A Verbose Argument for Silence

Most of your communication is unnecessary, ego-reinforcing, and detrimental.

Posted Aug 21, 2016

Alexi Berry, used with permission
Source: Alexi Berry, used with permission

Life is full of paradoxes; this post, and its argument for silence, is another. The use of words to suggest being silent is ironic.  But what do we really say when we speak? What is really communicated? Is it merely the words? Of course it isn’t. There are volumes on body language and what is communicated without speaking. But the point of this post isn’t body language or what’s said when nothing is. It’s about how your communicating more than you intend with nearly every spoken word, and how unnecessary most of it is.

Words are necessary. We use them all of the time: speaking, text, email, and any other written correspondence. In one of the best articles I’ve read about relationships, Emily Esfahani Smith illuminates what leads to couples lasting: kindness and generosity in communication. It’s essential. Unfortunately, it is also often not the case, as she demonstrates in her article. More often than not, communication is unnecessary, telling of one’s inner working, and it can also be detrimental.

I recently taught a course where discussing interpretations of dreams was an integral part. Quite frequently the student’s interpretation of a peer’s dream was telling of her life process, thoughts, and feelings. Often the interpreter projected her beliefs into the dream, and attributed them to the dreamer. When her relationship had ended, she saw relationship issues in the dream. If parental conflict existed in the interpreter, he saw it in the dream. It was astounding in holding the class discussions how much I learned about the interpreter. Projection is a common psychological phenomenon. As I wrote in, “Your Dream World”, “what one finds in the world is a reflection of one’s unconscious.” If you can accept this, then how much of your communication about what you think you perceive is actually just your unconscious, and not reality?

A great many of my posts argue that most of what we think is biased, if not outright wrong (The Truth Will Not Set You Free, I’m Full of It, and So Are You, You and the Manifesting of Reality, The Big Lie). Despite all of the evidence of this, from TED Talks to the annals of psychology, we continue to trust thinking without much question. This is quite evident in the majority of our speech.

Much of what an individual says, outside of necessary communication, is simply ego reinforcement. On some level we all need to feel worthwhile, needed, important, smart, or better than. Communication so often serves little purpose other than reinforcing one’s ego. This comes as defending one’s beliefs, or demonstrating one’s prowess on a certain topic. The ego, which is needed to balance one’s drives and function in the world, often has a gluttonous disposition. We want to show what we know, or think we know. It is sometimes done out of seeming concern to help others correct their mistaken thoughts, actions, or beliefs, but is ego reinforcing at its core. It exists in this post, and in some of the comments on other posts. It exists in discussion forums, and can be found just about everywhere there is written word.

Another issue with all of the unnecessary communication that exists is the lack of concern for the receiver’s world. When communicating mindlessly, the risk of offense or hurting another escalates, yet is rarely considered. We are not privy to others’ inner worlds. I cannot count how many times I’ve put my foot in my mouth by speaking without understanding or considering the receiver’s inner world. Of course this isn’t malicious. But at the same time, it can be careless. I have a client who has had difficulty getting pregnant. Beside the onslaught of news she gets about others’ joyous conceptions, she is frequently questioned about whether she is trying to have kids, or why she doesn’t have them. This causes her distress. And honestly, what is the purpose of that communication? Do these acquaintances really care, or are they curious, or seeking information to reinforce their ego?

Another example of this is when we comment on how someone’s appearance has changed. When you point out someone has gained weight, what is your purpose? Recently I lost a few pounds and a student asked if I was sick. I read some time ago that you should never tell a man he’s balding, as he already knows. Yet people do. Take a few minutes and think of the motives that underlie these examples of communication. Are they for good? Or are they simply reinforcing one’s own ego through one’s observational skills.

There is a common saying found on social media about how people don’t listen but wait for their turn to speak. Carl Rogers, one of the fathers of Humanistic Theory, has written about the power of really hearing another. It stands to reason if more people really listened more of the time, the mistakes above would be greatly reduced. The interest would be in the other, rather than reinforcing one’s ego.

Eastern thought, especially Buddhism, has a focus on Right Speech. The goal of right speech is to avoid four types of speech: lying, divisive speech, abusive speech, and idle chatter. It is my argument here that much of common communication falls into these categories. It is idle (serving no purpose), it is dishonest (as the truth is more elusive than everyone thinks), and it can be abusive, whether we know it or not.

The acronym THINK is often used for right speech: Is it True? Is it Helpful? Is it Inspiring? Is it Necessary? Is it Kind? (Samahita, B.). We would all likely benefit from asking these questions more often before communicating. It is often said in Buddhism, “how do you expect to quiet your mind, if you can’t quiet your mouth?”.  This acronym, and more mindful communication, would be an excellent start.

Another strategy I use to avoid excessive communication, whether it is written or verbal, is to remember I’m working on silence. I meditate to quiet my mind in the morning, focusing on silence. I remind myself regularly throughout the day that my thoughts are inaccurate, my perception is biased, and my thoughts are generally ego reinforcing and do not even really matter (I’m Full of It, and So Are You). With this I am sometimes able to stop myself from responding to others unnecessarily or to engage others inappropriately. Perhaps you will find it helpful as well.

Copyright William Berry, 2016


Samahita, Bhikkhu; What is Right Speech; DharmaTalks.net; retrieved from: http://www.dhammatalks.net/samahita/What_is_Right_Speech.htm

Smith, E; 2014; Masters of Love; The Atlantic; Retrieved from: http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/06/happily-ever-after/372...

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