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The Art of Open Silence & 10 Ways to Apply It

From Of Seeds and Sowers, NAICR’s distinguished newsletter that includes current programs, projects and tele-classes, as well as humor and inspiration. Visit the site to learn more about the work of Barbara Ashley Phillips and Kenneth Cloke.

In a previous article I talked about the Orders of Silence – and how you can bring yourself into a stillness in silence that creates a feeling of openness and spaciousness for yourself and others. The alternative is a silence characterized by a feeling of tightness in your body, often with a lot of mental activity. There is a spring-loaded quality to tight silence and you feel anything but relaxed. Open silence, inside, is relaxed and alert, – a more observant and connected alertness because we are more focused, and our minds are not functioning at such high revs.

Orders of Silence also explored the 4 step process of the Heart/Work for noticing inner tightness and allowing that to flow into the relaxed-alert state. These are recapped at the end of this article.

In this article, we are looking at the applications of open silence. What is said here does not apply to tight silence. So if you had a chance to play with the approach outlined last month, youll feel right at home with this months offering.

1. Silence that gives space for consideration: You may invite this silence by pausing, when it is time to allow yourself and others to consider positions, behaviors, needs. There is often a certain, healthy pressure felt by people when there is an open silence. Silence allows that self-generated pressure to come into awareness.

Silence is, of course, not always golden. Sometimes people are so uncomfortable with silence they cannot consider anything except how to stop the discomfort. If you sense that is happening, you may want to use white noise to provide sufficient comfort for consideration to take place. White noise is also referred to as blather, and also as yada, yada, yada. It is the repetition of unimportant and sometimes comforting things that have been said before, in a monotonous tone of voice, so that a person is freed to think. Averted eyes work well with white noise. 2. Silence that allows what has been said to be taken in: You may invite this silence by pausing after something important has been said. In this, eye contact or its equivalent is maintained. You are communicating here through silence, and allowing yourself and others to reflect. You are acknowledging the weight of what has just been said, and allowing it to be taken in, within, rather than being run over by what is said next.

3. Silence that slows the pace of interactions: You may invite this silence by slowing down the rate with which your words are spoken. This slows down interactions. Silence is the space between words. With this use of silence, the conversation sometimes can be taken out of auto-speak, down to a range in which something new can happen.

As you notice you are using silence, place your attention on your feet and re-consider your silence. Is there any tightness within your silence? Or is there a sense of relaxation and spaciousness? If not, consider relaxing your hold on your sense of the purpose of your silence. Silence can bring something to a discussion, negotiation or dialogue, that we cannot bring, of our own accord. But that benefit can be lost if your purpose in using silence is too tightly held to. With open silence, you engage the possibility of the purpose that came to mind as you invoked silence – rather than using silence as some kind of tool, to accomplish something. If youve been accustomed to using silence as a weapon, a tool, or a key, notice. And stop. It is not important that you were doing it. It is only important that when you noticed, you stopped. Little by little as you become more vigilant, the pattern will weaken.

4. Silence that indicates respect: You may invite this silence by feeling within yourself, and in this way signaling to others, respect – as, when someone has made a significant acknowledgement or done something that took courage.

5. Silence that gives space for breathing: You may invite this silence by breathing. A deep, slow, quiet breath with no edge to it (no message), recharges your system. As you do it, you can imagine your own tension and fatigue flowing out on your out-breath. Just as yawning is catching, so is relaxation. Physiologically it brings more oxygen to the brain, improving thinking. It softens internal compression and invites others to do likewise. A stretch may or may not be appropriate here.

6. Silence that makes space for natural rhythms: You may invoke this silence by pushing back from a table, or sometimes by standing up. This will test for the need for a break. Often, we have such tight control of our bodies, we simply do not pay attention to their needs. A moment of respite brings up the awareness of needing a stretch, needing a walk, needing a break.

7. Silence that integrates the benefits of distraction: You may invoke this silence through humor, song, something rhythmic. Silence following such activities allow focus to be rebuilt w ith the benefit of the substance of the distraction.

8. Silence that allows you to collect yourself: You may relax yourself into the silence that allows you to regain your own footing inside, when youve gotten ruffled about something. Shift your attention, your awareness, to your feet. You are using relaxation here, rather than will. Will keeps you tight rather than allowing you the space you need inside. You cannot will yourself, or anyone else, to relax. You can only – relax.

9. Silence from your stillness to others stillness: By going deeper within yourself, to your feet and everything in between, you invite people to a deeper space within themselves – with no expectation or desire that they go there.

10. Silence that allows people to hear the wisdom of the field. The more collected you are in your own silence, the more you are contributing to peoples ability to pick up knowledge from the field of information and awareness that is created by the group. This dialogic process can be learned. See Wm. Isaacs, Dialogue, The Art of Thinking Together.

It is the nature of human systems to know more than any individual member. True dialogue – which is far beyond just good discussion – taps into the knowing field that is the wisdom of the group. In the same way, open silence creates the conditions favorable to the emergence of that synthesis, that creativity and that generativity which is lodged in the field. The 4 steps of the Heart/work may help, at any given time, to allow you to return to that open silence. They are:

1. Notice: Notice when you are getting tight about something, inside.

2. Stop/Let Go: Then, let go of that. Stop doing it. Stop considering it.

3. Drop Down: Drop down inside, all the way to your feet.

4. Take It All In: Let yourself see what is actually there in front of you and very gently, without any judgment or criticism, let yourself see what you were doing.

Self-judgment is of the same coin as judging others. When you judge yourself – however justly you may think it is – there is tightness in it. So you add the tightness of judgment to the tightness of the way you were being. Result: more of what you dont want. Solution: By accepting that you did what you just did, there is a feeling of shame, without blame. There is gentleness in this. And there is a movement inside toward open silence. Keep your awareness in your feet as you do step 4, Taking it All In. This way, in the generative spirit of openness, you will enjoy the silences and they will become creatively generative with others.

Open silence is an invitation to relax defenses, reconsider assertions, reconnect, refocus, recharge. Such silence costs you every bit of your attention and awareness. It rewards you and the others with whom you are relating with a deeper sense of interconnectedness, a lessening of stress, and a respite to the body. Difficulties, even those that are apparently insurmountable, become manageable in such circumstances, for everyone can bring more of themselves to what is being considered.


Barbara Ashley Phillips

Barbara Phillips has 19 years of widely varied mediation experience, specializing in complex, technical and sensitive matters. A graduate of Yale Law School, Phillips served as an Assistant United States Attorney and practiced primarily federal civil trial law in Oregon and California prior to becoming a mediator. In Phillips' mediations,… MORE >

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