Walking in the slowly lifting fog this morning, Puck stopped frequently to listen to the birds that had recently returned to the woods, and the quiet drip, drip, and drip again from the prior night’s rain still falling from the trees. It’s his first Spring and the sounds are all so new. He’s still unsure how to interpret each one that he hears, whether it means a pending threat or can be dismissed as background noise. But his curiosity reminded me to unplug and listen with him to the sounds of the woods, as well as the silence between the bird calls, the anticipation of the next drip.
The temptation to be plugged in and listening to something other than the sounds around us is strong. Music, podcasts, the news, an audio book—we fill our world with sounds. And sometimes those imported sounds cover up noise we don’t want to hear. Listening to a symphony while a co-worker in the adjoining space speaks loudly on the phone provides a wall of concentration. The pounding rhythm of pop music helps accelerate a workout while city noise would be distracting. And with hectic lives, listening to the news while doing chores or “reading” a book while on a long drive helps us feel informed, be entertained, and pass the time.
But the silences also are so important. They provide music’s rhythm, informing us how to feel and differentiating one performer’s interpretation from another. They add meaning to poetry, often conveying as much as the words themselves. And in conversation, can add poignancy and confirm attention.
Discomfort in the Comfort
We all have different ideas about how much silence is comfortable and how quickly we need to fill it. Some of that is cultural. As Deborah Tannen explains in this fascinating Hidden Brain podcast, in New York we are much more likely to jump in before someone has even finished a sentence than someone from the Midwest, who may be politely waiting for a 10-second pause as an invitation to join the conversation. And our tendency to talk along, adding commentary and affirmation to the speaker’s remarks, can be perceived as an interruption when meant to be supportive.
But some of our variable tolerance for silence is also related to subject matter. The more challenging the topic, the more likely we are to be uncomfortable with conversational silences and want to fill them with reassuring words. And when supporting cancer patients, the conversation almost always includes challenging topics, making those silences all the harder to abide, yet all the more necessary.
Recently I was talking with a patient who is struggling with heavy treatment decisions. Her cancer keeps recurring and after eight years of on again off again treatment, her body is worn out. She finds it hard to maintain her energy and her weight, never fully recovering either before being thrown into treatment again, with its predictable consequences for her guts and her ability to function. She is worn out from failed therapies, disappointing scans, too many appointments that never provide good news. But she doesn’t want to miss the promise of grandchildren on the heels of her son’s recent wedding. Should she try yet another different treatment? And what will it get her? Will she even be strong enough to hold her grandchild should that miracle finally occurs? And what if she just stops treatment? What will that mean for her remaining days?
Sometimes there are no words, and silence is the only option. I have no wisdom to offer, no way to answer her questions, but through my stillness can acknowledge her suffering and the challenges of the decision no one should ever be asked to make. I can hold her hand, look her in the eye with love and warmth, tell her in so many ways that I am there for her. And I can wait for her to talk, recognizing that she is thinking aloud, that my attentiveness is helping her to answer her own questions.
Waiting for the Drips
One of the hardest things in supporting someone through anything emotionally difficult, whether as a mentor or as a friend, is finding the right balance—for that person, in that moment—between acknowledging the discomfort and trying to make it go away. We can change the subject, and poof, it disappears, at least for us. We can say something reaffirming to blunt the emotional impact, dismissing, or denying the very real feelings just expressed. We can even shift the focus back to our own experiences, driving the conversation to safer territory.
Or we can say, with empathy and honesty, “I am so sorry you are going through this. Tell me.”
It’s hard to do that, especially as a New Yorker used to filling every void. Understanding the conversational styles of those around me, and being attuned to the particular conversation we are having can help. But I need to keep reminding myself to listen to the silence. To let the conversation breath. To wait for the drips of information. To anticipate the next bird call. I don’t need to solve every problem, but as I friend or supportive mentor, I need to be there to say with full attention and engagement, “You talk, and I’ll listen.”