The Value of Silence
We sat in silence for what seemed an eternity. Her face was still, and she was holding back tears. She was uncomfortable. I was, too. Awkward silence engulfed us like dense, heavy fog. You could cut the atmosphere with a knife. I tried filling the air with chatter: "Nice shoes," I said.
What's the meaning of silence? Is it just an empty space that we strive to fill up with words? How comfortable are you with silence? Is it your friend or foe?
Silence can take on different meanings for people. While some view it as a waste of time, others view it in a more positive light, as a form of communication. Many people choose to escape it, filling it with chatter, music or background noise. It goes without saying that silence can be quite uncomfortable for many of us. We find it difficult to remain silent in the presence of others. At some point in our life, we all have been faced with that "awkward silence."
I used to avoid silence, filling it with questions, music or small talk (usually about the bad Minnesota weather!). After my dad passed away, silence took a new meaning for me. Suddenly, that empty, utterly quiet space became a comforting companion that allowed me to explore my deepest thoughts, fears and hopes. I came to appreciate people who were able remain silent in my presence. Words were not adequate. They only distracted and interrupted.
Unfortunately, death and illness are imminent in our profession, and we will work with patients and families facing challenging diagnoses. Having answers to their questions is important, but so is being able to remain silent. Silence is uncomfortable, but it is a skill that we must learn in order to effectively communicate. Our patients will appreciate our silent presence, because it shows compassion, gentleness and politeness. Silence, more than anything, is a sign of respect because it allows the other person to think.
I will leave you with a quote about silence by Jean Arp: "Soon silence will have passed into legend. Man has turned his back on silence. Day after day, he invents machines and devices that increase noise and distract humanity from the essence of life, contemplation, meditation."