• Education Forums

The Silent Treatment

The Rev. Patrick Ward
July 19, 2018

“Are you listening?  Or are you formulating? Because you can’t do both at once!”


That was the question my adviser had for me one morning in the summer of 2006 during my 10-week pastoral training at Bridgeport Hospital. We were in the middle of a pastoral care role playing exercise. Her question was pitched to expose an unfortunate tendency of mine:  to drift out of the conversation in progress in order to frame an appropriately sensitive and trenchant response. The whole dynamic can be, of course, personally defeating and interpersonally destructive.  But for those of us who are voluble by nature, the temptation persists.


I’m not sure I am alone with this temptation. Often in the context of church meetings and small groups, hands are in the air long before the present speaker has concluded her point. “To finish another’s sentence” is not always an indicator that both speakers are simpatico, but often an unintentional undercutting of a point the first speaker is making, or a careless redirection of the group’s focus. In a broader cultural way, this dynamic has persisted (to name a recent example) in the response by some white people to the statement “Black Lives Matter.” To insist in responding that “all lives matter” is to willfully eliminate the space for focused reflection that the first statement aims to create.  The reason politics and faith are so often taboo subjects in polite company is that too often such conversations are about one party (fully formed and hence no longer receptive)  attempting to “win” or to “educate” the other.


My colleague Rita Powell tells me that, in the Native American Lakota culture of the American plains, conversational dynamics are quite different, punctuated by marked silences that would seem awkward in the context of a Trinity Church meeting.  Often when I consider silence in the context of my own faith, it has a “macro” quality: prolonged silence in Lenten liturgies, or extended silence as part of a structured retreat. I wonder, though, how incorporating what I’ll call “micro-silences” into my own conversations might bring new life and deeper connection.  What would life be like if we waited for each other to finish before we began to “formulate” and speak? What if we felt welcomed, and welcomed others, to claim the silent time needed to think before responding?  Just as one needn’t become vegan in order to eat better, one needn’t necessarily become a monastic in order to claim silence as an integral part of daily living and conversing. “Just remember,” another pastoral care instructor told me once. “The one talking is usually the one receiving the care.”


See you in church!



At "Educational Forums," enrich your spiritual journey by exploring our resources including videos of lectures, essays by priests, and other pieces about our faith, our church, and what it means to be a disciple of Jesus in the 21st century.