How to Handle Silence

Q: At this stage of my spiritual practice, one of the things that I’d like to figure out is how to handle lulls of silence in conversation. I was with somebody recently and there were moments of silence while we were together that I felt the need to fill. I couldn’t figure out whether that was my need or whether I was being kind because that would be the other person’s need. I would like to have a better understanding.

The urge to fill conversational silence is culturally trained. People associate silence with awkwardness. And many will start internalizing it as a feeling of some kind of disapproval or rejection if it lasts more than a few seconds.

Q: Yeah, and it could have been that this person was perfectly comfortable with it being silent for a while, but there wasn’t any good way that I could tell, that also wouldn’t have felt awkward.

Some of this depends on where and when the silence happens. Is someone silent in response to another’s spoken view? That will be received as disapproval or as you weren’t listening. In that instance, even an “Mmm” is enough acknowledgment.

But if there is just a lull in the conversation and you don’t want to feel responsible for having to fill those lulls, you can say something like, “You know, it’s really easy to be with you. The silences don’t feel awkward.” And that addresses it.

That immediately takes the pressure off of either one of you having to fill some of those. And then she’ll know if you’re being silent, it’s not you being awkward–it’s you being quiet. And if she chooses to fill it, then it’s on her.

But what you’re doing is you’re taking the full responsibility for the comfort level of whoever you’re with.

Q: Always, always. And forever.

That’s a deeply ingrained habit with you. And that’s one of the characteristics that makes you so likable because you’re willing to appoint yourself as the caretaker of other people’s comfort. You connect pieces of information, you share, you ask questions, and you keep the conversation going. Most people appreciate that.

Q: I’ve always been okay with it and feel like I’ve been enlivened by that ability to keep the conversation going and to keep it interesting. But in recent years, I’ve felt that it can be more exhausting and tiring. I find that now if I spend a lot of time with other people, it takes me a while to recover. 

The longer you’re on the spiritual path, the less you’ll feel the need to speak. And, certainly, the less you’ll be inclined to participate in gossip or worldly conversations.

There are a few options at this point. You can decide on the topic of conversation to help steer it away from what you don’t want to talk about or listen to. You can express that you don’t really keep up with sports, music, film, or fill-in-the-blank, so you don’t have anything to share on those subjects. You can let go of spending time with people who only want to talk about worldly things. You can begin seeking out others who share your spiritual interest. You can accept that you feel most happy and at peace when you’re being quiet, which often means spending more time alone.

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