Listening to The Sound of Silence

“And in the naked light I saw

Ten thousand people, maybe more

silence active listening skills People talking without speaking

People hearing without listening

People writing songs that voices

Never shared and no one dared…”

~From the Sound of Silence, by Simon and Garfunkel

Over the past few years, as I’ve cared for my aging parents in my home, I’ve learned a lot about listening. And here’s one of the most important lessons I’ve learned:

Sometimes feelings run so deep, there are no words to describe them – and these are often the times we most desperately need to be heard.

One evening, not long ago, I received a call from a distant relative. They had called to tell me my father’s last living sister had died. His other sister had died less than a month before, and his only brother, his identical twin, had died several months before that.

To say my father is stoic is an understatement. He’s a man of few words – a man’s man who grew up during the Great Depression and fought in the “Big One”. He’s not a hug-giver, or an “I love you” sayer, and I’ve never seen him shed a tear. To him, the concept of Active Listening, of sharing feelings, is, in his own words, “all a crock of hooey”. The news of his other two siblings’ deaths was met by my father with his usual quiet stoicism; however, just days after his brother died, my father suffered a stroke and only hours after his sister died, he was rushed to a hospital and diagnosed with atrial fibrillation.

While I can’t say with certainty that my father’s health issues were directly related to these experiences, as I thought about telling him of his sister’s death, these incidents loomed in my mind. Honestly, I was worried his heart might implode if he silently swallowed one more piece of bad news.

Finally, I went into the living room where he was sitting. I sat down beside him and let him know his sister was gone. He sat there, stone-faced, for what seemed an eternity. Then I could feel his mind go into mechanical drive, filling itself with all the details to avoid the pain: When did it happen? How did she die? When is the funeral?

I took his hand, something I don’t remember either of us ever doing before, and I think it shocked his mind into quiet. After a few long seconds, he looked into my eyes. I said, “I can see you’re really hurting, dad. And I’m here if you want to talk, okay?” He looked away and quickly jerked his hand away from mine. He sat there, staring straight ahead, not saying a word for a long, long time.

Not knowing what else to do, I was about to get up, when he said, in barely a whisper, choking on the words, “I’m the last one left.” Then he grabbed my hand and held on hard and sobbed. His entire body convulsed with each sob. He couldn’t speak he was so overwhelmed. I just stayed beside him and then I just listened to his heart pouring out what seemed like 90 years of grief. When he couldn’t cry anymore, he squeezed my hand and, after what seemed like forever, he said just two words, “Thank you.”

Though my father spoke few words that night, his heart cried out loudly through the silence.

What does this story of listening to my father’s heart, listening even to the sound of silence, have to do with leadership? Those reading this Blog might be skilled in the art of Active Listening and know of its importance in effective leadership. I believe the act of listening goes far beyond leadership. We all share an innate need as human beings – the need to be heard. As listeners, we need to let others speak in whatever way they need to be heard – without judgment and with compassion.

Active Listening with the heart, to the heart, takes courage, especially in a professional setting. As Peter Bregman said, “The heart is how we connect with others. It’s how we engender trust. It’s the heart – both ours and theirs – that makes people want to follow us and throw everything they’ve got into making something successful. People follow leaders who show competence and warmth, head and heart. And there is a growing body of evidence that suggests we should start with the heart.”

While I don’t know if the “Words of the prophets are written on the subway walls,” as espoused in the Simon and Garfunkel song, I do believe that often life’s most profound feelings and experiences, both in our personal and professional lives, are not voiced, but only “whispered in the sounds of silence”.

Listen for the whispers, because when silence falls, you may hear the most beautiful song – one that voices never shared.

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