How can I make use of silence as a listening skill?

7 Oct 2015 |  for trainees | by Bill, writer at UK & Ireland Counsellor Directory

Sometimes the most helpful response you can make is to stay silent. It may feel difficult at first, but through practice comes confidence.

Here’s something you might like to try in your conversations with those around you:

Use the skills listed in these articles (like minimal encouragers and open body language), but when the other person finishes speaking, wait five seconds before saying anything.

You might be surprised to find how often people start talking again if you give them the space to work out what they want to say next.

If people are engaged with their feelings, or coming to an awareness of them, sometimes it takes them time to process what’s going on or to find ways of putting it into words. Giving them space instead of “jumping in” with something to say lets them stay with that process and helps them work to a better understanding of what’s going on for them.

Most people are not used to silence in conversation – as the person remaining silent you can feel uncomfortable and be tempted to fill the gap with talking. As you grow more used to leaving silences, the anxieties that you may have felt early on will tend to subside so that you can become more adept at using it to help the other person express themselves.

As you practice, you might want to experiment with leaving longer silences, perhaps ten seconds, or twenty, or even longer. With practice, your sense of when this is helpful will tend to grow stronger.

Are there any clues as to when it’s useful to stay silent?

If the person stops speaking but doesn’t look at you, that may be a sign that they are working through something. If they look away from you but appear to be caught up in their own thoughts, there’s a strong possibility that they are working through thoughts or feelings that they will presently put into words. Your respectful silence at that point will help them work through that process.

Pay attention to body language and facial expression. If they look agitated or uncomfortable, or have an expression such as a furrowed brow they may be working through difficult feelings. They are clearly working hard at something rather than just becoming bored or disengaging from their issue. Often in these circumstances their awareness of the feeling comes first, and there is a time lag before the speaker can manage to put it into words. These clues help you spot that this is a good time to give them space to find words.

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