Bringing the practices of mindfulness and dialogue to leadership conversations

Sounds of silence

Since my return from a silent retreat, I find myself talking a lot about not talking. The irony doesn’t escape me. While words can’t fully express the experience and impact of silence, I continue to explore how I might articulate its merit in embodying dialogue practices.

I’ve written about silence before – in my book, Pause for Breath, and in an article for Coaching at Work, about a visit to Bhutan. In the latter, I described silence as part of the landscape – a textural backdrop into which sounds seemed to fall and dissolve.

In Pause for Breath, I consider ‘making silence’ as an active contribution to conversations. To be skilful with silence, it helps to acclimatise to its unsettling nature. At peace with our own disquiet, we can be more at ease with any awkwardness that arises in others.

When working with mindfulness and dialogue practices, I begin this familiarisation by inviting leaders to notice silences, invoking words attributed to Debussy:

‘music is the spaces between the notes’

I take this to mean that musical spaces, apparently empty, have tone, timbre and other qualities associated with sound. In conversation, if silent interludes in the rhythm of our verbal exchanges feel ‘uneasy’ or ‘prickly’ – and they often do – perhaps this gives an indication of the ‘music’ of the talk.

If we can learn to discern it, silence yields potent information about the energetic mood of a conversation. By paying attention to absences of sound, and being curious about their nature, we come to recognise their nuances. We begin to distinguish between one silence and another. Some are tense or anxious, others thoughtful or fertile. Some signal beginnings, others completion. Some represent acceptance or intimacy, others dissent or distance. In noticing, we gradually build a lexicon for the moments when words cease.

When silence occurs, it’s often arresting. Its very unexpectedness may evoke a feeling of exposure, as if we’ve come to a cliff-edge. We’re confronted by a precipitous space. Suddenly self-conscious, there may be a rush to fill the void with humour or soothing remarks, or an attempt to a-void it with an abrupt change of topic. In these defensive routines, valuable opportunities for deeper connections are lost.

If, instead, we can become accustomed to the disquiet of silence, we develop the capacity to participate in it. Shared silence grants a pause, a moment when there’s nothing to listen to and we don’t need to speak. In this brief respite, we can turn our attention inward, and take proper account of what we’re thinking and feeling in response to what’s been said. In reaching for a deeper truth within ourselves, we enrich what we eventually say, to collective benefit.

The music of this deeper truth (the dialogue practice of ‘authentic voice’) is composed in the silences of our internal dialogue. Like their external counterparts, these silences come in a range of forms and textures, and are easily ignored, lightly dismissed, or resolutely papered over. And yet, if we attend to them, and rest in their subtleties, we hear more clearly the harmonies and dissonances in the notes of our inner voices.

Listening to the music within, imagine what we might say?

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