Learning Not to Talk

“How wonderful it is to know when not to talk, when not to move forward. When it’s best to listen and sit back. When it’s best to just witness and observe. That slowness of pace offers us the opportunity to see things newly, to discover things that we hadn’t seen before, take the small incremental steps rather than expect the large leaps forward.”  Sarah Lawrence-Lightfoot in an interview recorded in Bill Moyers Journal.

Moyers was questioning Sarah about her experiences as she did research for her book, The Third Chapter, stories of men and women who have taken new paths during their later years. I was intrigued by this statement because of a change I myself have experienced in how I am in the presence of others as I age. I am, as Lawrence-Lightfoot says, learning when not to talk.

I am part of several groups of people who meet regularly for a variety of different reasons. A couple of these groups have an accepted format in which individuals speak, one at a time, and it is understood that the others in the group do not interrupt them. If one wants to comment, that person waits until it is their turn to speak. I have come to appreciate this type of sharing as it allows an individual to finish their thoughts. It makes a person feel affirmed and in some cases there is a therapeutic or spiritual effect.

When I first started participating in this listening format, I noticed how often I would want to say something and had to struggle to keep my mouth zipped. Then I would try to hang onto the thought so that I could say what I wanted to say until my turn came around. Doing so had the effect of closing me off to hearing further what the speaker had to say. If I decided to drop my thought I was sure to forget it and that was a frustration for me. This started me thinking about what kinds of things I felt prompted to say that seemed so important as to cause me stress when I couldn’t say it. Sometimes I just thought of something humorous or well known saying that seemed to fit. I might have had an insight or a personal experience that, in my mind, could shine a light on the person’s situation. The more valuable I felt my comment would be, the more difficult it was to hold it back.

But as I yielded to the process, I noticed a few important things. When a speaker was interrupted, they would often lose their train of thought or they might be put on the defensive. I was learned that willingness to wait is respectful. I noticed that when I held my thoughts, especially the helpful ones, another person in the group would share my idea when it was their turn. This enabled me to relax and trust the group as a whole. This was humility doing its work in me. I worked harder on my listening to each person even though it might mean that the grand thoughts I’d had might dissipate before my turn rolled around. I had to assume that the thought just wasn’t meant to be shared. “Let go and let God,” as the sayin goes.  If I remembered my humorous or profound words when I became speaker, I assumed these were meant to be shared. Patience and trust were doing their work in me.

The other things mentioned in the quote above are also true for me, as I practice sitting back and listening, witnessing and observing. I am discovering new things and often experience a sense of awe. I am noticing small increments of progress as people share their stories. And I often hear the little messages they bear that is meant for me.


One thought on “Learning Not to Talk”

  1. “Learning not to talk” — that is a great idea and I want to give it more thought and practice!. I’m also trying to work on one of the Rules of Benedict that instructs us to “listen … with the ear of your heart.”

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