Inviting Silence— the Power of the Pause

Over this past month, I've become aware in so many ways of the importance of inviting silence into our lives. You can't speak silence.  Speaking words aloud are the antithesis of silence. Yet when we come to the end of what spoken words can offer and invoke silence, there is a power and a presence there beyond anything we could ever have said.

Recently, I was writing some feedback for a coaching session I'd observed as part of a mentor-coach training with facilitators Marion Frankel, MCC and Edmée Schalkx, MCC. As I listened to the recording of the session, I was struck by several instances where the coach piled three questions one right after the other, without a pause. At one point, his client hesitated, confused, then picked a question at random to answer.

As a coach, I know it's easy to get into a place of rushing to talk when you're feeling nervous, when you're worried that your client hasn't understood your first question, or when you're pressed for time to help your client arrive at a meaningful outcome. Interestingly, the most valuable thing you can do at that point for your client— and yourself— is to pause after a straightforward, open-ended question. Then let the silence invite her also to pause, then go deeper into herself for a response that comes from what is true to who she is.

When I'm grounded and mindful, completely present with the person I'm coaching, I can feel the quality of openness in silence that allows for new awareness to come forth. As Marion tells us, "Just listen. You can leave your client all the silence she needs." In fact, silence becomes a gift you offer of trust in the other person's inner knowing. As Susan Cain says in her book, Quiet— The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking: "Why shouldn't quiet be strong? And what else can quiet do that we don't give it credit for?" [Take a pause here to absorb the experience of this second, very powerful question. Notice what moves you inside.]

Recently, another angle on the power of the pause came to me from my friend, Swedish opera singer Miriam Treichl. She linked me to a TED talk in which singing coach Antonio Pappano, working with André Chenier, star tenor, in a vocal master class, has a response of his own to Susan Cain's question: "The difficulty for the singers is how to deal with silence. That's when the quality of the singers is exposed. So I'm trying to work in the rehearsal room to get them to fill the silence with their own intensity."

In another synchronicity, on Friday, November 13th, as we learned of the carnage that had been perpetrated in Paris, the Berkeley Repertory Theater in California opened Ayad Akhtar's play, Disgraced, that features a protagonist who is a secular Moslem man. Though this was a play of many intense and angry words, the ending after the performance transcended them. As Robert Hurwitt wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle:

As devastating as are the final scenes of “Disgraced”— and [this] drama is as deeply unsettling as it is thought-provoking — the act of conscience that followed the opening night curtain call, Friday, Nov. 13, was even more profoundly moving.

As the applause died down, the actors stared straight ahead, fumbled for each other’s hands and bowed their heads for a simple, prolonged moment of silence. The packed, still house joined in unstated but explicit shared humanity and solidarity with the people of Paris. And, I believe, with freedom for art, thought and life itself. Yes, I wept.

After the terrible events of the day and Akhtar’s characters’ scathing attacks on — and passionate defenses of — Islam, most of us needed that moment of silence before heading out the door….

Ensconced in the communion of silence with the players and the audience, Robert Hurwitt and doubtless many others wept. In this pause was the expression of feeling and connection in the human community.

So what is it to invite silence into our lives? As we've seen, it is caring permission to go deeper into who we really are. It is being present with others to share our feelings and our common humanity. Overall, it is the opportunity to remember ourselves and for what purpose we are alive and connected to the whole of our planet, here, now.