Lessons in Silence

By Andrew Boyd

In my second year of seminary I had to complete a certain amount of hours of patient contact at a local hospital in Yonkers, New York. Under the care of a hospital chaplain and a seminary professor, I was supposed to learn the skills necessary for visiting patients in a hospital, and then apply them. Now, I grew up in New England, where feelings and emotions are rightly oppressed and hidden from the general public. The prospect of speaking to strangers about their feelings and spiritual experience was to me, terrifying. The first person I visited asked me why I hated Muslims so much (I don’t), the second patience described in detail her recent hysterectomy as I tried to keep my composure. But, over time, I learned to be a bit better, and to abide by some simple rules in order to make these visits about the patient, the person in need, and not about me.

Avoid Small Talk

I love small talk. I can pretend to care about anything from the New York Yankees to the Weather in Seattle, to the current political situation in Ghana. I perfected my ability to talk at length about any subject and pretend to be interested in it as an undergrad in business school. One of the hardest lessons I learned in the hospital setting is that people want and need most to talk about themselves. They need to voice their suffering, their struggle, and their frustrations. They probably don’t need to hear me prattle on about a sports team. Beyond, “Hello, I’m Andrew. How are you today?”, I learned to keep my small talk to myself

It Might Not Be Okay

We have a tendency to respond to tragedy and uncomfortable situations with clichés and pious platitudes. They make us feel better. I learned early on, that they don’t make patients feel better. We might be tempted to say things we feel are comforting like “It’s going to be ok” or “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.” The fact is, most of us are not medical professionals, and we don’t know how things are going to turn out. It very well might not be “ok”. Also, I think we can all relate to a feeling of exactly having more on our plate than we can handle. Platitudes and clichés may sound comforting, but they are deceiving. They comfort us, the healthy, uncomfortable person, but accomplish little for the sick and suffering.

Not Your Agenda

Business school taught me to set agendas before I met with people, to have concrete goals in mind for every interaction and conversation. I had to try so hard to break myself of that behavior, because when you are visiting someone who is sick, it’s not really about you and what you want. It’s about what they want to talk about. It’s about their suffering, their ambiguity, their search for faith and meaning. It’s decidedly not about anything I want to talk about.

Silence is a Powerful Tool

I never realized how powerful silence can be. We don’t really like silence in our society, and we seek to fill it in any way possible. Just look at people on any means of public transportation (bus, train, whatever), everyone has their ear buds in, trying desperately to fill the silence. What I didn’t know and I learned over a year of making visits to people, was that silence is the best tool for making people open up and share. If am a disciplined enough to not say anything, to not respond with whatever story comes to my mind when the other person is talking, the patient will just continue to talk, sharing more and more about what really is bothering them. Disciplined silence from the person visiting allows the sick and suffering to deeply share their thoughts, feelings, and concerns.

Name Feelings, Repeat Back

Of course silence alone might make it feel like a one-way conversation, with the patient talking to an inanimate object. There are many ways to respond that will encourage the patient to feel at ease and share more, instead of turning the conversation to something about myself. A simple way is to name feelings. “You sound frustrated.” I learned that you don’t even need to necessarily name the correct feeling. For example, the patient could respond to that by saying “Yes! I do feel frustrated, exactly, here’s why…” or by saying “No, I don’t feel frustrated, I feel depressed, and here’s why…”. Another simple way to make sure the patient knows you are listening, and that he or she has your undivided attention, is to repeat back a little of what they said. Silence is a great tool, but the patient also needs to know that you actually are listening and that you actually care about what they are saying.

Pray With Them

Growing up in the Church, I never had much exposure to extemporaneous prayer. But, that is the type of prayer that most people expected when I visited them. I eventually adjusted, many times simply praying the Lord’s Prayer or modeling an extemporaneous prayer on a prayer from my Orthodox prayer book. Talking about prayer was also a great way to help a patient share what is honestly going on in their lives. The simple question “What or who would you like to pray for?” often opened up a flood-gate of stories, relationships, hopes, fears, and anxieties. I always offered patients choices in prayer, especially if I wasn’t certain of their religious background. The choices were, I can prayer for you now, I can pray with you now, I can prayer for you later (privately), or I can not pray for you if you’d wish. The patient is in the driver’s seat, he or she makes the decision.

Stop Talking

At the end of my assignment, when the professor asked the class what we learned in our time in the hospital, I volunteered to go first. “I learned to Shut-up,” I loudly declared. I learned the power of the discipline of silence, of actually listening to the people in my life instead of merely waiting for my turn to talk. All the little lessons I learned in the hospital are perfectly transferrable to any situation, with any person, if I have the discipline to quiet myself for the sake of the other.