Early in marriage, Alisa asked me, “How do you determine what you say? Is everything that comes to mind uttered? Is every thought spoken? What is withheld?”
To be sure, throughout our marriage, Alisa speaks more substantively. I speak more plentifully.
For most of my life, I spoke to prove my competence. I was a verbal competence proving machine. (Sometimes, my competence was proven. Sometimes, only my incompetence was proven.)
During the past few years, I’ve wondered about the question: speak or stay silent? And, as I’ve embraced introversion, I have found that the question takes on new resonance. And it presents a new opportunity: in silence.
Some Moments That Motivated Me Toward Keeping My Silence
During the decades, several moments have echoed Alisa’s original question:
- A first lunch. At a first meeting with a professional contact, I talked like a fire hydrant. The other person was looking at me. This was 20 years ago, and I think that my lunch companion was stifled and horrified. I can recall the discomfort of that lunch.
- Another lunch. About 10 years after that first lunch, at a first meeting with a different professional contact, the other person talked like a fire hydrant. I was stifled and bored. I can recall the discomfort of that lunch.
- Norman Shub interrupted me. “You are talking so fast that no one can connect with you. No one can get in. You are highly defended.” I offered to speak more slowly. “It’s not that easy,” said Norman. “You need to talk to someone about that.” I talked to Steve Anderson at ILS.
- During the admission interview for the Gestalt Center of Cleveland’s coach certification program, instructor Juliann Spoth offered this gem: “You might consider writing ‘W.A.I.T.’ at the top of your notepad. It stands for “Why Am I Talking?” This is a worthy question for whenever I am speaking. (It works when I’m Typing, too!)
- Describing my role to a Vistage member, that person asked, “What makes you think this is about you?”
I practice letting silence do its work. Meditation. Creativity & Personal Mastery. Hiking. Biking. Worship. Each can be seen as a course in How To Maintain Silence.
Where Is This Getting Me?
- I feel less need to be right. I can converse without feeling the need to persuade.
- I enjoy listening to understand, rather than hearing for my turn to speak. And others appreciate being heard.
- I observe buffoonery, when people — almost always white men — manifest overwhelming confidence without self-awareness. I was that way at the first lunch. I still hear buffoonery in my words (including these). And on the world stage.
- I create fewer faux pas. I rarely regret staying silent.
Those who spend time with me today might tell a different story. They might experience me as a torrent of language. I am far from where I think I’m headed: more contemplative, less aloud.
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