Prone To Babbling To Fill Gaps In Conversation? Here’s How To Get Comfortable With The Sound Of Silence

It's all about your self-esteem, would you believe.

If I had a Euro for the amount of times I’ve willed myself to *Just. Stop. Talking* in a social setting, I’d have a mortgage secured for a two-storey gaff in Dublin 2 while still being able to afford avocado on toast every morning. No matter the situation, whether it’s a work event or a first date, my mouth always tends to overtake my brain and churn out nonsensical waffle, despite flashing red ‘shut up’ signals bellowing overhead. The one common thread for my verbal diarrhoea? Silence.

That dreaded, uncomfortable pause in conversation once the small talk has wound up. You know what I mean. You’ve gotten the how are you doing’s out of the way, you’ve nattered about the deadly weather we’ve been having lately and you’ve caught up on the ongoings of that friend you have in common. And then, suddenly, a lull. A yawning gap of space and time opens up between you both.

A sliver of sweat starts to form on your upper lip. Rather than accept that silence is part of a conversation, you refuse to allow it to even exist. As soon as it opens up, so too does the floodgates of what I lovingly refer to as ‘shit talk’; noise that is nothing more than a filler. Ultimately, I walk away from these interactions wondering why I have to be like that, and why can’t I be that little less awkward. It doesn’t seem to be just me, though. In fact, most women I asked feel the same way, even the ones you think are enviably confident. Sarah (28) tells me:

One of my worst fears is being stuck with someone I don’t know at a party because, as much as I don’t want to talk crap, I feel like I have to. I think this is because I put pressure on myself to ‘entertain’ people and make sure everyone’s having a good time. But it’s so draining, and half the time I end up making a fool of myself just to get laughs/break the ice. I should probably learn to shut up, to be honest!

She’s not wrong in why she feels the need to fill the silence; Fiona Hall, counsellor, psychotherapist and owner of Consciously Clearing, says it’s more to do with us being kinda ‘sorta’ uncomfortable with ourselves. “For example, when we are on a date and there is a silence, o en people question what the other person is thinking about them,” Fiona says. “Self-doubt and anxiety can creep in which can then compound the issue.

“In social settings, people sometimes feel the need to keep on talking to artificially keep the conversation going. Some people fear the break in conversation will reflect negatively on them. This could be due to having low self-esteem or a negative personal image of themselves.”

That in itself is uncomfortable though, isn’t it? The notion that we may not be entirely self-assured, even if we don’t fully realise it? That despite what we’ve gone through in our lives, and what we’ve built on, we still can’t escape the fact that this is who we are? People can blame being Irish on their low self-esteem – sure, weren’t we colonised for so long? Haven’t we all been riddled with Catholic guilt?! Isn’t it why we all drink so much?!

Ultimately though, Irish or not, we’re all human – flawed, fragile – and no matter the circumstances, and whether we realise it or not, poor self-esteem can affect us in our everyday lives – and our conversations. Instead of facing it head on, we’re told instead to ‘fake it ’til you make it’, but in the long run that might just make you feel like a bit of a fraud, compounding your feelings of shittiness. Instead, there are lasting ways to up our self-esteem that work, even if they take time. Experienced psychologist Guy Winch, a noted TED Talks speaker, says it is absolutely possible to create a more comfortable version of yourself by taking certain steps, such as strictly eliminating self-criticism each day (when that mean thought pops in your head? Swat it away. Actually, scold yourself for thinking it in the first place, like you would with your best friend) and affirm your worth by writing out why you’re bleedin’ deadly until you fully accept that you are.

But also change your relationship with silence. Alter how you view it. In our culture, we’re constantly surrounded by sound, whether it’s walking to work with Spotify blaring in our ears or sending voice-notes on WhatsApp, and perhaps the sense that sound should be continuous is carried over into our conversation. Instead, we should start to view silence as a positive thing, and become at ease with it. Fiona agrees.

“It’s totally possible to shift our mindset on the urge to fill silences, too. I would recommend spending some time alone with no devices, no distractions. Allow your thoughts to come and go. Enjoy the silence. See what it brings,” she says, on how to get comfy with it on a personal level, first.

I recommend clients start allocating a small amount of time each day to stillness, starting with five minutes as soon as they wake in the morning. Initially, your thoughts and feelings may resist this, but persevere. Do not try and control your thoughts and feelings. Sometimes by allowing the thoughts and feelings that we are actively avoiding to just be, they lose their power and control over us. Enjoying silence can be a very peaceful and renewing experience.

Then remind yourself of the role silence brings, in terms of communication. If you look at it
this way, it creates a space where ‘something’ can happen. at may be processing information, or reflecting, or just allowing the chat to go in a new direction. Rushing to fill this period, because you feel out of your comfort zone, does nothing but tar the art of conversation. Allowing the silence to happen, and practicing this will pull it back, and it will also do you favours; you will appear as a better listener, and your replies will be better thought out.

I’ve been trying to introduce a grá for quiet in to my own life, in order to practice what I preach. On a date, after the conversation on the latest Netflix show we’ve been watching dies down and things go quiet, I resist the urge to launch into another stream of babble. At a party, I fight off the feeling of needing to keep conversation alive with people I just met. And TBH, it feels pretty good.

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