Stop and Listen: Allowing Silence in Conversation

In my early 20’s I ventured off to Japan. As a recent graduate from art school in Philadelphia, I knew I needed to travel to complete my education. This was, of course, something only I understood, so naturally it came as a big surprise to my family and friends when I told them I was going to Kyoto, Japan. It turned into an even bigger surprise when my three-month study evolved into four years of inner and outer exploration. One of the many lessons I learned was to stop, listen, and allow silence in conversation.

As I began living in Japan and learning the language, what I discovered was that the way in which people talk with each other was very different. It wasn’t just that the body language was different. Instead of explaining every detail, generally time is given to your audience, allowing them space to feel what it is that you are trying to say. There is even a verbal gesture expressed that indicates one is actively listening. In Japan, the mind is not in the brain alone but in the heart as well. This practice of communicating with one’s mind allows for a much deeper experience, including an opening up to one’s intuition, imagination, and other senses. I might even venture to say the reason the Japanese love understatement is for that very reason. If you can feel what is being said there isn’t a need to verbalize as many details. It is a very different experience than hearing words that are explaining every detail while you are thinking “what’s my reaction, what’s my response?” My daughter tells me that is what it is like for her listening to audio books, in her words, “because you forget about what you’re thinking and just listen to the ideas of another.” This gives the speaker the space to share in the fullness of their idea or experience.

I found not only did I enjoy this approach to communicating, but it also gave me an opportunity to stop and listen to myself. I was not expected to have quick answers nor fill in the quiet space with more of my ideas. All I was doing was taking in the thoughts and feelings of the speaker and, instead of reacting, I was noticing all the ways in which my sense awareness was awakened. I was no longer independent but interdependent.

This practice has been most rewarding when I have been with my young daughter. So many times when we were together and she would be trying to explain to me in her limited vocabulary something she thought or noticed, I of course had no idea of what she was trying to share with me. But instead of pretending to understand her, what came up for me was a childish giggle which we both enjoyed. We became interconnected. I could still be a child and she did not need to be an adult to give me joy.

One of the lessons I learned from living in Japan was: when I stopped to listen to my sense awareness this gave me more control to take action instead of automatically reacting. It gave time to hear what my heart was telling me. It brought deeper connection to others and reinforced intimacy. Everyone loves being heard. How do we learn to do this in a culture that values being witty and quick, multi-tasking and independent? We must remember it is just as important to “get in touch” with oneself as it is to be to ready to give output. Like anything in life, the more we practice the more fluent we become.

The process only takes a few moments:

1. Begin by observing. You can start observing the speaker, making note of what you already are taking in about him/her. For example, the eyes, the skin, the sound of their voice, and any other bits of information that gets your attention. Remember you do this automatically; the only difference is that you are now taking notes of your observation. Just imagine as if this was a person from a very foreign country and you knew nothing about this person nor their culture, you might be more attune to making mental notes on all the things you might observe or need to know about this person… This step is important because it keeps the mind busy, something the mind does naturally and easily.

2. Here we can buy some time by giving the speaker positive reinforcement, also know as active listening. In Japanese it is built into the language already with affirming verbal sounds of ehh, or ahh. In English I have learned to just repeat some of the words of the speaker to show I am hearing their words.

3. Next notice your own body ask “How is my body responding to the input?” Observe how your physical body feels as it listens and observes. As you observe your own body you may not be ready to respond as quickly to the speaker. This is the stop and listen part. What you will notice is that your own body will appreciate being heard by you. You may notice sensations that are comfortable and others that are not as pleasant.

4. Now you are ready to observe what your heart has to say. The heart center is in the middle of the chest, the area of the sternum. The exact area is different for each person as it is so personal that each individual will come up with a unique metaphor to describe exactly where it is located. It is not however usually over the physical heart on your left. What you become aware of may not be something you need to share with your speaker or it may be very insightful. What ever the heart has to say, this will give you the opportunity to choose how you want to respond. In the case with my daughter I chose to focus on the joy that I became aware of which resulted in laughter instead of the direct meaning of her words.


Rosemary Scavullo Flickinger began practicing shiatsu therapy after a four year apprenticeship in Kyoto Japan. While in Kyoto, Rosemary also studied the ancient theater art of Noh, Noh mask carving, and Buddhism. She has been a certified shiatsu therapist since 1990.

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