The sounds of silence: Some thoughts on healing and silence

In Silence there is eloquence. Stop weaving and see how the pattern improves
— Rumi

Not long ago I talked about a young client of mine who spent six weeks with me and spoke only one word. Just the word, “Word.” And I worked with other children who never spoke, or took a year to speak. They used actual silence to be quiet.

Some clients need silence and they bring it with them. But silence, like wind, comes in all forms. Silence can look like so many things. I have had other child clients who were noisy and chatty and yet they too, really, said nothing. Their families lived with the rule of the ‘code of silence’ typical of the neighborhoods I worked in, and their talk, their conversation was a fluent art of conversational silence. It was as if you had a conversation, but you didn’t. Teenagers are often good at this conversational silence. They are good at answering questions with descriptions like: fine, good, not much, weird, maybe, yeah, and most telling--- nothing.

My child clients who lived with the ‘code of silence’ rule needed some chatter to feel at rest in my presence. They needed to not feel so much under a spotlight. I think silence was long taught and understood as a means of not being obtrusive—not interfering in someone’s ability to talk. But silence isn’t always quiet. It can be blaringly loud if you aren’t used to it, or if it feels too dangerous. People who have stayed away from their fears for years need to gradually approach them—and silence can be like being in a locked cage with their worst fears.

In the field of psychology there is often a lot of discussion of silence –what it means and when it should be used. But I think it is too literally discussed and too literally understood. I think it is important to understand the need for silence—what does it do? What is silence?—and how can it serve healing  and growth?--whether you are the client or the therapist.

As the client—silence offers you either protection or space. If you bring silence, you protect your truths—from others hearing and usually more importantly, from you having to hear it. Silence in any form means “I don’t have to deal with that yet.” And silence can offer you space. Space to ‘just be’ without having to ‘be’ anything in particular. It is the blank canvas—and you can stretch out in it—and figure things out.

But the first mistake is that we think of silence as sound. It is more useful to think of silence as rest. As a space that you can relax in to—hammock-like. Where you feel safe, or calm, or interested—the way babies look when they are happy in those little baby-backpack carriers.

I focus on this state of rest because a relaxed brain is a thinking brain and a learning brain. A relaxed brain has the ability to gain some perspective. A relaxed brain can heal. Sometimes it is actual silence which helps this, and sometimes it is something that looks the furthest from silence which helps this. I think of times I have had big writing projects and sought out coffee shops to write in so that my mind could rest on the background white noise of coffee shop chatter. Everyone needs a different way of finding where their brain can relax and be in the state it needs to for growth, for conversation, creation, or healing.

I have found that for people who have lived through trauma—this ability to modulate how they are heard and when they get to speak is not only important, but is a big piece of the healing. And sometimes it can be the context that helps you balance silence and speaking. From 2003 - 2007 I had the privilege of working on a project in Cambodia working with country leaders to help them strengthen their response to HIV/AIDS. It was a leaderhip intervention into a public health issue-- we worked with them on emotional intelligence, action learning and understanding people and systems. Our team of three faculty worked with a group of 100 leaders at a time and we were supported by 13 Cambodian Facilitators who led the small group work in Khmer. The program did not have an overt trauma agenda, but the entire group—facilitators and participants had lived through the Khmer Rouge genocide so we were mindful of pacing and the difficulty of emotions. We also worked to maintain a stance of wondering, rather than knowing-- which wasn't hard because between the language, culture and context--and a 12 hour time difference--  we often really had no idea what was happening a lot of the time.

One of the things that was immensely healing was that because of the language barrier—even though we were leading the program—we weren’t in charge of the language. We had a wonderfully skilled translator, and most of the program was translated—but there was often great debate about the language. And this debate about language meant that they could own the language and own their experience, they could own their words. 

There was one day, when I was working just with the facilitators before a program, when there was no translator. Truthfully, I liked it better- it felt less intrusive and more respectful somehow—and implied a trust in them seeking help when they needed it. When there was no translation I got to be the kind, but somewhat clueless mom—the mom in storybooks when the kids get to be smarter and yet when they really need her she actually does know something. There was something about listening to their conversation for the emotional language and not the actual words that felt more real than the translated words. I don’t know why.

My vocabulary in Khmer is probably about fifty words, though 12 of them are animals, which didn’t come up much…but I know the words for change, group, me, you, happy, girl, boy, aunt, uncle, younger, name, called, much, isn’t it, the numbers to 20, day, night, moon, morning, teacher, learn, excuse me, everyone, someone,  –I am seriously lacking verbs—which given my lack of action in Cambodia was not surprising. But that day I could be connected to them. Listening, for emotion, for interest, but not for content. On the one occasion when they were discussing the order of the day --which I could gather from the word for group-- I chimed in with my opinion--but they could take it or leave it. They got to have a leader—who was there for them, but in no way could accuse them of anything—who could literally never use what they just said against them. This was what the leaders of the Khmer Rouge did. They forced them to speak against their fellow community members and people died. In this program they got to have a different experience –they could be silent to me, and still speak their truth. Silence comes in so many different forms and shades and experiences. Sometimes there is magic built right in to experience if you slow down enough to appreciate it.

© Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD 2015