by Rabbi Michoel Gourarie
In Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) a great rabbi taught:
"All my days I grew up among the sages and did not find anything better for the body than silence."
Jewish sources define the human being as "the speaker". The ability to communicate is central to human function. Speech allows us to express our feelings, develop our emotions, explain concepts, influence other people and strengthen relationships.
Why then would the sage suggest that silence is a value worth pursuing? Isn't silence the absence of speech?
The answer lies in the definition. There are two forms of silence. One is just absence of words and the other is a prerequisite and foundation of effective speech.
The first silence is a negative trait that stems from an inability or unwillingness to communicate effectively. This silence (unlike speech) causes division and separation, creating dysfunction in human relationships.
- Getting upset and giving someone silent treatment. When we are offended or hurt, respectful conversation is the only tool to resolve issues and repair relationships. Remaining silent and refusing to talk is a form of aggression and totally ineffective.
- A parent who is afraid of his/her children and cannot be assertive with appropriate guidance and direction. This is a silence that comes from weakness and leads to dysfunctional behavior.
The second is a good silence that creates the platform for effective and positive speech. It allows the goals of communication to be achieved. True communication can only occur when there is mutual understanding and deep respect for each other's position. For this to take place our words must be preceded and guided by appropriate silence. This means:
- Waiting to respond so that we can think before we talk rather than speak impulsively.
- To actively listen to someone else without interrupting them so that we can really understand their perspective and that they can feel heard
- Creating boundaries around our words so that we carefully choose words that will bring us closer together and remain silent when they create more distance.
It is this form of silence that the sage is referring too. Before we can be true to our identity as "speakers and communicators" we must learn the art of good silence.
Being quiet when we should talk creates dysfunction and disunity among us. But silence, when timed correctly, is the language of connection.