we may truly hear them, and take in what they are saying. Maybe the speaker, in that silence, will hear what they have said, and take the time to really hear themselves.
My silence certainly can’t be taken as agreement, or even acquiescence, in the hypothesis presented by the speaker.
I yield the floor to them, letting them give voice to their thoughts, letting the ideas flow around the room. Perhaps they have never been heard before; perhaps their ideas haven’t been aired.
My ego likes to believe that when the speaker finally stops to hear their own flawed ideas, they will abandon their line of thinking, and agree that I’ve been right all along.
If they are “loaded for bear” and ready for a heated argument, I don’t have to agree to wage battle. That’s my choice. And, I often don’t learn much if I don my armor and throw my own spears in a heated argument.
There’s the old saying about not learning when your mouth is open.
Thus, I often try to fall silent. My lips don’t move, and I focus on disengaging the clutch between the argumentative brain and my mouth. I keep in eye contact, letting them know I’ve been listening, and I’m still present.
I’m just not engaging in debate. I’m not ramping up the temperature. I’m reacting, just not in the way we’ve been socialized to react.
I’m changing the rules. And, I’m certainly making a point, just not the point that the speaker is expecting.
The interchange gets even sweeter when the speaker asks if I have anything to say, and I don’t say anything. I’m making a point. I’m not invisible, and my silence is not agreement. I’m exercising my power in the conversation, and making a point.
The uncomfortable silence is my friend, a valuable energy in the conversation. I’m expressing myself, by not saying anything. It’s a paradox, one that is often a valuable teaching tool.
What I’m saying, in my silence, is that I hear the other person. But, I don’t have to respond, in the usual way. And, I give them something to think about. Even just letting their words echo back to them, giving them space to actually hear what they’ve been saying, can be a powerful reaction to their words. I’m giving them personal space.
I can think they are being an idiot. I just don’t have to say the words, and go into battle. Instead, I can let them wonder what I am thinking, if they even care about that.
I also don’t have to be the hypocrite, saying I agree even if I don’t, say something benign, or be a diplomat.
From my point of view, it’s a pleasant mystery.
I’m giving them the luxury of contemplation of their own spoken words. How often do we engage in thinking about what we have just said?
They aren’t hearing my approval, and they aren’t getting a verbal response. I’m not adding fuel to their argumentative fires. Instead, I’m letting their flames die down, dropping the temperature, letting things cool.
In that silence, I can grow my disagreement, my dissent. I can also grow the speaker’s own reflection of their own words, and let those words lie exposed to the clarifying sunlight of truth, logic, and social sensibilities.
And, the speaker is now really listening to me. I’m not mouthing words, but I am present, and I am hearing them. My silence is speaking volumes of words. And, what that means is now the puzzle the speaker is trying to solve. The silence is making my argument for me.
I’m not even marshaling my debate tactics and my own thoughts on the subject at hand, except in me being silent. Silent, yet engaged with them, respectfully listening to them, and being present.
“I answer her with my silence, understanding the full power of it for the first time. Words are weapons. Weapons are powerful. So are unsaid words. So are unused weapons.”
― Emily Murdoch, If You Find Me
–Neal Lemery, 9/29/2017