‘People get tired of asking you what's wrong and you've run out of nothings to tell them. You've tried and they've tried, but the words just turn to ashes every time they try to leave your mouth. They start as fire in the pit of your stomach but come out in a puff of smoke. You are not you anymore. And you don't know how to fix this. The worst part is...you don't even know how to try.’ (Nikitta Gill)
Losing my voice was a painful experience. It started with frequent sore throats and laryngitis but steadily got worse. After a while, I had to suck on throat lozenges to be able to speak at all. My voice became very weak and, if I had to project it in a group or tried to sing, it felt afterwards like I’d been garrotted. Feeling increasingly concerned, I saw my doctor who referred me to ear-nose-throat specialists. They ruled out throat cancer and vocal cord nodules yet still couldn’t work out what was causing the problem. I lost count of how many cameras they ran up my nose and down my throat.
As time went on with no improvement, they referred me to speech therapy. By now I was having to carry a sign at work to say, ‘Sorry, I’ve lost my voice’ and a clipboard to write down what I wanted to say. (It was amusing to see how many people wrote down their responses for me to read too. I had after all lost my voice, not my hearing.) The speech therapists were puzzled by the symptoms and tried various techniques without success. For 2 years, I virtually couldn’t speak at all. It took another 10 years of cameras and speech therapy before they finally worked out the underlying problem.
Bizarrely, I had somehow learned to speak as a child without using the complex muscles around the larynx correctly. It was, in effect, as if I had found a way to imitate normal speech. That was OK to a point, until my work demanded more strenuous use of my voice. That’s when it became strained and failed. Apart from the intense physical discomfort, the social and psychological effects were profound. Over the years, I got tired of explaining my predicament. I became far quieter than usual and people related to me as if I was incredibly introverted, or they simply didn’t relate to me at all.
It became so very isolating. Not only did I lose my physical voice. I felt steadily as if I was losing my personal identity, presence and influence in social situations too. I felt helpless to resolve it and had no idea if it could or would ever be resolved. Salvation came in the form of a new friend, David, whom I met in a church and who had suffered from debilitating hearing loss for many years. When he described the social and psychological effects it had had on his life, for the first time I didn’t feel alone. It demonstrated the power of empathy and its place in healing. Now I could learn to speak.
‘At such moments we don't choose silence...but fall silent.’ (Philip Simmons)
As 2024 opened, I found myself yearning for silence, a sacred space to sit quietly and alone with my face turned unequivocally towards God. I found such a place in Alnmouth, a Franciscan retreat centre in the North East of England. Its spirituality focuses on Jesus and the poor and that matters deeply to me too. I had first found Jesus through a close friend who went on to become a Franciscan so this felt like a familiar place, like returning home after a long journey away. I packed a case and went.
The days started early and ended late with a time of silence or spoken liturgy in a simple candle-lit chapel. As I sat or stood listening to the devout Franciscans chanting words slowly and meditatively from the Bible, my attention was drawn to a stark representation of Jesus on a cross at the front, straining to look upwards to his Father. I felt hurt, angry and confused by his suffering and, at the same time, intensely frustrated by my own weak faith and what the Bible calls sinfulness. He deserves better.
As I sat in the deep silence that followed, I recalled some words from Iain Matthew (The Impact of God): ‘Someone is there – you notice out of the corner of your eye – Someone is there looking at you...and has been for some time. You realise your whole Christian life is an effect, the effect of a God who is constantly gazing at you – whose eyes anticipate, penetrate and elicit beauty.’ It isn’t about me. It's about God's expression of amazing divine love that holds the power to transform everything.
‘The question is to provoke fresh thought, not to elicit an answer.’ (Stephen Guy)
I thought that was a great way of framing it. At an Action Learning Facilitators’ Training event with the NHS this week, we were looking at open coaching-type questions in the exploration phase of an Action Learning round and how they differ from, say, simple questions for clarification. A great question for exploration often stops a presenter in their thinking tracks. We may notice them fall silent; gaze upwards as if on search mode; get stuck for words; speak tentatively or more…slowly.
That’s very different to a presenter who answers quickly, fluently or easily – as if telling us something they already know or have already thought through for themselves. In a different Action Learning set recently, one presenter did just that. They were speaking as an expert, not as a learner, so I invited them to count to 10 silently before responding to any question posed – and invited the rest of the group to count to 10 silently too, after the presenter had spoken, before offering a next question.
The idea here was to allow the questions to sink deep. Thomas Aquinas, a philosopher and theologian, commented (my paraphrase) that a great question sets us off on a journey of discovery. Brian Watts observed, similarly, that the word question itself has the word quest embedded in it. Sonja Antell invites a presenter simply – but not always easily – to ‘sit with the question’, to reflect in silence and allow the question to do its work. It’s often the place where transformation occurs.
‘Now let us begin. Now let us re-dedicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world.’ (Martin Luther King)
Few songs convey the pain and potential consequences of protest like the Dixie Chicks’ (now Chicks’) ‘Not Ready to Make Nice’.
Singer Natalie Mains had dared publicly to criticise the then-U.S. President, George W. Bush, during the 2003 run-up to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. The group was subsequently banned from being played on many U.S. radio stations and group members were subject to attacks on their character, and even to death threats. ‘Not Ready to Make Nice’ is a passionate reflection on that experience, a resounding spirit of unbroken resistance in a near-breaking voice:
‘Forgive, sounds good. Forget, I'm not sure I could. They say time heals everything, but I'm still waiting. I'm through with doubt. There's nothing left for me to figure out. I've paid a price, and I'll keep paying. I'm not ready to make nice, I'm not ready to back down. I'm still mad as hell, and I don't have time to go 'round and 'round and 'round. It's too late to make it right. I probably wouldn't if I could ‘cause I'm mad as hell. Can't bring myself to do what it is you think I should.
I know you said, ‘Why can't you just get over it?’ It turned my whole world around – and I kinda like it. I made my bed, and I sleep like a baby with no regrets. And I don't mind saying it's a sad, sad story when a mother will teach her daughter that she ought to hate a perfect stranger. And how in the world can the words that I said send somebody so over the edge that they'd write me a letter saying that I better shut up and sing – or my life will be over?’
This experience reflects the spirit of an age in which we find ourselves too. Voices of dissent against a mainstream narrative are often heard with disdain, if at all, in the clamour of polarised and conflicting ideologies, opinions and rage. Platforms that could protect and promote democratic values, ranging from conventional and social media to schools and university campus’, all too often create echo chambers that reinforce the dominant view.
Silence is golden. Silenced is not. When did you last speak up? What have you left unspoken that needs to be said?
‘Words can inspire. Words can destroy. Choose your words well.’ (Peter Economy)
In English, we use an expression, ‘biting my lip’ to describe a moment when we’re yearning to say something, yet choose self-restraint. And there can be good reasons to hold back. Our words could prove hurtful or damaging…or decidedly career-limiting. Yet there are situations in which we should speak up. What if our safety filters auto-override our personal need for congruence; or the needs of a situation where our silence could be taken as tacit agreement or collusion?
What if our fears of the consequences of speaking out, for instance against some grievous injustice, allow the violation to go unchecked? What if we’re simply too shy or polite to speak out for risk of transgressing our own or others’ cultural expectations? Anti-Nazi Martin Niemöller’s words can still haunt us: ‘First they came for X, and I did not speak out because I was not an X’. It’s a silence that can leave our consciences seared and others devoid of support.
Yet we also know the amazing, positive, transformative power of words to spark the imagination, ignite a passion, set us brightly ablaze. Think of first-class orators, of Winston Churchill or Martin Luther King: of words that inspired such great conviction, commitment and courage. Words can reframe, reconstrue, change everything we think and believe is possible. Words can touch us deeply emotionally; instil confidence, engender hope, enable us to receive and convey love.
As a follower of Jesus, I love the mystery of words: ‘In the beginning was the Word, the early word, the first word, the I am who I am word, the with-God word, the was-God word. The without-whom-nothing word, an unheard-of word behind words. World-making word. Speaking the language behind language.’ Words used playfully, creatively, evocatively, provocatively can allow us to grasp and express reality, idea, concept, abstract and experience that lay beyond words.
At times, I have spoken words when I should have stayed silent and stayed silent when I should have spoken. It has felt like dancing on a knife edge; trying to weigh up pros and cons, rights and wrongs, implications and consequences, all in a split second. Sometimes, I have found myself lost for words, or I have used words clumsily or harshly without enough care for others. In seeking too hard to be more considered or diplomatic, my words have felt too weak, cautious or ineffective.
At other times, however, I have seen and felt the dazzling, dynamic influence that life-giving words can have on a person’s whole world, outlook and stance; a team’s relationships; an organisation’s effectiveness; a society’s vision and hope. I have seen how words can change…everything. I try to use words with courage, humility, creativity and love. What part do words play in your life, work and relationships? If we use words well, what becomes possible?
‘So much more was said in the unsaid.’ (Bridget Devoue)
Silence: a powerful rhetorical device, used by speakers and musicians to evoke resounding emotional impact. Silence leaves the audience…waiting…in...anticipation and ‘the sound of silence can be the most deafening sound of all’ (Toth). Silence is an important presencing tool in coaching and therapy too: an inviting silence that signals attentiveness; a space to feel deep and think hard; a willingness to listen and to hear. Silence interrupts and creates a...pause. It’s the silent space between notes that makes music possible.
These kinds of silence are so very different to the deadly silence of…intimidation. ‘The predator wants your silence. It feeds their power, entitlement, and they want it to feed your shame’ (Davis). This is the act, the feeling of being, becoming, done to, suppressed; collusion and fear. I’ve felt that silence at times; as if an invisible hand is grasping at my throat; making it hard for me to squeeze the words out, to breathe. It’s the silence of the silenced, the voice-less; where all that's left is a dark, lifeless, empty...void.
So, we do well to tread with wisdom and insight here. 'There's a time to be silent and a time to speak' (Ecclesiastes 3:7). ‘Not every truth is the better for showing its face undisguised; and often silence is the wisest thing for a person to heed' (Pindar). Some things are best said, others better left unsaid. We may find ourselves awestruck, speech-less, lost for words. We may simply feel no need to speak. The same silence that one person finds awkward, difficult or lonely can feel calming, refreshing or revitalising for another.
What part does silence play in your leadership, OD, coaching or training? When is your best advice: ‘Don’t speak’?
‘The teacher works with the students; the students work on the language.’ (Caleb Gattegno)
The Silent Way. It sounds like a monastic tradition. As a student at International House Newcastle last week, I was invited by teachers, Sally Muse and Jane-Maria Harding da Rosa, to lead a teaching-English class in…silence. The experiment was to demonstrate and experience the power of silence in a learning process. It can sound counter-intuitive for leaders, managers and trainers who are used to directing, guiding and imparting knowledge. It involves evoking, eliciting and enabling discovery with minimal input and interference from the teacher. I led the class without speaking a word.
So now I’m thinking about leadership, OD, coaching, mentoring and training. The Silent Way calls for discernment, discipline and self-restraint, providing just-enough input where needed so that people are able to focus, grasp, struggle-with and find their own way forward. The image come to mind of a parent stepping back, letting go, coaxing with gestures and smiles as a child takes its first steps. It’s hard at first yet, in overcoming the barriers, in achieving the task, the child finds courage, confidence and new abilities. The parent offers challenge and support but it’s the child who walks.
There are useful parallels here in e.g. coactive leadership, process consultation, non-directive facilitation and coaching. It’s not always about holding absolute silence. It is about having a clear intention; paying attention to who is doing the talking and why; noticing what the impacts are on the relationship, the person’s growth and the outcomes. Very often, listening and minimal prompts are good and enough: e.g. ‘So?’, ‘And?’, ‘Then?’, ‘Who?’, ‘What else?’, ‘Next?’ You can almost see and hear the cogs whirring. Do you ever say too much when silence could achieve a better result?
'If you’ve got nothing to say, say it.’ As teenagers at school, we could always tell the teacher was annoyed when he would blurt out these words in exasperation. It was usually when the class was noisy, people chatting away excitedly but paying no attention whatsoever to the teacher at the front. I have to confess that, at the time, its subtlety was lost on us.
We would look at each other across the room, puzzled faces, mouthing silently, ‘It?’ Over many years working as leader, coach and facilitator, however, I have noticed, discovered, the real value of staying silent. As someone with a clear introverted preference, being quiet comes easily to me. However, the silence I’m talking about here isn’t quietness per se but silence as presence – active, engaged, being-with.
Often, silence is associated with absence, avoidance, withdrawal from. You can imagine, for instance, the stony silence that follows an argument or the silence of a bored colleague gazing out of the window during a team meeting. I know extroverted trainers who dread working with introverted participant groups because they find the silence deafening, impenetrable, debilitating.
The silence I’m talking about, though, is a deliberate space, choosing contact with another person or a group (or God) rather than filling that space with our words. It’s a silence that invites the other, assures the other of our attention and believes that that connection, that quality of relationship itself, can be transformative. It’s about offering ourselves – and believing that is enough.
When I first started out in my career, I was keen to make a difference through my efforts and concerned about how others would perceive me. I felt I had to speak to convince others of my worthwhile-ness, to show that I had something useful to say. It was all about displaying and asserting my own knowledge and experience. Over time, however, I discovered that my speaking was sometimes, paradoxically, counter-productive.
As a leader, it could inhibit others from speaking their own words. As a coach and facilitator, it could be a distraction, an interference. I realised that awakening and building the best in others often involves silence, listening, genuine curiosity and care. It entails pausing before stepping in, allowing the silence to do its own work.
My silence allows me to not-know. It allows me space to listen, truly listen, to the sound behind a person’s voice; the silent, vibrant, resonating sound of deeply-held beliefs and values, unspoken questions, hopes and fears. My attention, my presence, supports the other person as a human being, nurturing what is within to emerge, to rise to the surface and, in doing so, it affirms something of my own humanity too.
Of course, silence itself is not the only quality that matters in our work. There are times where we do need to speak up, to share and show what we think, feel and believe. Nevertheless, silence can evoke the space, the environment, the conditions, the opportunity, for creative conversation, energetic dialogue and a dynamic way forward.
I'm a psychological coach, trainer and OD consultant. Curious to discover how can I help you? Get in touch!
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