Stoney lessons on the importance of silence

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, April 20, 2005

Most of us have been to symphony and choral concerts where the music reaches a still point at the end of a movement – a significant pause that is as much part of the composition as the actual notes themselves. The conductor's body language clearly indicates there is more to follow. But inevitably, some in the audience, taking their cue only from what they do not hear, misinterpret the silence and break into applause. After they embarrass themselves and annoy everyone else for a few seconds, the music continues.

It's all about the art of real listening – the art of being mindfully present to the moment and to those with whom we share the moment. It's about discernment and patient waiting. It's about not exploiting another's intentional stillness to push our own agenda.

And it's not just about music. How about conversation?

Some folks tell me I'm not a bad conversationalist. If that's true now, it certainly has not always been the case. I grew up in a social context where verbalizing ideas was a fast-and-furious sport. Even the slightest pause on the part of the person speaking to me was to be latched onto as an opening for me to bulldoze through with my own two cents worth.

Listening served only to find an opportunity to break in with my own ignorance.

What's caused me to try to change my ways?

Forty years of life with elders of the Stoney Nakoda First Nation west of Cochrane.

When I became associated with the Stoney community in 1965 as a Bible translation consultant, linguist and cross-cultural communicator, I naively assumed I had much to say. And weren't my hosts fortunate to listen to me? Now in 2005, I know it's really the other way around: Stoney elders have long had much to say, and I'm the fortunate one if I indeed do listen!

Real listening hasn't come easily, however.

Stoney elders would sit down with me over tea and begin sharing their wisdom. But then they'd pause, and I would consistently misread their momentary silence as an invitation for me to cut in with my own inappropriate comments.

They'd be incredibly indulgent of my ignorance, allowing me to ramble on and on. Then when I finally ran out of words, they'd pick up where they left off earlier and continue what they were saying.

Over the years, I've noticed I wasn't alone in this cultural insensitivity. I've been at meetings between Stoney leaders and non-Stoney professionals where the same communication failure kept cropping up.

The non-Stoney visitor raises an important question of their Stoney host. The Stoney spokesperson will just be getting into their reply but pauses a few seconds to collect their thoughts before transitioning into the real substance of their remarks.

And – wouldn't you know it – the non-Stoney visitor thinks the Stoney speaker is finished and jumps in with a new direction in the conversation, without ever hearing the heart of what the Stoney speaker had to say.

Maybe this cultural misreading of silence on the part of many non-Stoneys comes from the dominant society's fear of silence. I mean, if sheer silence suddenly interrupted our prevailing noise, I think most of us would be panic-stricken.

In the Stoney way, however, silence is an important feature not only of conversation, but of life as a whole. You go to a wake, sit in the living room with 30 or 40 others, and never say more than a word or two the whole time. Your physical presence speaks more eloquently and comfortingly than all the fancy words in the world.

Or you have an important decision to make, or are seeking direction for your life. You go out to a mountain or hillside, sit on a rock outcropping for hours, and listen for the Voice that speaks more softly than the breeze and the whispering pines.

Yes, if in any way I'm learning to be a better conversationalist, it is in large measure thanks to the influence of Stoney elders in making me a better listener. And for this I am profoundly grateful. For they have made me aware of the importance of silence and of patient waiting.

© 2005 Warren Harbeck

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