Since modern counselling and psychotherapy evolved out of the primordial soup of shamanism and priesthood, therapists have come to understand the power and intimacy of silence. I think in all relationships, silence is underrated and has an unjustly bad reputation.
Where silence between two people can be intimate and companionable, instead it often inspires fear and gets consigned to ‘uncomfortable’. In groups of people two and larger, how many minutes before the uncomfortable fidgeting, throat clearing and giggles begin? How long before someone starts babbling about nothing just to fill the silence? People’s discomfort in silence arises through pure old fashioned vanilla fear.
When people are quiet, you don’t know what they’re thinking or who they’re thinking about and because nobody is invulnerable, everyone thinks the other people might just be thinking about them and it might just be something bad; it could even be they are watching you and see something you’d rather stayed secret! In a work place, the silence of a manager may evoke colleague’s guilt because of each person’s unconscious fear of authority. On a date, silence may be misinterpreted as rejecting, sulking or disinterest because each person’s unconscious (and / or conscious) desire to be liked and fear they might not be. Silence is invulnerating on many levels!
Very often if not most of the time, other people’s thoughts in moments of silence are completely inward facing, innocuous and sometimes even complimentary to those around them.
Silence is powerfully companionable or intimate when people trust each other’s intentions and feelings toward each other, when they can sit in silence with others and not feel threatened. That’s one of the many payoffs of high self esteem and good self awareness. When we’re able to give others the benefit of the doubt, we can conquer our fear of silence and even enjoy moments of connected quiet.
During my psychotherapy training, my study group was invited to do an exercise imaginatively called ‘eye gazing’ in which pairs of people sit close together and look into each other’s eyes in silence. After five minutes or so, each pair is invited to discuss their thoughts and feelings during the exercise. I squirmed and giggled with the rest of them as did my colleague and when we talked about what was actually making us uncomfortable, we were both amazed at how many miles away our assumptions about each other’s thoughts really were.
I wouldn’t recommend this as an exercise on a first date – actually, yes I would, please report back with your findings! But seriously though, I think this is an excellent exercise for friends and couples struggling in their relationships or just interested in deepening their intimacy. Please attempt this in your own home!
Daniel Williams, PassionSmith, Psychotherapist
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