The love of silence

A friend in need is a friend I want to help. There are many ways to help. Sometimes a bit of advice. Sometimes an emergency loan. Sometimes letting them know where they can get help from. Sometimes just listen.

Recently I've been exploring a new (for me) way of helping, and of being helped. Do nothing. Well, not quite nothing. Listen, and be there in the moment with them. Speak no words to them. Clear your head of trying to think of anything to say. Just listen. Hear everything they say, but have no verbal response. Create a shared space where nothing is said except what the person wants to say.

This isn't to say don't acknowledge what they are saying. You can do that through facial and body language. If it's the right thing, you can put and arm on their shoulder, hold their hand, or whatever. But speak no words to them.

When I was first introduced to this approach (on a mental health first aid course) it sounded both easy and harsh. It can be both though, in the right situation, it can be highly effective. So let's look at the easy and harsh issue.

It sounds really easy to listen to somebody and say nothing. After all, all you have to do is say nothing! But that's not the case. Try keeping a minute silence after a friend has finished taking - awkward isn't it! Most of the time when we listen to somebody we spend a significant amount of our time thinking about what we will say to respond. It's then very easy to interrupt the person or divert the conversation because we now want to say our piece. It means I'm not 100% listening, and breaks the narrative from what the person was saying into my narrative. It gives us and them a comfort zone, but sometimes comfort zones aren't the best places in which to be.

One of the hardest things I've found about purely listening is the silences. A person unburdens their heart to you, and then stops. Silence abounds. I always want to fill that silence - that's the social norm on a conversation right? And you've heard what they have to say so now want to offer practical suggestions of empathy to help right?

Wrong! Those silences are the most important part. Those are the points when their conscious self that has spent so much effort into articulating what they've said then goes into a less conscious mode of heart, mind and soul to digest for themselves what they've just said. This process - my therapist calls it 'mulching' - is where the person can reflect on their inner self and say more and/or start to find their solutions. And, when dealing with a friend, we need to learn that their solution for them will be better that our solution for them. I find this a hard thing to do as it doesn't help my ego. But it's not about me. It is about helping my friend by giving them the space and permission to just be in their moment.

On a real practical level, I've found this approach very counter-cultural. For me it needs an agreement between me and my friend at the start where I've said "I'm just going to listen - not say anything at all. It will be hard at times, but let's just see how it goes" to make sure we're on the same page. And even then, it will take a bit of getting used to.

And you have to listen. Really listen. Not judge, not think of solutions, not articulate anything. Just really really listen and hear them. And be there. For them.

Please don't get me wrong. I'm not saying you should never offer advice. Sometimes that will be exactly what you friend needs. From you, or professional support or whatever. Though sometimes people just need a space to articulate themselves and to reflect on what they've articulated with nothing more then the presence of somebody they know and trust. And somebody that loves them, and doesn't have to say so.

I'm really interest in any views you have on this. Please feel free to add comments below or get in touch on Twitter @oxguin.