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Silence as kindness

It strikes me how often silence is misunderstood. Not only can it be a powerful tool to facilitate sense making. It can also be an expression of kindness. I would even go as far as saying that sometimes, being silent is the kindest thing we can do.

Following on from my last post, this one is discussing some of the ways in which silence is kindness. My hope is that by doing so, we may become more aware of the power we hold in choosing when and how to speak. I also hope that we may be more able to notice and value silent kindness when we encounter it in others.

Thinking over the many conversations I have had with my clients, I believe that silence is often misconstrued because it is seen as the absence of something we desire, for example the absence of words that convey care, appreciation or empathy. However, not everyone is familiar and comfortable with using words in this way. Love can be expressed in many different forms, and sometimes reliable, caring actions speak so much louder than words. Are we able to notice these expressions of silent kindness in the people around us or have we already taken them for granted, maybe because they don’t come with subtitles?

Especially in today’s world where communication is a lot more mediated and fast paced, there can be an unrealistic expectation to be available at all times. Not immediately responding to a message after reading it or not reading a message for a while is easily regarded as rude or rejecting.

This expectation ignores the fact that we all have different communication styles and needs for rest and relaxation. Sometimes we may need to attend to ourselves first before we can attend to others, and especially for my highly sensitive clients this may mean taking time to be still and reduce stimulation.

Particularly in couple relationships with differences in introversion/extroversion and/or sensitivity to stimulation, the resulting gap in needs for stillness and rest can pose a real challenge. When one partners wants to share exciting news or talk about their day, the other may feel completely overwhelmed and irritable.

In such a moment, taking ownership of one’s irritability and quietly taking oneself away to meditate or decompress before returning to the partner with calmness and openness may be the kindest approach. It is saying: I care about you and want to be able to listen to you. I just need to recharge my batteries first so that I can be fully present.

In addition to using silence to reduce stimulation, it may be required to process intense feelings. For example, when we hold a lot of anger towards someone, we may not be in the best place to have a calm and measured conversation with them. Equally, when we are engulfed by fear, our empathy is likely to be low and we may not be the attentive listener we would like to be. Silence in these situations is saying: I recognise I am not in a good place right now to have this conversation. I cannot be who I would want to be for you, and I need time with myself and my feelings to get there.

Silence may also be needed to ‘hear ourselves’. Especially when we are surrounded by many people who all have their own needs and agendas, it can be hard to figure out what we want. When we are asked about our preferences, we may feel put on the spot and decide to go with the majority or take the easy route. However, is that really what we want? Will we be happy with our decision longer term? Will we come to resent others for putting us under pressure? Taking some reflective time without the ‘noise’ of others’ views may be what’s needed to arrive at a decision that feels like it’s truly ours.

Silent kindness may also be expressed by not joining an argument. I often say to my clients that it takes two to tango, and that if one person doesn’t join the argument, there won’t be one. I am very much aware that this sounds great in principle and is so much harder to do in practice, especially when we are with a partner or family member who knows exactly how to push our buttons.

Withstanding provocation and blame may require tremendous willpower and mental strength. However, it can also be a sign of incredible kindness. This kindness stems from an understanding that many arguments easily escalate into a hurtful tit for tat scenario. Within the space of a few seconds, we may find ourselves in a vicious cycle of attack and counterattack that leaves both parties feeling emotionally wounded.

This is why not even entering this ring of fire can be very wise. However, many times we just can't help ourselves. What our partner, family member or friend is saying may just be too infuriating to keep calm. And therefore, yet again, we join in and repeat these unhelpful patterns. If this is the case, it is worth remembering that we still have a lot of choice, even once we are in the middle of an argument. Every time we respond to the other party, we can choose kindness, and if we struggle to express it in words, we can choose silence as the next best option. And if it’s hard to stay silent, we can take ourselves away, to protect ourselves and others from our anger.

Nobody is forcing us to say hurtful things. We don’t need to diminish the person in front of us with words. Even if it may seem like a good idea in the moment, it won’t make us feel better in the long run. We can hold on to the awareness that saying things intended to hurt damages the whole relationship, and us in it. And once something is said it cannot be taken back. We may be able to explain it and put it into context once we are calm. However, once it burns itself into the memories of others it can lead to serious consequences.

Many times, clients tell me about an interaction from the past that is still very vivid in their mind and has come to define their relationship with that person. Sometimes, the other person isn't even aware of it. Words can cut like knives and can leave deep wounds that sometimes feel impossible to heal. In those situations, wouldn’t silence have been the better option?

Silence can be interpreted as lack of care or understanding but it is not actively and deliberately wounding someone with words. It is not saying something that we may come to regret because it was said in anger.

Of course, it would be great to be in control of our feelings all of the time. However, I haven’t met anyone who is. The best we may be able to master is to recognise and communicate our feelings early on and to take appropriate action when we are entering the danger zone.

In those scenarios, silence may in fact be the kindest thing we can do.


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