Years ago I visited with a National Public Radio executive. He spoke about the hallmarks of good public radio. He first described their journalists as honesty watchdogs. He added that classical music is a key stimulant for emotion and cognition. They take a pledge of independent allegiance to the public. In a sharp contrast to commercial radio, they allow for programmed silence. He mentioned listening to the NPR segment with Loung Ung, activist and survivor of the Khmer Rouge massacres in Cambodia in the 1970s, during which both of her parents were slain. When the compelling story ended, NPR programmed silence. The opportunity for the listener to interact with the silence made space for the story to be absorbed. The power of the silence in this particular instance was palpable to this executive. The silent spaces between stories became integral to NPR programming.
I’m attracted to people who listen well. I’m equally attracted to people who know how to be judicious with language and then button their lips in a conversation when nothing more needs to be said. Its antithesis is someone who is “chatty,” talking to hear the sound of their own voice, especially when they are insecure, lonely, or anxious. Silent attention deepens conversation much better than idle words. When yakkers chatter, you’ll find me traveling somewhere else in my mind.
Why are we made uncomfortable by another person’s quietude? Does it make you uneasy when you don’t know what someone else is thinking or feeling? Why does the space of silence need to be filled?
Bird watchers understand. When recently canoeing on a lake in Minnesota, friends of mine and I spotted a loon. At the moment of the sighting, everyone instinctively silenced their voices so we could hear the beauty of the loon’s call. We were unified in our behavior, connected in a way that we’re not always able to experience when we are vying for our voices to have a place at the table.
Earlier in life I was easily intimidated in conversations with people who I perceived to have a gift of thought and language that was superior to mine. I’d chastise myself for not reading enough to develop a better facility with words and a quickness with thoughts. Later I became aware of the power of listener contribution. My intimidation rarely surfaces any more. Being a good listener isn’t being passive; rather, it’s purposeful, it’s focused.
I love live music. I’ve been to innumerable music events attended by a talkative audience. I wondered why these persons opted to come to the event in the first place. Instrumental music has its own language. Those who speak different languages hear the same magic in this music. Music accompanied by vocals draws some of us listen for the words to the songs first and to the music second, while others listen to the music first and the vocals second. Either way, connecting to one another and to the music becomes infinitely more clear in the absence of sound from the audience. Whether it’s rock ‘n roll or classical, indoors or outdoors, I’m an advocate for being a respectful listener when attending a music concert.
I recently visited a friend with a mountain home. When describing acquiring this property, he stated that he and his wife bought a “view with a house.” The view looking out towards the southwest from their place is awe inspiring. They have million dollar sunsets. We had a great time talking, hiking, and laughing together. However, the sunsets we viewed were unforgettable. When we were silent, the sky did the talking. I may not be able to recount our conversations, but those sunsets made an indelible imprint.
It’s not that I’m uninterested in conversation when there isn’t an agenda or a topic. I enjoy spontaneous, stream of consciousness exchanges. I’m just as interested in how we might connect deeply, and learn about ourselves and one another in the spaces between what is spoken. A lot of questions get answered in silence. Yoga teachers often start and conclude classes by chanting the primordial sound of “Om.” I was taught that it has 4 parts…the short “a” sound, the “o” sound, the “m” sound, and the silence afterwards.
To paraphrase Thich Nan Hanh, “If you listen to the wonders of life, you’ll be able to stop running.”