Early in my career as a counselor, I had professors and supervisors continually tell me not to underestimate the power of silence. I wanted to know the trick. Like, “Oh, if I am silent then the client will feel pressure to say more!” Back then, I was only really thinking about how to get people to think I was a good counselor. I was not very interested in understanding the process and why it could be so powerful.
Everyone has heard that a picture is worth a thousand words. So therefore, pictures have value because words do…but this adage is not universal, is it? Simply put, are there not hundreds of potential situations in which a thousand words is way too many words? There is a point of diminishing return, meaning a point where adding words actually takes away value instead of adding it.
Let’s look at some examples:
- Ever been to a wedding when the officiant told a 45 minute story? At some point, the powerful image of the couple standing in front of friends and family is overshadowed by the 7th anecdote.
- I have seen hundreds of glazed over eyes from teenagers who get their 4th lecture of the week from the parents. Do you really think they don’t know that you want them to “take some responsibility?”
Value by Comparison
One way that humans learn value is by comparing it to similar or opposite experiences. For example, we miss people that we love when they are far away from us. Is that because their worth suddenly increases when they leave? No, it’s because experiencing distance teaches us of the value of closeness.
In the same way, the value of words are made clear to us by comparing them with silence.
Consider the concept of “Negative Space” in art. Negative space is the space around and between the subject(s) of the art work. As much as the subject is defined by the strokes that create it, it is also that much defined by the empty, or negative, space surrounding it. Let’s take a look at a concrete example:
“Hidden City” by Tang Yau Hoong found at The Art of Negative Space
This is a clever manipulation of negative space, in a digital piece by Tang Yau Hoong. At the top of the piece, the contrast of white to light blue makes one think of a piece of ice, the horizontal line between light and darker blue suggests that the piece of ice is actually an iceberg. This is not a photograph, so to say that we are looking at an iceberg is completely dependent on the negative space in the light and dark blue.
But then the artist takes the negative space one step further, and uses the dark blue below the “surface” to suggest a city-scape. This piece of art makes a powerful statement about our perspective and how we tend to think very linearly. It is not always the thing that we are looking at that influences our viewpoint, but sometimes the context in which the subject appears that has the greatest affect.
Language is like that. Sometimes it is a single powerful sentence, standing alone that has a far greater impact, than if it had been buried in frivolous wordings.
Silence, like negative space, brings balance.
Silence in Application
I was recently in a session with a client who tends to the side of the dramatic. I knew she had recently gotten some news that she did not like, and her body language told me that this session was going to be all about that. Partially on a whim, I decided to play stupid, and just ask, “What’s up?”
She just shrugged.
So I gave a sympathetic look, and waited…
Nothing. My tendency in these moments is to turn on the counselor talk in order to get them to tell me what is going on (I am working on loving this part of myself). But a hunch told me to play this differently. I pondered long enough to form the one sentence I was going to allow myself:
“Do you just want me to know that you had a bad day?”
She nodded. More silence. I went deep into myself, realizing I had stepped into the power of silence and just asked myself some questions:
- What does she need from me right now?
- Does she know that I know more than I am acting like?
- Is this too much silence?
- Can she handle whatever it is that she is going through?
That last question seemed to stick with me. I knew the answer! So I said one more statement, and one more question:
“I trust that you can handle whatever it is that you are going through right now, and that if you can’t handle it, you will ask for help. So how would you like to use our time today?”
You know what we did? We drew with pen on paper, and listened to music she liked. She laughed, and joked, and told me about some really cool, positive things that she was doing in her life.
If I had given in to the tension, and launched into some therapeutic-level lecture or lesson, then I would have done ALL of the work for that day. She would most likely have walked away more defensive than when she started the session.
Something to Try
The point of that story was not to show off how good of a counselor I am. Trust me, for every success story, there are 20 missed opportunities!
What I would rather convey is a new perspective. We put so much pressure on ourselves to say the right thing at the right time…and then on the flip side we cannot sit with a single second of silence. Why must the space between us as people be so full all the time? So I am turning this into a challenge:
This week, I want you to add 10 seconds of silence to every interaction that you have.
Find the right moment, of course. I do not suggest that when your boss asks you a professional question, you begin counting down from 10 in your head before you answer. Trust your intuition; you will know when the timing is right or wrong.
What you won’t know is when the person across from you needs those 10 seconds in order to feel safe saying something incredibly vulnerable. Maybe they have told themselves that the next silent moment is when they will tell you about their recent divorce or a death in the family. Give them that opportunity.
And remember: The silence gives the words context. Therefore, the silence is as important as the words themselves.