When Silence is Acceptance-by:Lori Ann Potter

Believable Lies Part 1: Silence is Acceptance

Once every eight weeks or so, our tribal community holds a meeting with the tribal council known as the Regular Bi-Monthly Membership Meeting.  From one meeting to the next, a lot of stuff can happen. In fact, there is such a vast amount of information presented in power-point presentations that, at times, absorbing it all is like trying to take a sip from a fire hose.

At the end of these meetings, a common question is offered to the members present, particularly whenever the tribal council requests feedback on a future decision they plan to make:

Are there any questions?  Remember folks…silence is acceptance.

For many years I remained silent at most tribal meetings, but my silence did not mean I accepted or agreed with everything I heard.  (I’ll explain why in a moment.) I listened, observed, and took pages of notes, and most of the time I refrained from adding my own concerns and opinions during the hour-long Q&A session at the end of every meeting.

I have a different perspective on silence.  I believe the declaration “silence is acceptance” is not only inaccurate; it’s a type of lie woven deep within the psyche of our community.  Any interpretation of someone’s intentions – absent of mutual understanding, time to research and process information, or freedom of communication within preset, respectful boundaries – is a deviation of authentic truth.  The term “silence is acceptance” is actually a subtle form of manipulation.  It’s an inherited mindset, ignorantly extended by those who follow the example of others who led in similar ways before them.

The truth is, silence can mean a lot of things and manifest in a variety of ways.  The existence of silence should never been interpreted as the absence of contradicting opinion.  Rather, silence can be either positive or negative, depending on the mindset of those remaining silent.   For this reason, we ought to be mindful to the messages relayed within our cones of meeting silence.

When Silence is Negative

Silence is negative when it becomes the language of those who lack hope; particularly those who feel their voices are not deemed important enough to be considered or accepted.  Silence can also manifest as a preference by those who lack the skills or patience necessary to communicate peacefully under pressure.   But the type of silence most debilitating is when a person’s silence entraps him or her into believing there is nothing he or she can do to influence positive change.

Why Silence Happens

Negative silence is the outcome of a passive form of bullying.  It’s the wearying affect of being condescended to, dictated or talked down to rather than respected, valued and uplifted.  It’s a reaction to a type of torture – the steady, daily water-drip antagonizing the soul of a community through passive, arrogant expression in a leader’s actions and words:

You need me.  I’m the best leader for you.  There is no one else who can lead effectively as me.  You don’t understand what I understand.  You’re not as educated/popular/acceptable/respected enough to be influential.  I am here to make the decisions for you.  I know what’s best for you and you do not.

Negative silence is one response to controlling mindsets – when every community decision is confined within the strict parameters of a leader’s comfort zone, regardless of what might be best for the whole community.  It’s a response to empty “open door policies” veiled securely behind locked doors.  It’s the result of formalizing even the simplest interactions.  It’s the affect of decades of secrecy and bureaucracy, limiting and prohibiting the community’s access to and use of information.

How Silence is Revealed – Negative and Positive

Silence is often revealed through absence, such as a poor turnout to meetings and events.  It’s when people stop asking questions, quit volunteering or refrain from attempting to offer solutions to problems.  It’s when people lose faith in a bureaucratic system; when they feel unwelcome, disenfranchised or powerless to contribute anything of value.  It’s when priorities shift dramatically as people show up late, refuse to engage and decide to leave early, viewing a meeting or event gathering as much lower on their list of importance than it used to be.

Silence is also evident in people who refuse to vote.  It’s when people believe their vote makes no difference in a situation, although in reality, their absence really does become a type of vote.  It’s an abstention allowing the majority vote of the day to rule the outcome of a decision, regardless of a voter’s stand on the matter.  It’s the only time, in fact, when silence actually becomes a form of acceptance, whether it is intended or not.

Silence is positive when it is evidence of wisdom.  There is a sacredness in silence that is seldom recognized, such as when silence is held by those waiting for the right timing to say what needs to be said in a way it might be received most effectively, whether written, spoken or both.  Silence empties the mind of clutter, allowing it to absorb and fully process what has entered it.  Silence enables one to consider rather than simply react.

It’s also evident in those who choose the silence of absence as a catalyst for positive change, even when it’s only temporary.   Removing oneself from controlling, manipulative, abusive, gossip-laden, deceitful or oppressive groups and situations, for instance.  This can include relationships, family gatherings, meetings, online groups and even some work environments.  In these situations, a person’s ability to walk away and remain temporarily silent becomes a demonstration of his or her strength – the wisdom to understand one’s limits, and the awareness that circumstances do not dictate his or her value, abilities or limitations.

It’s your turn: In what ways do you believe silence can be positive or negative within a relationship, family or community?