The Art of Silence: How Speaking Less Can Make You More Intelligent, Compassionate, and Successful
Are you limiting yourself by talking too much?
"Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people." - Eleanor Roosevelt
That's one of my favorite quotes, and it's never far from the back of my mind. It only takes a few bus rides, a couple of walks around the city, and a trip to the local cafe to realize the universal truth of this statement.
It seems we live in a world where everyone is talking and nobody is listening. We're all so quick to hand out sage-like advice, but we're equally reluctant to receive it. The streets are rife with celebrity gossip, the buzz of superiority around a particular sports team, and discussions of the (perpetually) impending weather…
So, where are all these great minds? Are they secretly hiding in science labs, art studios, and forgotten libraries?
No. They're out there amongst the gossip in the streets and the idle chatter on the bus. They're everywhere, hidden along with great intentions and aspirations.
I believe we all have the capacity for greatness. But like the innocence, creativity, and playfulness we have as children, it's often conditioned out of us. We surrender it to the outside world and lose ourselves in the process. Luckily, silence can help us retrieve some of that greatness.
But before we can take advantage of being silent in our daily lives, it'll help if we develop some silence of the mind.
You've might have heard that the average person has 12,000 to 80,000 thoughts per day. Did you know that as many as 98 percent of them are exactly the same as the ones we had the day before?
Additionally, it's said that 80 percent of our thoughts are negative. So many people speak just for the sake of speaking. Either out of boredom, feeling uncomfortable, pride, arrogance, fear, etc. The list is endless. It's almost like there is no filter between the mind and the mouth with some people. Whatever idiotic thing pops up, pops out.
"Wise men speak when they have something to say. Fools speak because they have to say something." - Plato
When we're unconscious of what we're saying, these repetitive and negative thoughts become the main ingredients that comprise our speech, what we have to say. Because most of what we think isn't worth thinking, let alone speaking. Yet despite all this, we prattle on like our lives depend on it. We might depend on communication, but talking isn't always communication.
Observing the mind
This is a sure way to become aware of how many thoughts are occurring in the mind at any given time. The easiest way to accomplish this is through meditation. Most forms of mediation will, over time, result in a quieter mind. Once the incessant chatter of the mind has decreased, our compulsion to speak constantly will subside along with it.
There are a plethora of reasons why mystics and spiritual elders rarely speak, and why monks take vows of silence. But we don't have to perform such extreme austerities in order to profit from silence.
The Benefits of Speaking Less
Speaking less doesn't necessarily mean thinking less, but it can lead to better quality thoughts. By this, I mean thoughts that are infused with perception and awareness. These are gifts that come when we cultivate inner and outer silence. Because it's impossible to be perceptive of what's going on around you when you're busy talking all the time.
Intelligent people tend to speak less. But can speaking less make you more intelligent?
The less you speak the more you hear. The information and knowledge you have access to will increase substantially once you learn to silence your mind and your mouth. Naturally, your output will decrease and your input will increase. Ultimately, this will elevate what you know and help you come to terms with how much you don't know. Realizing how much you don't know and the humility that comes with this is a true sign of intelligence.
When you begin to recognize how much you actually don't know, you are much more likely to listen and observe, as opposed to speaking what you think you know.
"It's better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt". - Abraham Lincoln
This process will help illuminate your own cognitive biases, as well. This is what is referred to as the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Created by psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger, this is when someone fails to recognize their own incompetence and overestimates what knowledge they have. The more incompetent they are, the more ignorant they seem to be.
Let's take a moment to look at how all this adds up. When your mind is quiet, you are more observant, more perceptive, and able to think more clearly.
Because you're not concerned with speaking, your focus and attention is on listening. You will hear things and gain insights that you might not even have anticipated. And because of this, people will start to acknowledge that you're someone who is intelligent and thoughtful; which, in turn, will reinforce your confidence.
Now, you've literally begun shaping a new personality for yourself.
Time to process what we've experienced
A crucial aspect of intelligence is in being able to process information that we've learned and cultivating the ability to make use of it in the real world. When we're not silent internally, our minds are fraught with constant inner narration and dialogue. In this environment, it's difficult to receive and assimilate new information, let alone making sense of it.
This is the reason why when people say they need time to think, it involves spending time alone. Here, time and silence are the same thing. It is this silence of the conscious mind that allows the creative powers of the subconscious to shine through and provide illumination on our experience. Most of the potential-genius that's contained within each of us is beyond our conscious control.
The silent state is an open and receptive state. Do you ever get some of your greatest ideas while you're in the shower or as you're falling asleep at night? This is because you are operating from a place of relaxation and open awareness.
The frenetic energy of other people can have a major influence on our capacity to think clearly if we haven't developed inner silence. Just as our own chaotic thoughts can induce feelings of stress and anxiety, so to can the words of other people if we don't know how to remain silent whilst listening. Silence allows us to take a step back from whatever we're seeing or hearing, and observe from a calm and rational perspective. It will enable us to witness what's happening, free of personal bias and judgment.
Saying what's important
We've all had the experience of saying something that we shouldn't have: accidentally revealing the precious secret of a good friend, gossiping about a classmate out of jealousy, or blaming someone for something in which they actually had no part. It's an awful feeling when we realize we've said something we shouldn't have. We hurt other people and we hurt ourselves when we fail to control our speech.
These are the kinds of things that happen when we react too quickly. Developing a habit of inner and outer silence gives us time to process and sift through our thoughts which, in turn, enable us to respond intelligently to whatever is happening. This means that our words will be carefully selected and will be spoken in a calm and confident manner.
"Before you speak, ask yourself if what you are going to say is true, is kind, is necessary, is helpful. If the answer is no, maybe what you are about to say should be left unsaid." - Bernard Meltzer
When you refrain from speaking purely for the sake of it, you end up saying more of what's important, what's relevant, and what matters; and less of what's frivolous and untrue. We're now much more likely to provide a meaningful and impactful response to whomever we're dealing with. People are much more likely to listen to what you've got to say, and they will value your opinion. Your words will start to be equated with wisdom and experience.
This silent skill that you've developed will ultimately result in better relationships. A common reason why most relationships fail - romantic, professional, and platonic - is due to poor communication. Poor communication generally stems from not knowing how to accurately, honestly, and diplomatically communicate your ideas and feelings, and not knowing how to listen.
Many people complain of not being heard, not being understood. This is the reason why people frequently feel alone despite being in an intimate relationship. Could this be reversed by speaking less and learning how to listen?
Have you noticed that when you're in a conversation, you're not so much listening to the other person, but rather listening for an opportunity to speak? Waiting to react to what we think the other person is saying, even before they've finished saying it? Conversations like this lead nowhere and can often end up leaving people feeling more alienated and confused about their problems.
When someone is discussing an issue they have in their life with you, active listening will allow you to glimpse the feeling and intention behind the words they are using. It could take the form of frustration, anger, jealously, and pain. Ultimately, it's suffering. If you can connect with another persons suffering and empathize with them, your words are more likely to be guided by compassion for them.
When you really listen to people, you will find they will start opening up to you much more readily because they will sense that you are actually connecting with them. Maybe for the first time, ever, they will feel heard. Did you know that when most people are venting about a situation or problem, they're not always looking for advice? Sometimes they just want to be heard. Having someone really listen to you is profoundly curative.
When you show people you're willing to listen, it's unbelievable what they'll tell you. Notice I said when you "show" people. Not when you tell them. Anyone will tell you they're willing to listen, but it doesn't mean they are, or even that they are capable of it. Talk is cheap. Rare is the person whose words are aligned with their actions.
Additionally, when you speak less people will intuitively feel that you can be trusted. They will recognize you as someone that doesn't betray the trust of others behind their backs. There is dignity and virtue in silence.
Creating an aura - how you'll be perceived
Not all quiet types are timid introverts and loners. How frequently do we associate those that are reticent with being strong, intelligent, mysterious and alluring? Batman and Superman, two of the greatest superheroes were both men of few words. You'll notice it's common throughout film and literature that the protagonist, or their love interest, will generally be on the laconic side.
It's often what's not shown in a horror film that makes it scary and what's not told in a novel that creates intrigue. It's frequently what we don't know about a stranger that makes them attractive. It's the same reason we travel to distant places: we crave to discover what's unknown. The honeymoon period of a relationship has an expiry date because what was once new has since grown old. Can't the same be said about people who talk incessantly: that we tire of them quickly?
It's a common story. We make a new friend or develop a romantic interest in someone. At first, they seem cool, interesting, funny, maybe even virtuous. Someone you want to spend a lot of time around. But things slowly start to change. As they get more comfortable around you, they start speaking a little more and filtering a little less. Maybe it's complaining or maybe it's harmless gossip. Maybe it's completely boring and redundant. The new and interesting is replaced by the old and inane. It begins to outweigh what attracted you to them in the first place.
We've probably all had an experience like this. And we've all likely been that other person, the one that seemed cool or interesting, at first. I'm not saying that we shouldn't have criteria for our potential relationships, or that we should judge people harshly. What I am saying is that when we're conscious of our thoughts and of our speech, we become better friends and romantic partners. We set the bar for our relationships and help raise whoever we're with to a higher standard.
When we develop the habit of silence, of listening more and speaking only when we've got something of value to say, it'll change the way we're perceived. Actually, it will change the way we are. We'll appear more intelligent and more thoughtful because we will be. We will come across as more confident and more strong because that's how we'll feel. Our words will be sure, therefore we will seem sure of ourselves. We will constantly emanate an unknown factor, which will consistently pique the interest of other people.
These virtues and qualities that you have cultivated will result in a magnetic aura that will attract people and situations to you. You will have affected a vast amount of change by cultivating one small, but powerful, skill.
"Don't speak unless it improves on silence." - Borges