How do we decide which silences to fill?
It’s important to understand what’s appearing in our conversation as it happens. We can have a flow of thought between us, or we can have an abrupt stop when something profound is said. A conversation can repeatedly shift between those two things, but it cannot be both flowing and profound at the same time.
Agnes Callard describes this as follows:
[…] Imagine that you and I are talking, engaged in a rapid and animated back-and-forth, and all of a sudden, I say something incredibly, unbelievably profound. What do you do? No response can possibly count as an adequate rejoinder to the bottomless well of insight I’ve just placed between us. Maybe you catch your breath in awe. Maybe you just say, “Wow, that was so profound.” Eventually, after a long pause, we move on, and maybe change the topic. (A Philosopher Gets Fed Up With Profundity)
In conversation we may feel the urge to fill any silence which appears. But we should sit with the silence for a few beats when we find ourselves admiring something profound. Profound silence is too rare, and there’s a lot that happens in just a few moments.
It’s rare that no one is actively speaking, making a bit of silence interesting and valuable just for its uniqueness. Everyone appreciates being heard, but there’s a deeper level of listening demonstrated by our allowing a few moments to reflect on what’s been said. Silence also demonstrates playful thinking (the opposite of zero-sum, table-tennis alternating speaking) by acknowledging that amidst the normal back and forth of speaking and listening something was said that is so different it doesn’t need a response; it just needs time to sink in.