French composer Claude Debussy said “Music is the space between the notes.” Similarly, classical pianist Arthur Schnabel said “The notes I handle no better than many pianists. But the pauses between the notes – ah, that is where the art resides!”

In a similar vein, I say that the art and effectiveness of verbal communication resides in the silence between words, and between sentences.

If you listen, you’ll notice that most communicators tend to run their sentences together, often patching transitions with “and” or “so.” If given the opportunity to convert their talk into a written report, they would no doubt include full stop periods and paragraph breaks, understanding these practices as reader-friendly. They know that filling a page with one long sentence and no paragraph breaks would clearly be hard on the eyes and on comprehension, yet they routinely speak the verbal equivalent of such listener-unfriendly clutter.

Why do we do this?

In early family transactions many of us were habitually interrupted and talked over at the slightest pause, and trying to create the new habit of adding that pause back in (even just one second of it) generates anxiety. And taking the verbal equivalent of a paragraph break after making a significant point (requiring just 2-3 seconds of silence) may recreate the old “deer in the headlights” feeling. It’s as if we expect our listeners to say in unison, “Cat got your tongue?!”

When we practice listener-friendly pauses between sentences and paragraphs at every opportunity, audience comprehension goes up, and we achieve a dramatic new level of ease and intelligence because we have more space and time to think.

Chasing Thoughts

As Speaking Circle participants practice and develop the Relational Presence “muscle” that supports these golden silences, I notice another common habit popping up in the emerging pauses: that of chasing the next thought or sentence. When the eyes go to the floor or ceiling, or inward, that signals the person is reaching for what to say next. These moments are extraordinary learning opportunities to see what happens when we interrupt this tendency to think in isolation and put our full priority on breathing and being with one person’s eyes as if we were thinking together. As we dissolve the habit of disconnecting to think, we develop the capacity to be “easygoing in the not knowing,” from which naturally arises new-found eloquence.

Paradoxically, allowing ourselves to be at a loss for words in a supportive environment, as long as it takes, ultimately eliminates all fear of being at a loss for words!

And it all starts with that lovely space between sentences.