In August of 1919, the great psychologist Milton Erickson was diagnosed with polio, a debilitating virus that spread throughout the United States in the early 20th century. Only 17 at the time, Milton overheard his doctor saying he would be dead by the following morning. Hours turned into days, and days turned into weeks. Soon enough, he was paralyzed from the neck down and could only move his eyes. Illness forced Milton into silence, but while it was deeply boring, he would not play the victim. A ferocious curiosity consumed him as he was now able to silently observe life in a new way.
One day, while listening to his seven sisters converse with one another by his bedside, Milton noticed something extraordinary. One sister said to another “That’s a great idea” in a monotone voice while simultaneously smirking. It doesn’t look like she really meant that, Milton thought to himself. He began noticing the facial expressions his sisters made as they spoke, and could tell if they were being genuine or not. He would observe in silence, using the forced quietude as a place of study. Eventually, whether they were nervous, happy, sad, or envious, Milton knew how to read his sisters’ expressions, and by extension those of other people; he had discovered how to decode human expression by utilizing the silence that had once bored him.
This example from The Laws of Human Nature by Robert Greene illustrates the following truth: It’s not that we’re bad communicators, but we miss a lot in our conversations with others. Either we speak too much about ourselves, or we simply don’t listen enough.
The Stoics knew how damaging our words could be if we said the wrong thing too often. It’s why Zeno, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca and Epictetus all wrote about the importance of well thought-out speech. Below is advice from our favorite Stoics on how to be more by saying less.
Shut up and listen
“We have two ears and one mouth, therefore we should listen twice as much as we speak.”
A person you care about comes to you for advice. They explain their troubles to you, how frustrated they are. Immediately, you begin dissecting their problem. You tell them they need to do this, and they have to do that, otherwise all of their troubles will persist. All the while, you failed to realize that they never asked for your advice, only for your ear.
Sometimes people just need us to listen, but we interpret their silence or frustration as an invitation to jump in and save the day. That’s not a Stoic response, and it’s certainly not what an effective listener does. A 2014 study that was published in the International Journal of Listening found that the most crucial component to conversational satisfaction is active listening. According to the researchers, there are three elements to active listening that can enhance the way we listen to others
- Express interest in the speaker’s message through nonverbal involvement, like subtle nodding and maintaining eye contact. Visual cues let the speaker know that we’re following along and they have our attention.
- Refrain from paraphrasing the speaker’s message, like saying “So what you’re saying is..” or “What I’m hearing is…”. Such responses often lead to judgement, and that definitely doesn’t help the individual who wants to be heard. In fact, it just makes them feel worse.
- Encourage the speaker to elaborate on his or her beliefs or feelings. By asking the speaker to go into greater detail, we’re showing that we’re engaged in what they have to say. We’re displaying empathy, not demonizing them or passing judgement.
By listening more and speaking less, we come to understand the problems of others and are thus more equipped to help them.
Always express gratitude to those who have helped you
“Be silent as to services you have rendered, but speak of favors you have received.”
How many times have you found yourself at a social gathering or in a professional setting, when you begin conversing with someone who only talks about themselves? They might be talking about an up-and-coming project they’re working on, or a recent accomplishment. You can’t help but think: Was it only them who achieved those things? Did they have no one to assist them in these endeavors? When we allow our speech to be driven by ego, we leave no room for gratitude. Not to mention, it takes far fewer words to express gratitude than to tell everyone how great we are.
When asked about our accomplishments by others, it’s in our best interest to speak of the many people who helped us along the way. “Thank you, I have great mentors” or “I wouldn’t be here without the help of my team” is a far shorter and more meaningful response than a 20-minute monologue. Stoicism teaches us to take a birds-eye view of our lives so that we can be as objective as possible in identifying our faults. As Stoics, we have to do the same in the conversations we have with others. Are you giving credit where credit is due? Is it ego or gratitude that guides each word you speak? The latter is certainly more beneficial.
Count to three before you respond
“Better to trip with the feet than the tongue.”
We’ve all been there, staring into the contorted looks on the faces of others after we misspoke or said something out of line. It’s certainly natural to say the wrong thing. Actually, it’s inevitable. But if we use that as an excuse to say whatever we wish, whenever we wish to say it, we’re bound to cause harm to the people and relationships we care about the most.
Epictetus famously described the dichotomy of control; a masterful way of understanding what is within our power to change and what isn’t. Essentially, Epictetus says that what’s within our control is that which is of our own doing. Opinion, motivation and desire are all examples of this, including speech. What isn’t within our control is that which is not of our own doing: things like our reputation, our social status and the circumstances we’re born into.
Make no mistake, controlling what we say and how we say it is extremely difficult. If it were easy, we’d all speak with a silver tongue. Though, in knowing that speech is of our own doing, we can begin holding ourselves accountable for what we say.
Next time you find yourself in a social setting or in a serious discussion, remember to slow it down. Before you reply to someone or launch into a conversational digression, mentally count to three. Use that space to reflect on what you’re about to say, whether someone might take it the wrong way or if it’s truly a valuable add to the conversation. Oftentimes we find ourselves replying almost reflexively to what we hear. Stifle that impulse; really think about what you’re going to say and how you’re going to say it. As you begin to practice this kind of Stoic self-awareness, you’ll notice that the majority of what we think about saying is better left unsaid.
Use silence to disarm others
“You don’t have to turn this into something. It doesn’t have to upset you.”
—Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 6.52
Perhaps the most common scenario where we lose our ability to communicate effectively is when we argue with others. In the highly stressful, highly emotional moments where we want so desperately to win or prove someone else wrong, we lose everything we’ve ever worked towards in terms of self-control. The Stoics often referred to anger as “temporary insanity” because we lose all ability to reason and empathize with others once our temper has taken over. When someone challenges our opinions or says something we don’t like, we jump to the defense of… what? Our ego?
Instead, a more powerful response is mere silence. When faced with an irate, emotional person, resist the temptation to match their tone. In the same way that a matador dodges a raging bull, we ought to do the same in dodging raging tempers. Be still, be silent, and when the proper time comes, respond tactfully. The more measured your response, the more likely the other person will realize the error of their ways, and the more likely you both walk away from the interaction satisfied.
There’s an old German proverb that reads “Die beste Antwort auf Wut ist Stille”…
The best answer to anger is silence.
Forget small talk—aim to be meaningful
“Be silent for the most part, or, if you speak, say only what is necessary and in a few words. Talk, but rarely, if occasion calls you, but do not talk of ordinary things—of gladiators or horses races or athletes or of meats or drinks—these are topics that arise everywhere ”
There’s a great deal of criticism thrown at people who are quiet. We judge them and label them because they refuse to or have yet to label themselves. In reality, silence is better than wasted speech. If you knew the exact number of breaths you had left before your time is up, would you waste it on a comment regarding the weather, or some other trivial matter?
It’s not the quantity of words, but the quality that counts. In On the Shortness of Life, Seneca writes “As is a tale, so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters.” While Seneca was talking about life itself, the same goes for what we say. In the conversations that you engage in on a daily basis, experiment with what it’s like to say more by saying less. Make a conscious effort to increase the quality of your words, not the count. You’ll find that you’ve been wasting quite a few breaths, but can now save them for when real trouble arises.
Visualize the worst-case scenario, then push through it
“Silence is a lesson learned through life’s many sufferings”
The hardships of life can affect a person in two different ways with regard to silence. Either we become afraid of opening our mouths for fear of saying the wrong thing, or we choose silence as sort of wisdom, as we only speak when we have something of value to say. Those who are currently plagued by the former are not alone. Since 2013, there have been several studies that sought to know what society’s worst fears are. Consistently, public speaking and death have remained in the top spots. In some years, public speaking was listed at number one, while death held the number two spot. We live in a society that would rather die than engage in a form of speech! Luckily, the Stoics had a brilliant trick for overcoming fear of the unknown.
Premeditatio malorum—the “premeditation of the evils”—is a Stoic exercise that involves imagining everything that could possibly go wrong in our lives. The genius behind it lies in the fact that if we can imagine our worst fears and experience the emotions that are tied to them, then we are better suited to overcome them when they actually arise. By doing this exercise, you’ve already faced the worst case scenario in your mind; you’ve prepared yourself. Cognitive behavioral therapists call this catastrophic belief. If the client is encouraged to think over their greatest fears, they engage in a kind of mental exposure therapy, slowly but surely eliminating the belief entirely.
The humiliation of misspeaking can cause us to use silence as a means to mask our pain rather than show our strength and self-control. We’ve decided as Stoics that it’s better to say less, right? But if it’s fear that keeps you from speaking, ask yourself, what’s the worst that can happen? What does the judgement of others really mean in the long run?
Visualize the worst-case scenario. You’re leading the big quarterly meeting and your mind goes blank on the key slides. You’re at a networking dinner and the contact you’ve been trying to acquire doesn’t even deign to look at your business card. You’re pitching an article to an editor who clearly doesn’t care about the topic at all.
Think about these scenarios and how momentary the anguish is. Sure, it’s embarrassing in the moment. But 24 hours later, you’ll be on to the next pursuit. If this kind of embarrassment (or whichever other consequences you imagine for yourself) is the worst thing that could happen… well, there are much worse fates in the world, you probably realize. You can emerge from these kind of experiences relatively unscathed, and be a better person for having underwent them.
The opinions of others reveal nothing about the self. Better questions, the stoics might argue: What is your opinion of yourself? Is your silence a result of fear or wisdom?
“Remind yourself that your task is to be a good human being; remind yourself what nature demands of people. Then do it, without hesitation, and speak the truth as you see it. But with kindness. With humility. Without hypocrisy.”
To speak with eloquence in the face of someone who’s yelling at you, to truly empathize with a dear friend who just wants to be heard: this is the power of Stoic silence. In Ryan Holiday’s newest book Stillness is the Key, readers are urged to cultivate this silence in their everyday life. Why? Because the world we live in is filled with noise at all times of the day. When the sun is up, phones ring and cars honk as we walk too slowly in the crosswalk. At night, trains pass by in the distance, and the neighbor who lives above you blasts the TV too loud. The sounds that surround us are seemingly inescapable.
But not all sounds are bad. Some are serene. Like a friend asking you for advice, or hearing the words I love you uttered with pure honesty. No matter the scenario, no matter the obstacle that stands in front of us, the modern Stoic must always remember that silence is a form of mastery worth striving for.