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  • Writer's pictureMichael Stewart

Silence is your New Super Power

As an introvert, silence and quietness has played a large part in my life. Some might have a view that spending too much time being solitary and quiet, alone with your thoughts and contemplations might be a negative thing. They could be right, but I’ve always considered it to have been an extremely positive factor in my life.

Have you ever considered silence and the potential power it has, or could have, for all of us?

Keeping silent has some very obvious advantages in terms of creativity, mental health, spiritual and religious practice, but what about it also having the potential to help us deliver a powerful speech, or achieve the upper hand in important negotiations, and even perhaps become a great leader. It may surprise you to learn it can do all of those things. Silence is a Super Power.

The quieter you are, the more you hear. The mystic and poet Jalāl al-Dīn Muḥammad Rūmī once said that the quieter we become, the more we are able to hear. From his mystical point of view, he believed listening to be essential as he tried to get closer to his spiritual self and hear a "voice that doesn't use words" by being still. When we let go of all the words, we open ourselves up to other voices previously suppressed by continual verbal noise. These could be inner voices (as philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson called the "inner knowing") and outside voices and sounds that one misses due to a lack of listening. We can listen effectively if we keep quiet, both inside and outside.

By keeping quiet, we become receptive to our surroundings. We pay attention to what our senses observe, so we learn and eventually become smarter and wiser. If we refuse to keep quiet or listen to what others have to say, we only share what we already know and don't learn anything. The ancient philosopher Pythagoras once wisely stated, "A fool is known by his speech, and a wise man by silence." Similarly, Lao Tzu wrote, "Those who know do not talk, those who talk do not know."

Remaining silent allows for effective listening. Succeeding in life involves listening to others, welcoming lots of advice, and giving yourself plenty of room for improvement. It's impossible to receive this feedback and learn from the experiences of others if you're a poor listener. People who practice silence tend to be good listeners because they're always willing to let others speak first. No one comes by success accidentally; it is often the result of hard work and opportunity crossing paths. Being a terrible listener is the easiest way to watch opportunities slip by you without realising it. The more feedback you're open to, the better your chances of improving and succeeding.

Silence sends a powerful message. In many cases, keeping quiet can send a much stronger message than using speech. By responding to words with silence or using rightly timed pauses during conversations, we're able to communicate more effectively. In conversation, using silence effectively is powerful. American author Mark Twain stated, "The right word may be effective, but no word was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause."

What better example of a powerful silent message is there than during the Remembrance Sunday event held on the 11th of November in many communities across the world each year. The two minutes of silence at 11.00am are always the most impactful moment of the entire ceremony. Silence allows us to express what discourse cannot. The power of silence as an answer to tragedy is that we acknowledge that no amount of words do justice to what we seek to commemorate. It's so significant to us that we're willing to stop talking and be silent for a certain amount of time. Is there a better way of showing respect?

Silence also wins you attention. It is easy to win people's attention and get them to listen to what you have to say with the power of silence. You don't need any manipulative skills to do this; you simply need to be silent for people to naturally take note and offer their attention. Silence often gets everyone's attention when the speaker pauses for a while. A signal is sent to the listener's brain such that it recognises that a change has occurred and attempts to figure out why. Imagine how easily you can win control in a room full of people by harnessing the power of silence to gain attention.

There is another benefit too. Academic research shows that silence in a conversation starts to feel unbearable after approximately four seconds. So, the uncertainty caused by such silences in conversations makes people uneasy. Did I say something wrong? Does this person dislike me? What's going to happen next? And so, the person on the receiving end of the silence may proceed to make any decision just to end the uneasiness of the uncertain gap in communication. This decision could be extremely beneficial to the person brave enough to keep silent at the right moment in a negotiation.

Another advantage of keeping silent during conversations is that it's safer than speech. In some situations, whatever we say weakens our position; for example, if we're part of a conversation about a subject we don't know anything about. In such cases, it's more powerful to listen not just because listening grants us the opportunity to learn, but also because we don't make a fool of ourselves by trying to appear knowledgeable when we are not. Moreover, keeping silent shows that we're interested and willing to listen, which people generally appreciate.

The Roman writer Publilius Syrus once stated, "I often regret that I have spoken; never that I have been silent." Abraham Lincoln also said, “It's better to keep silent and be thought a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt.”

Being quiet helps us learn about the environment we’re in and recognise dangers (and opportunities) that we would have missed if we were too busy talking. It also allows us to gather information about ourselves. Often, people are so busy overthinking, analysing, and worrying about what they are going to say or do next, that they are shutting down the underlying voices that are trying to speak. For example, we might block ideas and solutions that are already within us from coming to the surface because our conscious minds generate too much noise, or we may forget to listen to our intuitions or let our bodily pains tell us about specific health issues. Keeping quiet can also lead to more philosophical and spiritual insights.

Silence boosts creativity. Albert Einstein argued that silence stimulates the creative mind. When he couldn’t come up with an idea, he’d just stop thinking and “swim in silence,” (as he called it) and wait for the right information to come to him. Like many other great minds, Einstein spent a lot of time in solitude, using quietness to his advantage. There is some science behind this too. The executive director of the NeuroLeadership Institute, David Rock, wrote an article for Psychology Today, stating that "An open mind is a quiet mind." He researches the so-called 'aha' moments people have, during which a creative idea or solution arises by itself. These 'aha' moments involve weaker, less noticeable connections between neurons, which are difficult to notice when other, louder signals dominate the brain. He suggests we have greater insights when our overall activity level in the brain is low, which happens when we're either doing something that doesn't require a lot of mental effort, when we're focusing on something repetitive, or are just generally more relaxed, like when we wake up.

Insights require a quiet mind because they themselves are quiet. To benefit from this, we need to create the right circumstances for our minds to quieten down. For some people, this may be going for a walk and engaging in repetitive forms of exercise or listening to calming music. For others, like Einstein, it might simply be dwelling in silence and solitude. Interestingly, many of the great minds of the past, such as Isaac Newton, James Clerk Maxwell, and Nikola Tesla, all preferred to work alone in quiet places.

A significant body of research suggests that silence is also extremely good for you. Practicing periods of silence is known to relax the mind, enhance sleep, and lessen insomnia. Also, a study found that two minutes of silence can have a more calming effect than listening to relaxing music. Other studies show that environmental noise exposure increases stress hormone levels and can cause disruptions in sleep structure. "Unnecessary noise is the most cruel absence of care that can be inflicted on sick or well," wrote Florence Nightingale, an English social reformer and founder of modern nursing.

Silence helps achieve awareness. The world is flooded with continuous noise and distractions, but people who pay attention can get past this disadvantage and discover how to make their lives better. You will improve your awareness by practicing silence and observing the world around you. Self-reflection is an important part of growth, but you may never find the time to practice it if you do not take some time away from all the chaos happening around you. By reflecting, you are able to spend time within yourself to determine if your life is working out as you hoped (and then plan to do something about it if not).

Silence comes naturally to some people. The lucky ones understand its power and feel comfortable when silent. But not everyone is like that. Despite the huge benefit silence offers, there is so much distraction in the world. Smart people realise early on that they need less noise to maintain their focus in life. Luckily, silence is an art that can be learned. Silence is a powerful life skill to have and worth practicing.

I hope that has been helpful and perhaps even a little thought provoking. What are your views on the power of silence?

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