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The Boundary Hunter, Issue #004 -- Communicating in silence
July 01, 2008


Communication by silence sounds like a contradiction doesn’t it? Because silence is actually the lack of voice. But silence has all the same qualities as the voice.

Think of it. Like the voice, silence is communication in different registers: deep, (as in serious depression or catatonic schizophrenia or profound grief); middle, (as in the silence we use so another person can speak and we can listen); high, (as in the silence we try to use when we bite our tongue not to say something or when we clamp our lips together trying not to burst out laughing).

And like the voice, silence has a timbre or quality to it. It can be peaceful, reflective, restful, angry, fearful, stubborn, resistant, and so forth.

There are times when a minister meets with some troubled person at their request and the person says nothing. Communication takes place by other means. They may sit wringing their hands, or looking hopefully at the minister, or just staring down at the floor. There is a silence boundary between minister and visitor.

For many people in helping relationships, ministers, therapists, and counselors, silence at such times is uncomfortable for them. It makes them anxious because they are, after all, there to help…so let’s get started. Typically, they will try and bridge the silence by speaking, or by asking a question or in some other way, inviting, even prodding, the visitor to speak.

But in communication, silence is very important, both for its length and for its quality. But a minister who stays silent may communicate anxiety or confusion about what to say or whether to say anything at all.

The point is that silence is a powerful way of communicating between people – some married people, for example, give their spouses the ‘silent treatment’ as a way of signaling displeasure or as a way of exerting control in the relationship.

Adolescents can be genuinely tongue-tied and inarticulate in a one-on-one interview with an adult authority.

But the minister is in charge of the meeting and has to have a way of dealing with silence – his own and the other person’s.

Recognizing that silence is a certain kind of communication boundary between the minister and the visitor, the minister’s silence should almost always attempt to convey respect – the willingness to give the visitor time and space to organize their thinking and feelings.

(There are other reasons for the minister to be silent. For example, there are times when the minister should be non-supportive of the visitor, and silence is the way to achieve that non-supportiveness).

But if a silence goes on too long, either the minister or the visitor, or both, may become anxious or otherwise stressed.

So the minister may offer an invitation to the visitor that shows a readiness to be helpful. For example, after a few minutes, the minister may say any one of a variety of things; Here’s only one example…

“Where would you like to begin?” (Minister invites visitor to cross the silence boundary). The visitor may respond…

“I don’t know where to begin” and then falls silent again…(visitor puts the boundary back in place).

What to say? After a pause to indicate you are giving the visitor time to continue, and it is clear she is not going to, you can offer the invitation across the silence boundary by gently saying…

“You can begin anywhere, it’s all connected.” And then be silent again indicating a readiness to listen.

They usually accept the minister’s invitation to cross the silence boundary and begin to tell their story.

Such gentle invitations are useful guides to visitors who may not know how to frame their problem, or who may be embarrassed to talk about it, or who may regret coming to see the minister.

No need to get anxious or confused by silence. Just treat it like any other boundary – recognize its existence…respect it…invite and be invited to cross it before doing so.

If you have silence or other communication boundary issues, successes or problems, you may have something in common with other ministers. Please feel free to write us with your questions, experiences, solutions and suggestions for anything you would like to see addressed in this that all may benefit.

We may publish your inquiry...or your success story...(with appropriate safeguards to confidentiality) help others who may have the same or a similar issue.


Subscribers can receive our FREE minicourse on Human Sexuality and how it occurs at different stages of life – from ‘fetushood’ to young adulthood. You will be able to download it in pdf format. We’ll announce the availability date in next month’s newsletter.

Our next newsletter will feature the second article on the silence boundary. Why ministers need to put it in place so as to be non-supportive. Non-supportiveness is sometimes the best way to help someone. Stay tuned.

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