What Quiet Teaches

Image credit: https://www.pexels.com/@victorfreitas

Image credit: https://www.pexels.com/@victorfreitas

I can't find a link to the story on-line, but not too many months ago while cooking dinner, I heard an interview with John Francis on NPR.

John Francis is an environmentalist who stopped using motorized vehicles for twenty-two years to protest damage from oil spills. Two years into it, he decided to stop talking as well. He maintained silence for seventeen years.

Francis had incredible experiences over these twenty-two years. He walked across continents. He gained three academic degrees. He became a U. N. Goodwill Ambassador. He started working for the U. S. Coast Guard.

None of this is what intrigued me.

(So that I don't summarily dismiss his larger message, I recommend reading the book he wrote about his journey and watching his TED talk.)

What struck me in John Francis's NPR interview was how much he learned from and about people because he didn't talk. He recounted the awkwardness when people first learned that he refused to speak and then described the process through which they eased into interaction.

Without Francis responding with his thoughts or directing the conversational flow—or even expressing simple approval or disapproval—people opened up. He learned what worried them. What made them sad. What gave them joy. What mattered most. They allowed vulnerability. He saw them real and bare.

Some of them thanked him sincerely for the "conversation."

I can't imagine not speaking for seventeen years. But I do need to talk less and allow silence more.

I'm highly attuned to other people’s comfort; as an introvert who sometimes feels awkward in social situations, I never want anyone to feel uncomfortable. So when there’s a moment of silence, I'm compelled to fill it.

In doing so, I don't give people the space and time to communicate deeply. In a recent lunch with a friend I hadn't seen in months, I realized she had something important to tell me only after she burst out with what seemed like a non sequitur, given the flow of conversation, but was clearly something weighing on her. There hadn't been enough space in the banter for her to more easily broach the topic.

What don't I learn when I fail to let in silence?

This is true in sales as well. In a sales situation, I'm equally compelled to keep the conversation flowing. Silence seems bad. Yet when I present people with new concepts, they need time to process them. When I talk while they're thinking, I disrupt this process. Doing so takes away from the time needed to fully buy into the new idea. It removes the space needed to tell me their thoughts. And it risks that I interject thoughts that they may not share—and may not like. In other words, I sabotage myself. When I bite my tongue and allow silence, I'm always rewarded.

Reminder: Be quiet.