By Ivy Lamb
Good interviewers have a trick. It seems simple, but it’s much harder than it looks. You must become comfortable with silence.
Letting a silent moment in the conversation stretch to awkward lengths is the best way to get people to open up. These moments often hit the cutting room floor in an edited piece, and I understand why, but I also think it’s a shame. In American culture, we’re taught to fill these silences, to gloss over any social awkwardness they cause. Excellent conversation, we are taught, comes from having many strong opinions and amusing anecdotes ready to deploy at parties. But when we rush to fill a pause, we miss an opportunity to listen more closely to the other person.
I learned to hold space for silence as a journalist. But I didn’t grasp the spiritual dimensions of silence until I started my podcast, Stories from a Village. In each episode, I invite a member of my church to share their faith journey with me. Along the way, we end up exploring the ways faith and religion intersect with things like family relationships, sexual orientation, gender roles, morality, health crises and finding meaning in suffering.
My guests have shared stories of joy and heartbreak, confusion and clarity, marginalization and homecoming. So many moments have stuck with me: Irene talking about how the love of Jesus chased her down even when she felt ashamed of her sexuality, Sonya reconnecting to prayer through art, Aimee describing the sacredness of the love she shares with her wife, Joey sharing the moral foundation of his atheism, Scott’s spiritual revelations after a stroke … I could go on and on.
I started this project because I felt these stories needed to be told. I attend a small Christian church in Columbus, Ohio called Stone Village. We’re an inclusive church that affirms people of all backgrounds, including the LGBTQIA community. As a result, my community is full of people who have been told that they don’t belong in the church because they don’t love the right person, or believe the right things, or act the right way. But the fact that they found Stone Village means they refused to accept rejection and judgement as the final word. They kept searching for a place that affirms what they already know: We all belong.
My fellow worshippers have not journeyed unscathed, but they have journeyed faithfully. I know this because I was willing to ask a few open-ended questions and then sit in silence to see what would unfold. In this context, silence becomes an invitation. The silence isn’t dead space, it’s something active and open. It allows room for the other person to speak as they feel moved to do so. I’m certainly not the first person to figure this out. Quakers have a long tradition of embracing silence as a holy state, something that leaves room for the spirit to move us. I attended a Quaker college, and while my knowledge of Quakerism remains admittedly shallow, my brief experiences with silent worship have come back to me now as I record these interviews.
I now see the time I spend behind the microphone as holy space. When the conversation moves into intimate territory, nothing else exists. I am wholly focused on the person sitting across from me. I’m not worried about what I will say next because I trust in the connection we are building. And when I allow myself to listen that deeply, I feel tender toward that person in a way I never did before.
I believe we need more of this kind of deep listening. But it’s not easy, is it? Silence can be scary because sometimes it invites hard truths out into the open. Since I started my podcast, I have heard many stories of suffering. Suffering I can’t fix. And I’ll be honest, I’m not always great at holding space for other people’s pain. That’s another thing we’re taught. When someone shares their grief or pain, we rush to fill the awkward silence with a platitude that will make us feel comfortable again. That’s why we say things like, “God has a plan” or “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” But I’m learning that holding space for other people’s pain is part of allowing them to tell their story. And holding that space with integrity and compassion is one of the greatest gifts we can offer each other.
This is a truth I return to when I feel especially pessimistic about the state of the world. There’s much beyond my control, and that scares me. But listening deeply and without agenda is something that’s always accessible to me — to all of us. But first, we must learn to embrace silence.