People, Culture and Inclusion

The Sound of Silence.


The Sound of Silence.

At the beginning of the week, Zoe shared a little of her relationship with music and how it motivated her in different ways. I, too, love music. I especially love loud live music, but also the way music creates deep emotions on screen, and the way it passes the time in the car. Where I don’t listen to music very often though, is when I am pottering about or working at home on my own. In those moments only peace will do. I think of putting the radio on occasionally but often switch it off again when the sounds grate against my enjoyment of the quiet.

I have realised that my thoughts are very loud in my head, and so I find music and other noises get in the way of hearing them. Perhaps not all noise, but any noise that is trying to get my attention rather than sitting comfortably in my periphery.

Silence is wonderfully powerful, like creating a vacuum that allows unspoken parts of us to peer outwards and stretch into the void. All of us are used to filling pauses in conversation with the next thought, tumbling from one idea to another, and sometimes that doesn’t allow any of them to land – or at least stay still enough to be examined.

This can feel safer, of course, and so I only use it in my work when I know it might be well received. In coaching, for example, it can be transformative, but uncomfortable. Or sometimes I will actively frame it – in a workshop when there has been a lot of chatter this might mean some of the learning points are lost, so I will ask the group to capture notes on paper or just spend a few moments silently reflecting. I know that half the group will be relieved and half will fidget uncomfortably and then reach for their phone.

Silence is rarely completely, fundamentally free from sound though. And those places, anechoic chambers, are disarming and uncomfortable, with people usually unable to spend more than a few minutes in them. “Normal” silence includes comforting noises of nature and life, birdsong and car engines, raindrops and ticking clocks. These noises can be meditative – a fact celebrated by the recent BBC Springwatch series, where they created 2 minute mindful moments with the usual TV techniques of music and commentary stripped away. These are some of my favourite moments of lockdown TV.

Others have used silence in artistic ways: The Sound of Silence podcast that records the silence between two people sharing a space; and composer John Cage’s piece 4’33” – a provocation that any sounds constitute music, that duration is a container for sound, and that responses to sound are as much a part of the experience as the sound itself.

And, of course, we use a two minute silence to honour the dead, and religious events often incorporate silent prayer. Both allow a few precious moments of quiet, personal reflection often lost in our noisy worlds.

So, next time your finger is hovering over that TV or radio on-switch, or you find yourself in a pause in conversation, just wait a few breaths more, notice the sounds around you and in your head, and just be sure you want to break that beautiful moment.

Juliet Flynn, Organisational and People Development

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