Silence is awkward. Remember the last time you met someone new? After you exchanged names, your new friend asked, “What do you do?” You replied, “I’m a catechist.” Looooong silence. Awkward.
When we’re meeting with inquirers or catechumens, we try to avoid awkwardness. We don’t want to feel awkward ourselves, and we certainly don’t want the inquirers or catechumens feeling awkward. So we talk. We fill up the silence with chatter.
Sometimes that’s a good thing, especially during inquiry. The new folks usually don’t want to be responsible for the conversation. Often, they have come to listen to you tell them what they are supposed to do. Chatting can help put the inquirers at ease. There comes a moment, however, when we have to stop talking. For many of us, that’s difficult.
Do try this at home
I don’t have all the answers, but I have some suggestions. First, we have to be comfortable with silence when we are alone. How much time each day do you spend just being silent? No reading, no television, no Internet, no Facebook. Just you and silence. For me, it’s not much time at all. I suppose I could say my prayer time is silent, but usually I’m reading a psalm or going over the list of people I promised to pray for. I’m lining up my day in my head and asking God to help me with all my tasks and projects. If anyone else were in the room, they might say I was silent. But in my head, there is a lot of noise going on. True silence is difficult. Even so, if we are going to be comfortable with silence with the inquirers and catechumens, we have to practice being silent with ourselves.
The next step is to listen. When I was in college, I learned about “active listening.” Most of us have had at least a little training in active listening. If you haven’t, see this article. I’m not claiming I’m very good at active listening, but in order to know when to stop talking, we have listen to what the other person is saying. If we are listening well, we will hear the needs, wants, and dreams of the person we are listening to. We will also hear a lot of what is not being said. Listening well will help you to ask insightful questions that will spur more conversation from your inquirer or catechumen.
Wait for the answer
Now this is really important. Once you ask a question—stop talking. This is where I get tripped up a lot. If I ask a question that is anywhere close to a vulnerable spot in the inquirer or catechumen, their response is going to be silence. They don’t yet trust me enough to share their vulnerability. So they have to think about it for a second. They have to decide if they want to answer and then carefully phrase how they are going to answer. All this usually takes about five seconds. But five seconds is often way too long for me to wait. I tend to jump in and fill the “awkward moment” with a clarification of what I meant or a change of subject. At that point, the other person is off the hook and feels no need to answer me. So here’s something to try. Next time you ask a question, wait 10 seconds. Then, after you get comfortable with 10 seconds of silence, bump it up to 20 seconds. I guarantee you that in your next conversation, if you can insert just three meaningful questions, each followed by at least 10-seconds silence, you will learn way more about your “quiet” inquirer than you ever thought you would.
Another tip that works for me is to talk slower. When I get nervous, I tend to be thinking of the next point I want to make, even as I’m making my first point. To mitigate that, I try to think of my conversation in blocks of threes. For example, suppose you want to tell an inquirer something about your pastor. Think of three qualities of your pastor. Describe the first quality in as much detail as you need to. Then imagine yourself taking a sip of water. Or, actually take a sip of water. Then describe the second quality. Take another sip of water. Finally, describe the third quality. Don’t be surprised if, while you’re sipping, your inquirer begins talking!
Keep your recorder running
My final tip about silence I learned from a journalist. He would tape record all of his interviews while at the same time taking notes. When the interview was over, he stopped taking notes, but he left the tape-recorder running. He said that the most compelling part of the interview often happened after it was “over.” The subject would often relax and say something in a less guarded way because the reporter no longer seemed to be gathering information. You might think that sounds a little duplicitous, but you are not using a tape recorder and you are not looking for a scandalous scoop. You are just using your new skill of not talking to give your inquirers and catechumens a chance to say something meaningful. So, when your session is over, thank the inquirers or catechumens for coming, stand up, gather your things, but keep your mental tape-recorder running. And try not to say too much.
Mother Teresa said, “We need to find God, and he cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence…. We need silence to be able to touch souls.” Try some of these tips for being silent and see how deeply you will touch souls.
How do you do it?
And please offer your own tips. In what ways have you used listening skills and silence to lead people to a deeper experience of Jesus? Share your thoughts in the comments box, because your experience will help others in their conversations.