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On Listening and Silence

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“Do not be rash with your mouth, And let not your heart utter anything hastily before God…let your words be few.” ~Ecclesiastes 5:2, NKJV

“He who restrains his lips is wise.” ~Proverbs 10:19, BSB

I grew up hearing about the power of words. In my Christian tradition, I was taught that “life and death are in the power of the tongue (Proverbs 18:21, BSB),” that the world was created with a word by The Word. Christians are warned that “no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison (James 3:8, NIV).” We are admonished to be careful with their use of words: to utter blessings and not cursing, to speak life-giving words rather than those that produce death. Whether or not the majority of us are successful at this, is a discussion beyond the scope of this piece. The point is, Christian theology teaches that words matter.

As an introvert and as one who communicates more effectively through writing than through speaking off the cuff, being careful with my words in conversation comes naturally in many public settings. I have a tendency to overthink what I am going to say and to take so long that, by the time I’m ready to offer my thoughts, the conversation has moved on. In private settings, with people with whom I’m comfortable, I tend to be less taciturn. In those settings, with those people, I am more likely to get myself into trouble with words. But I am thankful to have grown significantly in this area in recent years. While I am still practicing, I now more often enjoy “letting my words be few” and listening more than speaking, even with friends and family.

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In addition to the Christian teachings on practicing caution with our words, I find the value placed upon silence and upon taciturnity by many indigenous peoples of North America to be compelling. In Taciturnity in Native American Etiquette: A Créé Case Regna Darnell of the University of Alabama observes,

The Créé of northern Alberta, along with many other native peoples, place

far greater emphasis on the use of silence and on pause between turns at talk. Listening,

rather than speaking, is the highly valued communicative skill. Lack of understanding of

different communicative Systems is responsible for considerable inter-ethnic conflict.

Let’s just pause on this sentence for a minute. “Listening, rather than speaking, is the highly valued communicative skill.” If only that were so in North America’s majority culture. We tend to view listening as receptive rather than active, and we seem to tacitly conclude there’s something weaker or less significant about taking the quieter role of listener. Speech, often spoken at a loud volume, and the use of many words, are prized above a more reticent approach. But the kind of listening practiced by the indigenous cultures that honor it, is an active kind of listening. It seeks to understand more than to be understood. There is so much wisdom in that. Notice too that Darnell remarks that it is a “lack of understanding of different communicative Systems” that has, for a long time, perpetuated conflict between whites and indigenous peoples.

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It’s curious that our first inclination is to assume that silence is inactive and non-communicative when we have only to look at nature to see evidence of the opposite. Consider trees. They never utter a word in their long, honorable lives, yet they speak to human beings of patience, of the brevity of human life, of quiet steadfastness, of the dignity of offering shelter and life to little creatures in need. Consider a flower that turns its face to the sun. Often it has no utilitarian purpose. It is simply a work of art, speaking to our souls of beauty, of how we must turn ourselves to the Source if we are to find our glory, of how we can rest and trust that our purpose is enough. Why is it that we assume that a person who is quietly listening, weighing words, and welcoming silence has less to teach us?

A North American majority perspective centers the person talking at the heart of an interaction. Darnell explains how this comprises a foremost difference between what the non-indigenous population believes is happening during communication and what a member of the Créé nation perceives to be transpiring. She writes,

‘We’ assume that TALK is what is going on in interaction and that the speaker is the center of

a model of communication. The native American [Créé], in contrast, assumes that talk is

egocentric boasting unless its message is subordinated to the listener’s effort to extract

meaning which will be useful in his/her own Personal expérience. Further, what ‘fills up’ social

interaction in a time continuum is not talk but co-presence.

There is cause for us to stop and reflect. The Créé assume “that talk is egocentric boasting unless its message is subordinated to the listener’s effort to extract meaning…” What an utterly different starting point that is: that talk is egocentric and a form of boasting if it is devoid of the earnest intention to help the listener extract meaning that will be useful to the listener. The listener is centered here, rather than the speaker. Talk’s primary purpose is to enrich or help the listener rather than to edify or promote or lighten the load of the speaker. Sometimes lately I find myself entering a social setting like a party or a social dinner with the thought, “I will be a good listener tonight. That is what this is about. Not the food, not the drink, not my own desires, happiness, or agenda. I will listen, enjoy, and support others.” And when I manage that, it is only ever a positive, nourishing experience.

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Even more radical than the idea that talk’s purpose could be to edify the listener more than the speaker, is the notion that social interaction is made up predominantly of co-presence, not talk. The concept that just by sharing presence with each other, we can be in a state of interaction, silently communicating meanings intangible and nourishing is beautiful, spiritual, and one I’d like to spend more time considering. Will you join me?

In your communications this week, consider: are you centering the speaker or the listener? What would it feel like to spend more time seeking first to listen and to understand and only secondly desiring to be heard and understood? When today could you intentionally use your speech chiefly to enlighten and edify the listener? Choose a moment this week to practice the art of comfortable and nurturing co-presence.

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I love the idea that social interaction is mostly about co-presence rather than talking. I am going to practice centering the listener this week!

Melissa Williams
Melissa Williams
May 18, 2022
Replying to

I’ll practice it this week too! Thanks so much for reading and for this response, Kim.

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