When Silence Is Skillful

At a social gathering, I was speaking with a gentleman I had just met. After we introduced ourselves and chatted a bit, he began telling me about his teenage son and some concerns he was having about the friends his son was keeping company with. He wished his son would accompany him to church and make friends there instead.

I listened. I didn’t say much, other than acknowledging that this must be difficult be for him. He wondered out loud if he should perhaps force his son to attend church with him.

I told him that as I was listening to him, some ideas came to my mind that he might find helpful, and I asked if he wanted to hear them. (Part of living a “Communicating with Compassion lifestyle” is that we don’t offer advice without making sure it is welcome.)

The father said yes, he wanted to hear. His tone conveyed eagerness; it was clear he was looking for a sense of direction regarding his son.

I told him that I have heard many people who left their faith of origin mention ‘being coerced to attend services’ as one reason for leaving. He agreed that it wouldn’t be a good idea to force his son to join him at church.

I returned to listening, and the father started speaking again. His son was sleeping the better part of the day, he said. It was summer vacation, and his son would not take a summer job to help cover his expenses. The father said that in a year’s time, when his son turns 18, he would insist that his son leave home and support himself, so that he get a more realistic sense about life. I nodded, hearing some Midwest, down-to-earth thinking, but said nothing.

Suddenly the father’s voice changed, dropping to almost a whisper. “I lost a daughter some years back,” he said, “and it hasn’t been the same for our family ever since.”

I told him, “I’m sorry,” and he nodded. Then I asked if the son sleeping late might be because he is depressed as a result of the loss of his sister. The father said that indeed this was where the problems had begun.

The conversation then changed direction. He asked me a bit about myself, there was some small talk, and our chat ended.

As I think about this story from the standpoint of Communicating with Compassion, what comes to mind is the skill of Silence. When the father first spoke, I didn’t say much; I listened. But it was a kind of listening that lets the speaker know that I am present in a respectful, attentive and compassionate way, free of criticism or judgment.

This kind of listening can be very powerful; it makes it safe for people to share what is really going on. It’s likely why this father felt safe enough to share about his loss and his son’s depression.

Sometimes, when I teach Communicating with Compassion, I hear my students struggle to respond with something empathic to everything they hear. Empathy is a valuable tool, but it is not always necessary to say something in order to convey empathy. Respectful, attentive and compassionate silence can convey empathy no less than words. Sometimes, indeed, “Silence can speak volumes”.