Silence is Golden
When he opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour (Revelation 8:1, NIV)
Western culture, and those of us in the United States in particular, believe talking is more desirable than silence. In fact, silence is often viewed as embarrassing or awkward.
When I was a newspaper reporter, a communication technique that served me well was silence. If I wanted a school board member to share a true opinion about the upcoming vote or a reluctant witness to give more details about an auto accident, I would face them in a quiet place, ask a question, and then wordlessly wait for them to break the silence—which they did after about ten seconds. Anyone who sells to others on a regular basis will tell you that the key to closing a deal is learning to wait through the silence.
Why is silence so hard for us to bear? What inspires us to speak up rather than endure even a moment of silence? Why do even a few seconds of silence feel like an eternity when we are facing another person or a group of people whose eyes are on us?
Researchers found that the fast pace of conversational turn-taking requires that we begin thinking about the content and timing of what we will say while still processing the other’s incoming words. Our brains are accustomed to this level of exchange. This conversational flow is so much a part of our expected experience that even four seconds of silence—although we may not be conscious of it—results in negative emotions and feelings of ostracism or rejection.
Other cultures, like the Japanese, believe the best communication comes when you don’t speak at all. They call this the concept of haragei, or belly talk, and believe that if you need words, you are already failing to understand each other.
Somewhere between rapid paced turn-taking and long silences are opportunities for golden silence. This is the amount of silence that allows for reflective thought and deeper understanding of what the other is saying. And it uses pauses to direct attention.
The Book of Revelation tells us that even in heaven there are times of silence for awe and reflection, for connection and slowing down to process. Our communication could likely be strengthened by some times of golden silence as well.
Reflection: Think back to your conversations yesterday in the workplace or home. How many of them involved rapid turn-taking with no opportunity for silence or reflection? How might allowing even a few extra seconds of silence have added to your interactions?
Today’s Challenge: Choose an interpersonal conversation today and try allowing for a five-second window of silence before replying. (Hint: One way to ensure you allow for five seconds is to slowly tap off the fingers of one hand before you speak.)
Donna M. Elkins, Spalding University
 Levinson, S. C. (2016)). Turn-taking in human communication—origins and implications for language processing. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 20(1), 6–14.
 Koudenburg, N., Postmes, T., & Gordijn, E.H. (2011). Disrupting the flow: How brief silences in group conversations affect social needs. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2010.12.006
 Morrison, L. (July 18, 2017). The subtle power of uncomfortable silences. Worklife. Retrieved from: https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20170718-the-subtle-power-of-uncomfortable-silences