Relationship counselors often emphasize the importance of communication between two people. Frequently, the emphasis is on the words that are used, ideas verbally expressed. Too often a disagreement develops between who is “right”, and blaming escalates misunderstandings. A different approach to communication is to focus on what is not said, by looking at the silences.
Last week, I described seven common meanings of silence. They all can be ways of showing love — to someone else, to yourself, or to protest a problem in the relationship. Today, we explore loving ways to respond to the various silences and obstacles to being able to access those responses.
How can you respond with love to various forms of silence?
- Active listening silence. When silence signals active listening, just keep talking. Trust that what you are saying is being heard and stop demanding that your loved one interrupt his or her concentration on what you are trying to express by responding in a way that interrupts its flow or their attention.
- Silences of reflection. Often digesting what someone has heard or otherwise experienced takes time. It can also take time to formulate a response. Sometimes, it even takes time to remember what one heard, wanted to say, or both. Such challenges of memory can be amplified by stress or aging! When silence indicates reflection, give the quiet one time to comprehend and clarify and decide how to articulate his or her thoughts. If you cannot do that, try to pay attention to why you cannot. Is your uneasiness one of those earlier learned expectations that wants you to believe the silence has a different meaning? Are you angry that your loved one is not immediately validating or arguing or defending? Perhaps you can ask him or her to just tell you when they are thinking about what you said.
- Silences to avoid distracting. When a silence means a person is trying to
avoid distracting you from where your attention is (or should be), double down and increase your concentration. I remember a harrowing foggy ride down a dirt mountain road when my eyes were glued to the GPS so that I could anticipate a sharp curve and David’s were focused on the road. During the hour-long drive, the only words said were, “right [or left] turn coming up.” Two people can often agree when attention needs to be somewhere other than on a dyadic interaction. Simply labeling those moments as such can help the relationship, showing loving through partnering towards a shared goal.
- Silences when one person is “elsewhere”. When two people are finely tuned in to each other’s energies, they can often identify when one of them is “elsewhere”. The quiet announces that energy is directed somewhere other than to the connection. As discussed last week, that energy is either going outward or inward, but it is not centered on the other person or the relationship they share. One loving way to respond to such silences is to ask, “Where are you?” A simple acknowledgement that the silence indicates a preoccupation that you cannot identify assures the loved one that you are aware of his or her independence, reassures him or her that you are interested and available should they want to reconnect, and confirms that the disconnect is temporary and is not a response to any annoyance in or with the relationship.
- Silences during moments of communion. Those magical moments when silence signals an intimate connection can be the most glorious of all. They can show trust in a shared reality accessed by individual pathways. Connections between two people can be so strong that thoughts, feelings, even prayers sent between them travel across spaces, through the silences, and allow the love to be received. “Lovingkindess meditations” assume this to be true. The data support the benefits. Spiritual realities can be easier to access during quiet times. Accept these silences as part of the miracle of loving.
- “Elephant in the Living Room” silences. When a hot topic is not being addressed, a repressive feeling fills the room. You can almost hear the elephant stomping around, trumpeting to be heard. Fear or frustration usually motivates the avoidance — fear of upsetting or offending the loved one, frustration that a solution does not yet exist. During the courtship in my own mid-life love story, learning to deal with the elephant was one of our greatest challenges and triumphs. One person needs to simply acknowledge that an issue is being avoided. The other can then agree to discuss or request continued time before addressing the topic directly. Both responses are loving. Both can move the love along. Both permit the silence to bring a couple closer together, more “on the same page”, at least in the process of dealing with challenges.
- Silences of stonewalling. The silences that signal withdrawal because your loved one is overwhelmed are just that: signals. They mean that arousal has made adult problem-solving impossible, an articulate conversation unlikely, and escalation of conflict probable. Reach an agreement that when such moments occur, a “time out” is in order. If both partners feel free to announce the point of overwhelm, they can each show love by pulling back from the confrontations when they happen, to allow nervous systems to return to normal, the issue to be addressed from multiple perspectives, the problem(s) to be identified more easily, solutions to be imagined, and then implemented. In a subsequent post I intend to address using conflict productively as a way to show love. Conflict is essential to the survival of love long-term.
How can you address the obstacles in responding lovingly to silences?
- You can examine your own motivation for speaking. Sometimes we are
possessed by a strong urge to interrupt, to correct, to add, or to respond. Use silence to examine the impulse and ask yourself “why?” Is your interjection necessary? What will it accomplish? Are you focusing on the interest of someone you love? On the power derived from dominance or being “right”? Do you want to dilute your own discomfort with the topic by taking over the conversation?
- You can refrain from jumping in with your own ideas mid-stream, otherwise known as interrupting. Make notes, mental if not written. Think of a visual reminder of what you want to point out or ask. But listen until the end of what the other person is saying.
- You can resist correcting. Sometimes it feels challenging to ignore even a nonessential fact when it is misrepresented. Temptations to whip out a phone in order to Google or to ask Siri or Alexa are lethal. They bring another entity into the conversation, derailing it from its flow, redirecting it to a competition of who is right or knows better. It is almost a form of triangling. A twist on this problem arises when the issue concerns competing versions of memory of the same experience. Ironically, the more emotionally intense the memory, the more likely it might have been encoded (and thus remembered) idiocyncratically!
- When your attention is elsewhere and time is needed to shift it back to focus on the loved one, you can announce that your silence shows that you are shifting (or need to shift) gears. In doing so, you let your loved know he or she is a priority, that you intend to devote full attention to him or her. Note that it can also mean that you are tired, tapped out, empty. No energy left for anything or anyone. In this case, sharing your depleted condition shows love by trusting the one you love will not judge or abandon you because of your vulnerabilities.
- When one person is taking up too much emotional space, leaving no room for attention or serious consideration of the other’s point of view, remember that silence can be a powerful way to assert one’s own existence, although it can carry the risk that it may be interpreted as withdrawal or a passive aggressive reaction. Recognize that being quiet, refusing to be drowned out by a barrage of words, is a way to remind you that the silent one is worth loving also. Especially in a group, someone who speaks rarely but thoughtfully may be listened to (and appreciated) more carefully than the one who hogs the microphone.
Why can sensitive understanding of (and response to) silence show love?
- You show respect. Through a sensitive response, you demonstrate understanding and esteem. How can a person feel loved if he or she does not feel that they warrant your respect?
- Silence is an invitation to the other to project one’s own fantasies about the quiet one’s experience. As psychoanalysts know, identifying unconscious expectations is often the royal road to insight. Using someone else’s silence as an opportunity to look inward and examine what you are unconsciously expecting or concluding can illuminate unconscious beliefs. Comparing the motivation and experience of the person who is silently sitting alongside you with your own unconscious conclusions can help you correct dynamics in which your communications can routinely run amok.
Are you typically reflective, remaining silent until you are sure what you want to say, or are you quick to jump into the middle? Is it hard for you to modify your behavior? What style does someone you love generally express? Do your discussions usually end in heightened understanding and resolution or does conflict tend to escalate? Could silence, yours or your partner’s, be one aspect of your communication process that helps or hinders the relationship?
Copyright 2017 Roni Beth Tower
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