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An Awkward Silence
We don't always have the right words. But showing our intentions helps.
“You have a grand gift of silence, Watson,” said he. “It makes you quite invaluable as a companion.” — Arthur Conan Doyle, 1891
“I really don’t know what to say.”
That’s how I opened a conversation with a friend in the last couple of days — a friend who has family in Israel right now.
I hope you know what to say to this:
“I just don’t have the words,” I continued.
Having read and seen enough of the news coverage of the horrific massacre over the weekend, I was simply at a loss.
But my friend understood my intentions. He knew that by simply expressing my shock and sadness, I was in solidarity with him.
Had I chosen not to mention it, he might have thought differently. That is, if I had chosen the path of silence, it would have communicated something else entirely.
Silence, in that case, would have been deafening.
The challenge, I think, is that too often, we try to fill the silence by yammering away — filling a void with vapid conversation. And that can have an unsettling effect.
No Refuge in Silence
In the 1860s, toward the end of his life, Charles Babbage, the father of computing, “never abstained from the publication of his sentiments when he thought that his silence might imply his approbation,” wrote his friend Harry Buxton, “nor did he ever take refuge in silence when he believed it might be interpreted as cowardice.”
And isn’t that what this moment calls for?
Not to lay claim to your newfound expertise in global geopolitics. But the courage to let people know you’re there for them. That you support them.
When people we care about endure some catastrophic event, we don’t have to be eloquent; we simply have to demonstrate that we care.
A death in the family, a pandemic, and world-altering terrorist event — none of these is easy to bear, but it does feel better when we know we’re surrounded by people who care about us.
Asking your people “How are you holding up?” or saying “I imagine you must be having a hard time right now” is a simple way of showing concern and empathy without requiring them to talk extensively about what’s going on.
There are people around you right now who are not okay.
People who have a connection to what’s happening in Israel. People who are understandably rattled about the brutality of the sheer evil unleashed over the weekend.
You could extend a gentle word to them.
Maybe you’d consider postponing meetings with them because of this sensitive time.
Or you might simply offer to sit with them in silence and keep them company.
The silence doesn’t have to be awkward. When done with intention, it’s quite natural.
A grand gift, even.
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the Internet.
One more thing:
We have an entire section here at Timeless & Timely all about empathy. Newsletters, reflections, and podcast episodes that have something to do with that essential ingredient in emotionally intelligent leaders.
I hope you can appreciate the effort this work takes. While I find writing to be therapeutic, my sincerest hope is that you’ll find it helpful as well.