Let me start with a disclaimer. The following is true. If you know me, you may be surprised—astonished really—to learn that there are things I think but don’t say. My defense is that I’ve only been developing this skill for about a third of my life, and I am still learning. And I am finding inspiration from lots of places.
When I turned 40, I made an unexpected discovery. I realized that I almost never got myself in trouble with things I didn’t say. Really. Reflection revealed that this idea could have lots of application. At work. With my husband and kids. In my relationships. So I began to experiment with shutting up.
Several years have passed and the truth of this endures. There is power in an unexpressed thought.
Of course, I wasn’t the first person to realize that keeping quiet can be a good strategy.
Throughout history, great teachers and gifted thinkers have encouraged people to limit the words they say. The practice of silence often goes hand in hand with spiritual awakening.
In my school counseling practicum class, we recorded and then transcribed our conversations with students. This is a pretty common practice in counselor preparation programs and one that turned out to be illuminating and exhausting. I said so many things that didn’t really mean much. One day, when I was moaning about how long the process took, a classmate gave me this bit of wisdom: “Maybe you should only say things that matter.”
I tried it. And she was right. It worked! Not only was the transcription process easier, shutting up gave me more time to listen and be present with the kiddo sitting in front of me. Interesting, I thought. Where else might this insight be useful?
It turns out it works everywhere and with everybody. Being quiet has allowed me to hear more, learn more, and experience empathy more fully.
What’s the secret? I think it boils down to this. When I shut up, I am putting the opinions and needs of others before my own. I am more focused on understanding than being understood. I remember that relationships are more important than being right.
Stillness has been especially helpful as my kids have gotten older. When I am quick to listen and slow to speak, my kids share their hearts and minds more freely with me. It helps me know them in ways beyond the superficial. And I think it sometimes means they listen to what I do say with more interest and attention.
Even with many years of practice behind me, I am by no means an expert at this. Listening more than speaking is habit that must be cultivated every day. And some days, even if I am trying, I don’t do a very good job. But when I do, I see the results.
I’ll end with another disclaimer: Experimenting with shutting up doesn’t mean that I don’t speak up when it’s important. In fact, I believe my voice is heard more clearly when I use it more selectively.