Silence around other people can be very uncomfortable.
It’s fine if we have something to do, like stare at the numbers in an elevator or fiddle with our phones, but if we are in a conversation or small group and everything goes quiet, or even worse, if we have just shared something about ourselves and we hear crickets—Geez that can be awkward.
We’re uncomfortable with other people’s silence and we’re very often unable to be silent ourselves.
Ramp things up a bit and consider a heated discussion or tense situation and our ability to zip it, almost totally vanishes!
I often wonder why we have to relentlessly fill space with words; I think it’s because we are left with nothing to react to or bounce off, so our thoughts and feelings turn in on themselves and our internal chatter has a tendency to be negative and destructive.
Us humans, we really don’t like feeling unpleasant emotions!
Our first response to any of the darker feelings is to try not to feel them at all. If we feel afraid, rejected, disappointed or attacked we deflect that feeling somewhere else—treating our self-doubt, fear and pain like a hot potato. Firing up our burners of judgement, rage or indignation, we toss the potato on to someone else, hoping the painful emotions will have no chance to settle with us.
I watch myself do this nearly every time I am around a particular group of ladies; they are friends of a good friend of mine. They’re a really tight group who always talk about their exclusive, shared experiences and they seem to take pleasure in having others feel excluded; it pushes all my buttons of being invisible and not good enough. Before I can stop myself, up comes my shield, my mouth opens, my brain freezes and my brash and outrageous words come flying out, trying to deflect the pain of feeling rejected.
It’s a reflex action I have used for decades to try and protect myself—it doesn’t work. It gives me a short reprieve to help me get through those moments, but those shitty feelings haven’t gone anywhere; all I’ve done is wrapped them up in a more palatable coat and made the divide even bigger.
The stronger, calmer, more together me knows I need to accept and be curious about how I feel in those moments: not react, nor make it worse—be present as me, with me, knowing this is what it is to be human and it will pass. Yeah, I’m still working on that.
What do you do when you are feeling out of your comfort zone, are you prone to judge? Maybe you become righteous, or do you attack and criticise?
You and me both; we can learn to pause.
Pause and do nothing for as long as you can. Pause and as every second passes, the heat of your red-hot emotions will dim a little, creating space for empathy, compassion and maybe, a little humility to sneak in.
Pausing—not reacting when hard emotions arise—takes remarkable strength and is the path of a true warrior. Learning to be calm and silent is something that must be consciously practised as each opportunity arises. It’s badass and worth adopting; pausing, second by second—so as not to be held hostage by the next unforeseen emotion that comes charging your way.
My three top tips to help you cultivate calm and learn the art of pausing.
Zip it for 10 sec
Do whatever you need to do to not open your mouth: count, cough, straighten your clothes, drop and retie your shoe; when you do any or all of these things, the person you are communicating with will fill the space, giving you the opportunity to learn more and not react in a way that may not serve you. With you not reacting, the other person will slowly do the same and you will both spiral down towards calm.
Questions are your answers.
A cornerstone practice from all my years as a sales trainer teaching communication skills was that questions are your answers.
Questions give you space to think.
Questions give you more information.
Questions allow you to be silent and listen.
Questions—caring, interested questions—build bridges and make the other person feel valued.
If you can’t zip it, ask a question.
Just breathe into your belly, to help you find your calm. Belly breathing is the only way you can consciously tell your body that you are safe. Big, deep, belly breaths signal to your autonomic nervous system that you are safe. Your shoulders will drop and your chest will release, your mind will unfreeze, allowing creativity and clarity to turn up.