On Silence
— Being Aware

Can silence be a superpower? What is the potential of slowing it all down and diving into the practice of listening? Poet and researcher Olga Lehmann has studied what silence can do to us, our multi-layered health and everyday wellbeing.

What is silence?

Silence is a big word. An abstract and even confusing one. Yet, certainly a fascinating one as well. What has helped me to understand “silence” personally and as a researcher has been to focus on what “silence is not”. Thus, let us begin by exploring that. Even if apparently “silence” seems like void, emptiness or nothingness, it is not empty or void at all.  I like thinking of it as a room, and when we as human beings enter such silent rooms in everyday life, what do we notice? What do we fill this room with? 

Silence is not the mere absence of sound either. Actually, we can´t experience pure silence, unless we die! For example, some years ago my students and I visited an anechoic chamber at the department of acoustics at NTNU. These chambers are supposed to be the most silent places on earth. Yet, once standing there by my own, I started to hear what I thought was a truck! Where did this come from I wondered? It took me some minutes to realize I could hear the sound of my eyelashes touching the mask I was wearing (since there´s granite powder in the walls of many of these chambers). On a daily basis we can seldom listen to the friction of our eye-lashes. Thus, what silence enables, according to my experience and my research, is to focus attention on internal or external stimuli.

Now, let us move onwards to what “silence” is. I myself prefer to coin it as silence-phenomena in my theory, to evoke the complexity that surrounds silent experiences, since the word “silence” alone—and specially in English, can convey very different meanings. In a nutshell, some authors such as Bruneau and Ishii differentiate silence, silences and silencing. Some people call this mystical, poetic, aesthetic or transcendental experiences, since there are few words that can be faithful to the immensity of such experiences. Artists are per excellence those who can portrait the intensity of those encounters. In addition, silence can also refer to communicational processes, such as taking turns during a conversations, or to social settings such as museums, waiting rooms, temples, where there is an intention (sometimes quite unclear!) to hold silence for a particular purpose (yet we don´t always afford such purpose; for instance going to a temple doesn´t mean we would have a mystical experience or get to listen to God´s voice). Then, silencing can also refer to imposing power on another person, such as oppression or rhetoric. 

Why is silence important for our health and everyday lives?

Silence-phenomena have a super-power; that of enhancing attention. Perhaps the most trendy example related to silence is “mindfulness”, which is a technique to train attention and awareness with curiosity and in non-judgmental and kind ways. If you go to a meditation class, the teacher might ask you to sit “still”. That is, to sit without moving, and to focus your attention on your breath. Yet, you are actually listening to the teacher’s voice! And we might even notice different voices aloud in our mind. Or, think about a very Norwegian cultural experience, such as friluftsliv. Friluftsliv implies embracing silence in nature, and many researchers have already proven that spending time in nature helps us to restore our attentional capacities, so that we charge our batteries to come back to our routines with a new spark. Or even think of those moments where you are writing an important e-mail and lock yourself into a room so not to be distracted. Or when you go to work in a café and put headphones on in order to help “silencing the mind” and focus. Thus, silence-phenomena are not empty spaces, they are always bringing us somewhere: be it to an internal or external focus of our attention.

To train our capacity of attention and awareness has direct implications for our health. That is, silent experiences can help us relax and rest, which reduces stress, and they also promote creativity and imagination, which is crucial for motivation and performance at work.

Nonetheless, training the mind to observe itself is a crucial skill for developing emotional intelligence. Pausing constantly, even if only for a couple of minutes at a time, and observing our feelings and thoughts, can help us to more consciously act and be responsible in our interactions with others. Thus silences in everyday life, such as meditation, or time-off help us develop our self-esteem, our empathy towards others and towards ourselves. Daniel Goleman, who is the pioneer of emotional intelligence, points this out clearly; just about 5% of our actions in daily life are conscious! This means, 95% of the time we might be unconsciously reacting to situations, expressing ourselves out of patterns and fears. Silence-phenomena can become a doorway to get to know and accept ourselves, but also a possibility for learning to relate to others and to ourselves in healthier ways.

What do silence-phenomena do to us?

I often say that it is true that “silence is golden” as the song says, yet what my research findings suggest is that we want to have the gold of silence-phenomena without paying the price. When I listen to people sharing with me stories about silence-phenomena, and when I analyzed my data during my PhD, I learnt that we have many ideals upon what “silence” can give us. For instance, people idealize silence as sources for wisdom, insight, rest, even our most intimate experiences might involve silence in certain degrees (making love, dying, praying). Yet, silence-phenomena act as contrast or ruptures in our daily life, and this brings in tension. Have you ever experienced awkward silences at a party, and then either saying something silly just to break the tension, or listening to someone speak bullshit just to fill in the “emptiness of silence”?

In a nutshell, I argue that we blame “silence”. People say “Break the silence”, right? But “silence” is not necessarily something we need to break. That is, instead of breaking the tension that silence-phenomena might evoke, we need to start paying attention to such tension, and that which we can learn from it. Silence-phenomena might increase our perception of uncertainty. What is happening next? What we yearn for as human beings is relational depth, to connect with others, with nature, with ourselves, with God… and silence-phenomena make us aware of how uncertain existence is in itself. This can raise angst, yet again – by avoiding silence-phenomena we are not avoiding the angst, angst is a part of life and we might have to embrace it sooner or later, in one way or the other.

Silent experiences might just make us realize how obsessed we are with “doing” and how challenging “just being” becomes. This might sound too philosophical, but it is related to our mental and emotional health, if not to our physical health as well. To allow ourselves to S.L.O.W. D.O.W.N. through silent experiences, pausing into not-doing but being, can be healthy! Healthy as it breaks this societal ideas of “perfection”, “performance” and “knowing”, which are not necessarily faithful to what being human is about. Thus, being human is actually not knowing, accepting uncertainty and that not everything is under control. That is, we need to learn how to turn off the automatic pilot that can lead us to “black and white” pictures of reality, so that we can embrace the colors and nuances of life as it unfolds to us. Being human is acknowledging that I.T. T.A.K.E.S. T.I.M.E. to process our feelings and emotions, that the mind plays tricks on us all the time and therefore we do not need to believe what she/he says, and instead question it, dialogue with it, gain perspective upon our beliefs.

Experiencing silence-phenomena on a daily basis can even promote changes in our brain. That is, silence, such as in mindfulness, can promote mental plasticity, which can be translated into how flexible we are to adapt to circumstances and embrace life in its ups and downs, as well as being able to stay more present in the here and now. Thus, it is  almost impossible for a person to say, “I feel the grey matter in my brain growing, it can be because of silence”. Yet what we might start noticing after practicing meditation or learning to tolerate diverse silent experiences in daily life, is that we are able to identify and differentiate the multiple voices in our minds, as well as the emotions and feelings that arise in particular situations. For instance, we might become aware of “Humm, I am feeling quite anxious because I am going on this date with my friend whom I like. Some thoughts tell me I am not lovable nor sexy enough, it might be my inner critic being so active…because I so much hope this date goes well”. Does it make sense? With the mental plasticity that silence-phenomena can give, we can better observe our thoughts, feelings and emotions without engaging in them, but having a perspective of what are the values or goals that are at stake. So again; these capacities are crucial for mental and emotional wellbeing, plus they also help us to become healthier co-workers, friends, parents, human beings.

If something, embracing silence-phenomena has made me humble. The  more I allow myself to embrace both the golden and the dark sides of silence-phenomena, it helps me understand why I react in the ways I do, where do my biggest fears come from, and so on. This has also encouraged me to keep a “maybe mindset” over a “I’m right you are wrong” one. In this way I can more easily admit I am distracted at times, that I can say things that I do not necessarily mean when I am triggered, that my perception of reality changes through time, that life is confusing, that emotions take time to be processed. It has also helped me to make tough decisions in order to stand up for my values, and to coexist with the tension that making these decisions evoke. By sharing this, I am hoping it is easier to grasp the concrete ways in which silence-phenomena can improve our mental health, or become a resource for us to cope with mental health challenges.

I also find it fascinating that silent experiences make people more appreciative of the small details of everyday life. I am a beauty hunter! And I encourage participants of my workshops and classes to become one themselves too! Being able to taste more the tea we drink every morning, by enjoying it´s perfume, or feeling caught by particular landscapes … These expressions of silence-phenomena can become motivational and also support us when facing suffering, when grieving, and so on. Silence-phenomena can expand our appreciation for the instant. For example, I am now teaching a course called “Mindful Eating” for ROS Rådgivning om spiseforstyrrelser (organization for eating disorders). In these courses we teach people who have difficult relationships with food and their bodies, among other things, to slow down and become aware of the sensations, emotions and thoughts that are present before, during and after eating. In one of the meditations we learn there, we even try to track the history of all the people and beings who have made it possible for us to have a specific food in our plate (e.g. a raising, a carrot). This can help people to realize how interconnected we are, and to experience gratefulness for all what makes it possible for us to have certain foods with us. Some of my course participants even raised environmental awareness through this meditation, since noting all the chain of consumption behind certain food products might help them choosing more wisely the food their buy. This can have effects both in health promotion but also in promoting environmental behaviors!

How were you personally taken onto this road of investigation?

I enjoy playing with the idea that silence found me. I can´t provide a rational explanation of how I landed into this topic.

To begin with, before and beyond considering myself a psychologist, I consider myself a poet, and I have been always curious about the possibilities and boundaries of language. I am interested in why we communicate the way we do, and why we – in our everyday lives – struggle to put our feelings and emotions into words. That is, we have a lot of ideals about how communication should be (e.g. direct, honest, short and sweet etc), but in practice, we are often landing into catch 22 situations, dilemmas, and misunderstandings. We also need time to find words that are faithful to our experiences. Thus, in everyday life, we are constantly making use of different silent settings, which might or might not help us to process our feelings and emotions. 8 years ago I was writing my master’s thesis in Italy about communication on death in palliative care. I was not, or at least not consciously, touching upon silence-phenomena. Then I was attending a seminar in Lecce in the winter of 2010, and while having lunch, an Italian professor said out loud that we all should write a book about the psychology of everyday life. It was a very funny conversation, people said they were writing about pencils, underwear, lipsticks, lottery, etc. It was such a casual encounter that I almost thought it was a joke. When they asked me – Olga, what would you write about? I had not much to say, and I said “silence”, just to play around. Some months after I received a formal invitation letter to write a book chapter about “silence in everyday life” and I declined the invitation, insisting that “I had nothing to say about silence”.  Yet the professors insisted that it was such an interesting topic, and the more I started reading about it, as well as realizing that many theories ignored silence, I was caught. And 8 years later, here I am, with a PhD on silence, and writing books and articles about the topic, with the reassurance that it is a theme we all can learn something from.

Can silence be a “superpower” in dialogue?

Silence-phenomena can be a super-power in dialogue, since they enable people to listen more mindfully and compassionately. I work as an educator at Pracademy, a global innovation company. With my friend, mentor and colleague Fede Lozano, we are developing a methodology: compassionate innovation. Through compassionate innovation we want, among other things, to support our clients to listen mindfully. This can help designers and health care professionals to better empathize with their users/clients. The main purpose of compassionate innovation, as far as we envision it, is to support health care professionals, social workers and service designers, to explore and deeply understand human suffering in order to provide services and products that genuinely transform the experiences of their patients and clients. In doing so we are also targeting at preventing fatigue and burnout among health care professionals by providing strategies for self-care. 

Back to the point of dialogue, in addition to training ourselves on how to listen more compassionately, in our Compassionate Innovation workshops we also focus on helping people to discern when is it wise or not to speak. Because this can give others the opportunity to talk!

Our society encourages extroversion as the legitimate ideal of how to perform at work, for instance. What if we also let introverts show us their super-power by giving more pauses during work-meetings for reflection, or to let those who speak the least to also share their points of view?

These are ways of promoting mental health at work, since our relationships and the ways in which we feel seen and validated at work are directly related with stress, motivation and purpose, among other psychological phenomena. This is of great importance for teamwork, if not for any other human relationship. We are seldom aware of the dynamics that make communication so messy, and exploring silence-phenomena can help us shift these dynamics into settings that more effectively make people feel understood and connected. That is, trying to connect these ideas with your previous questions, learning how to consciously embrace silence-phenomena in our daily lives makes it possible for us to also have more conscious actions.

How do you use silence in your teaching? How do you work with the topic in your research?

In brief, I was teaching an interdisciplinary course at NTNU for Master students, where my students had to develop community projects to promote quality of life through “silence”.  What became more relevant for me as a teacher and researcher, was how my students experienced and understood silence-phenomena themselves, so I created a “silent time”. Thus, every morning we spent half an hour playing with silent experiences. Every morning I will present my students a poem, song, painting about silence-phenomena! Or sometimes we did meditations or other experimental tasks. After experiencing this, my students and I journaled upon what happened, how we felt, the memories that came up. I analyzed some of the diaries of my students, focusing on how their understanding of silence-phenomena evolved in the course of the class, and what was at the core of their experiences, when it comes to feelings and emotions.

How do you use silence in ­therapy?

In psychotherapy and counselling, silence-phenomena can be used in at least three different ways. For instance, it can be used as a source of meditation and/or contemplation. That is, the psychologist or counsellor can provide meditative practices inside of the therapeutic process, or use it as a personal self-care practice outside the practice room. Research supports the fact that therapists who meditate develop self-care practices that also help them cope with workloads or emotional fatigue. For those people who work on pastoral care or that consider themselves religious, inner silence can be seen as prayer. In a secular perspective contemplation and silence can be understood as appreciation. I call this “poetic instants”, coining Gaston Bachelard and Octavio Paz. That is, we can use silent experiences to consciously direct attention towards the beauty of everyday life. Is it a leaf dancing with the wind? A waterfall? The smile of a stranger? What are these tiny moments of our everyday life whose significance is difficult to put into words, yet whose presence in our lives can help us reconcile with the tragic aspects that are also part of life.

In addition, silence-phenomena can be used in psychotherapy in order to promote listening. That is, the therapist can bring in spaces in between words or questions, in which both therapist and client can reflect, have time to find words that are more accurate to their experience, or even to honor experiences that are ineffable (e.g. such as grief). That is, one can acknowledge that one does not need to “talk about everything” and to be together with someone that understands this can be liberating, and healing. I still recall one of my clients in Colombia who didn’t want to talk at home after his father’s death. When he came to my practice, I invited him to be in silence together, which was rather a spontaneous invitation, an act of compassion that appeared to be rather intuitive. It is hard to comprehend that someone has suddenly died, and it can be overwhelming to feel pressured to talk when there are no words that suffice in those moments. We spent the session in a silence that was more comfortable than I could ever imagine, and before he left he asked me to listen to a song of Radiohead with him. So we did. Weeks after his family contacted me and asked: what did you do, Olga? He seems so relieved after he was with you? I said “nothing”. And yet, this “nothingness” that silence can resemble is full of significance.


DIY tips to improve our silent experiences in everyday life:

  • Explore silence-phenomena in your own rhythm. Notice in which contexts you enjoy silence and in which contexts you avoid it. What is your quiet time about? Is it a walk in the forest, hugging a tree, listening to piano music, taking a long bath, or lying on the couch and looking at the wall? Create rituals and devote some time for non-doing. Create consistency. 10 minutes of silence a day might benefit you more than 2 hours once a year. Thus you can grow your tolerance to silence and accept that feeling awkward, vulnerable, anxious, uncertain or impatient is part of being a human! And not necessarily something to fix. Growing our tolerance for silence – be it through meditation, contemplation, prayer, deep listening or rest, can help us getting to know ourselves and others better, and therefore to relate to others and to ourselves in healthier ways.
  • When there are silences in a conversation, who breaks silence first? Is it you? Try listening to others with your heart, without interrupting them to tell stories about your life or to give advice; unless that person has explicitly asked for it.
  • Become a beauty hunter. Take some time to look at the sky, look at a stranger´s smile. Train your attention towards the sparks of beauty in everyday life. This ain´t change nor overlap with other experiences that evoke tension or uncertainty, but help us understand that life in itself involves the coexistence of simultaneous layers of feelings, emotions and thoughts.
  • Find a type of meditative or contemplative practice that works for you. Be patient for meditation is not a state of “pleasure” but a process of observation of the contents of consciousness, an intention to listen to what is genuine for us. Meditative and contemplative practices are in great regard about listening, about dialogues with ourselves, with god, encounters with nature or with art.
  • Embrace the uncertainty that silence-phenomena unveil and do so with curiosity and with a non-judgmental attitude. This is easier in theory than in practice, so make your everyday life a playground. What if we stay silent 30 more seconds at this meeting in order to let our co-workers speak as well? What if we dare to speak and ask another person to listen to us without giving us advice or try to fix? What if we book that silent retreat and devote some time for self-care and rest? What if we give ourselves time to journal or have walks in order to reflect upon crucial decisions? What if uncertainty or ambiguity is not something to overcome but to embrace responsibly by acknowledging our human condition?

Learn more on Olga Lehmann’s work on pracademy.co and poeticinstants.com.


This is an article from Hauste Magazine.

Words by Olga Lehmann and Mira Beckstrøm Laurantzon.

Photographs by Alexander Benjaminsen