Silence – how, where and why to find it

There was an owl lived in an oak.
The more he heard, the less he spoke.
The less he spoke, the more he heard.
Why aren’t men like that wise old bird?

– Punch magazine, 1776

Sometimes it’s very hard for me not to get involved when I see a problem. Like many people, I’m a bit of a control freak. I like to know that all problems will be solvable; that the future is rosy; that I won’t be surrounded by unhappy colleagues in the morning; that I won’t ever have to say “I told you so” just because I couldn’t get someone to listen. If I find new patterns which can be used to solve things, I tend to want to share them with everyone.

Following advice, and the timely intervention of external forces, I have been trying out Silence; a highly effective problem-solving process. I have had such success with this that I want to share it with you.

There are many core practices which make up Silence. Here are the ones which have worked for me.

  1. Get plenty of sleep and downtime. This helps your concentration, and means that you have reserves of energy. These are important. Without reserves, you are less able to adapt to change, and will therefore feel an insane urge to control everything around you. This will make you want to speak (see part 3. )
  2. Find a really nasty cold and fall ill with it (there’s one around the office somewhere). The future will become someone else’s worry as you struggle with the present. You may also lose your voice. (You will not need to do this if you follow part 1. )
  3. When you want to speak, don’t. Wait until there’s a space to speak. When the silence comes, forget about speaking – just listen to it. There will be another time to speak. Try to get at least one piece of silence between each thought, and voicing it, if you can remember what it was. You may be forced to let some thoughts slip by unvocalised, but take confidence from my promise that it’ll be worth it in the end.

The results of my limited experiment have been astonishing.

  1. Firstly, I’ve realised that most of the problems I spot are not unique to my own insight. I do have unique insights, but so far, I’m spotting one every couple of days or so. That’s a lot less time than I spend talking. If I treat each of my insights as an opportunity to let someone else speak first, then the rarer thoughts become easier for me to spot.
  2. Secondly, I sometimes learn things in the time of not speaking which change my insights. I get time to reflect on them, and to work out how to phrase them in the best way, and at the best time.
  3. Thirdly, I get so much more respect when I finally do speak. When I say things, they’re more often things that no one else has said.
  4. Lastly, and most importantly – those people who don’t speak often seem to say the wisest things. They’re very interesting people to listen to. If I don’t speak, then they have an opportunity to do so.
    I’ve learnt so much from these people that I want to be one of them.

All of this is common sense, but it’s so much harder to put into practice than it should be. We ThoughtWorkers are often seen as an arrogant bunch, and not without reason; it takes courage (or the intervention of external forces) to give up control, and a certain level of trust in your colleagues and customers to let them take it from you. I’m learning, and it’s an interesting, if bumpy, ride.

A number of people have been instrumental lately in seeing me through recent challenges and uncertainties. Thank you is always worth saying, so to everyone who’s taken the time to help me and put me in touch with my inner owl: please accept my gratitude and respect. It’s rare to feel both humbled and uplifted at the same time.

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4 Responses to Silence – how, where and why to find it

  1. anonymous says:

    Wow, you seem a lot like me. People that know me either forget or give up to tell me to shut up. People that don’t know me remind me to give other people space to talk. But when I see an opportunity to speak, I can hardly control myself.

    You’re right, wait for the silence and even then wait a little longer. My new goal in live, wait for silence! πŸ™‚

  2. anonymous says:

    You talk about something I’ve sorta come to know subconciously over the last little while (we have the same self control issues though :P).

    It’s great to have this stuff re-inforced every once in awhile though… I learn by seeing, touching, smelling, tasting, oh and repeating… again, and again, and again πŸ™‚

  3. anonymous says:

    I too am learning this lesson. Have you thought about creating some Silence Katas, ways of practicing silence — too often I find I’m speaking before I have realised it. I try to use some tricks to catch this, like you described. Maybe we should create some katas – I’m sure the Yipster would love this.


  4. kmhoofnagle says:

    … and have been meaning to comment on it. I recently went to an “unprogrammed”(which means silent) Quaker Meeting and started reading their philosophy and approach. Meditative silence and a quest for what some will call God but others can call Inner Truth or Centering or whatever name makes them content seems to be at the heart of their expression of religious faith.

    It’s interesting, too, that their “first day school” (which translates to Sunday school) is about teaching conflict resolution, sharing and anger management to their kids. Basically, Quakers seem to be trying to teach themselves and their kids to be diplomats… or possibly good Project Managers and Team Leads.

    I don’t write much about software myself (though I program and have worn several life cycle hats in my life), but I do enjoy reading you.

    You might take a look at

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