Rabbi Azriel Hauptman
Awkward silence. The dreaded fear of all humans engaged in conversation. This is what you fear the most during a date, a job interview, or any other important conversation. Humans fear that silence so much that researchers have found that the average time between people taking turns talking in a conversation is 200 milliseconds. That is one-fifth of one second! Other research has found that people become visibly uncomfortable when the silence extends to merely four seconds.
This is in stark contrast to the famous Gemara (Berachos 6b) that the reward for visiting a mourner is for remaining silent. Chazal are clearly sending us a message about the role of silence and how it relates to the Mitzvah of Nichum Aveilim (comforting the mourner). Let us, therefore, spend some time on exploring the forgotten art of silence and how we can hopefully learn how to utilize it.
Thinking: We often are so afraid of that dreaded lull in conversation that we say things that are shallow or unhelpful. If you are comfortable with some silence, you can develop your thoughts before you say something. In the long run, your words will be appreciated and respected.
Listening: When someone sees that you have paused before you responded, they will actually feel heard. When you wait a mere 200 milliseconds before responding, you have to formulate your response while the other person is speaking. If you pause, your friend will see that you listen, absorb, and think before you respond. Your friend will see that you actually want to understand what your friend is telling you.
Respect: Sometimes we say something and when the response does not come immediately, we feel nervous that we were not heard and we will repeat the statement, embellish it, or move onto another topic. In reality, the other person might be thinking about what you just said, and in your haste to kill the awkward silence, you have robbed your friend of their chance to respond. When you allow some silence, you are showing that you respect your friend, are not rushing him or her for a response, and have as much time as they need.
Avoiding Anger: Sometimes we are told something that makes us feel angry. If you are not accustomed to digesting before responding, you are likely to respond with something hurtful that you will never be able to take back. When you are in the practice of utilizing silence in conversation, you will have those few seconds that you need to catch yourself and diffuse the situation rather that escalating it beyond the point of no return.
Comfort: When you are comfortable with another person, you do not feel the need to create a distraction by talking and talking. When silence is not awkward, you are communicating to the other person that you can just spend time with each other without the need for empty fillers.
Nonverbal communication: Research has shown that most communication is nonverbal. When you feel the need to keep on talking, you are putting too much pressure on the words being said, and ignoring the other ways that we are communicating our thoughts and feelings. Allowing silence in conversation provides space for your other cues to be absorbed. Ultimately, you will be heard on a deeper level.
Learn: When you rush to respond, you might not be letting your friend say everything that they want to say. This might rob you of information that the other person wants to communicate to you. When you listen, you learn.
In psychotherapy as well, silence is extremely important. In therapy, we want to gain insight, process emotions, and achieve inner peace. Silence plays a pivotal role in facilitating these goals.
Our Sages tell us (Megillah 18a) that if a word is worth one Sela (a type of coin), then silence is worth two. When we embrace silence, our depth in our communications grows tremendously. Mastering the art of silence can be tricky and sometimes the silence will feel awkward. However, that should not deter us from learning the art. As Benjamin Franklin wisely said, “Silence is not always a sign of wisdom, but babbling is ever a mark of folly.”