When being quiet speaks volumes

This is not a story about introversion and extraversion. It’s about behavior, mood, affect, and the quiet power of silence. And it’s about how slowing the pace of conversation and tamping down a false sense of urgency deepens relationships, opens minds, and shifts our locus of control. Thus, the quiet I have in mind, concerns social, psychological, and normative factors that shape culture and improve judgment.

Is the world really flat?

Thomas Friedman’s book, The World is Flat, is a brilliant analysis of technologically enabled globalization and how it has leveled or “flattened” the competitive playing field in the 21st century. It has reduced or eliminated barriers to new markets and quickened the pace of change and innovation. And that can lead us to alternately celebrate “disruption” and feel condemned to a constant state of hypervigilance.

Friedman’s intent, of course, was to call out this phenomenon and encourage a rational response to it. But for those living and working in this frantic new age of global competition, composed and considered thought often feels out of reach. For not only has globalization produced a near-boundaryless state of commerce, it has also facilitated the spread of fanaticism and terrorism. It’s a double-edged sword.

And while I can offer no silver-bullet solutions to either “edge” of this problematic phenomenon, I can suggest ways of coping with the effects of these challenges. It requires that we cultivate inner resources that may have been more optional in prior periods of history. Simply put, as the outer world becomes flatter, the inner world must deepen.

So, how do we answer the question, “Is the world really flat?” My response is “Yes and no.” Friedman’s analysis and conceptualization of historic trends affecting global culture and commerce are compelling. And (this is the “no”) the inner life of human mind and spirit, of moral freedom, is still available to us and can provide the boundaries and protected space for deliberation and reasoned action.

This self-regulatory function of persons and peoples is grounded in something more than psychological or physiological factors. It’s about moral and prudential norms, our capacities as free moral agents. And it’s this realm of freedom that distinguishes us from species whose behavior is governed by the laws of cause and effect that determine the course of physical reality as studied by the natural sciences.

Claiming our freedom without grasping

So, in a sense, we straddle two worlds, one in which physical laws and principles of organic growth and decay govern, and a second in which our consciousness of freedom conditions how we experience and act within the first. The world as lived from the consciousness freedom can be a quieter place when we can settle a bit within it and loosen our attachments to the felt demands of the first.

Knowing that a conscious state of freedom is available for us is important to keep in mind, even when it's present only as a dim background in awareness. It’s an opening. It can be coupled with cultivated practices for awakening our consciousness of freedom, a vital practical competency. And like any muscle or skilled action, regular exercise is what produces strength, agility, and ease of use.

We might call these “freedom practices.” They loosen attachments to felt demands of the outer world. The power of such attachments lies in the intensity of our felt urgency to end these demands. But that urgency just lends more control to external forces. I know it sounds circular, but that’s how a less rational, more reactive and fearful state of mind loses access to its internal locus of control.

Paradoxically, it is by noticing, accepting, and examining these felt demands, letting them be there as felt experiences for our inspection, that helps awaken our consciousness of freedom and regain internal control. They thereby become “out there.” Initially this skill of freedom for self-regulation and rational action is easier to learn and cultivate with others and with the guidance of a teacher or coach.

What liberating oneself looks like

In its simplest form, this practice is represented in the familiar wisdom of counting to ten (see my article on this). It could even be initiated by counting to three. You see, the “switch” that we flip occurs based upon an awareness of our reactive state of mind: “Oh God, it’s happening again!” In that moment we create an opening for free agency to assert itself. Our relationship to the demands and fears changes.

They become an object of our conscious awareness, even if that awareness is not fully flushed out or set within a fully rational perspective – that kind of transformation and reframing is beginning to form. The next most important “action” is to resist reaction, i.e., a tightly focused problem solving that rather quickly closes the breadth and freedom of our conscious regard.

Now that it’s out there – e.g., “I’m really overwhelmed with the idea of having to achieve our revenue goal by the end of this quarter!” – unpack it. What’s this feeling about? Where’s it coming from? How am I feeling stuck? When we learn how to do this in the company of others it can become even more powerful. But the key is to resist quick, impulsive solutions that arise from desperation.

We must let this reflective pause breathe a bit. (On this, see Development at the Inflection Point.) I hope this helps describe and explain a distinctive way of being quiet, which allows the situation and matters at hand to speak to us. They can thereby reveal a fuller truth and more opportunities for us to adopt a positive attitude and a rational course of action.