As many of you know, I live an adventurous life and love to conquer “firsts.” Last month I conquered some “firsts” that I’d neither anticipated nor planned thanks to vocal cord surgery. I can now check a few more things off my list including first surgery, first general anesthesia, first time hearing a doctor say the word cancer, and first time hearing the word benign applied to my own life. Amidst all of these firsts, there was one more looming first that had to be conquered and was much more challenging than the rest. Silence.
After doing pre-surgery research , I realized that recovery included two weeks of strict silence, meaning no words, no noises, not even whispers. Then on the heals of the silence would follow two more weeks of restricted speaking. As a professional talker, these demands of silence were more than a little unnerving to think about. You might as well ask Stephen Curry to not touch a basketball.
In the end I got time off for good behavior from my “sentence of silence” and two weeks became ten days. However, I still learned so much from my season of silence.
Silence, a wise tutor, left me with three major lessons.
1) Healthy people ask for what they want..
As someone who has been relatively healthy and has never undergone any serious medical procedures, the gravity of the surgery grew daily as the surgery approached. With the increasing anxiety came an increase in the voices in my head. “I Wonder if anybody cares? Why haven’t they called? People don’t seem to get how serious this is. I’ve hinted and made obtuse comments about how dangerous the surgery is, why aren’t they fawning all over me and offering to help?”
Swimming in these voices, I remembered something significant. So often in life we use the response of others as validation of our value.
Like most people, I assumed that if you love me, and truly appreciated me, you will have the innate ability to read my mind and meet my needs without my asking you. After all, to directly ask for what I need would be like cheating, right?
My personal and professional motto is “Healthy people ask for what they want.“ At times, so much easier said than done. Surgery and recovery gave me ample opportunities to practice what I preach.
I told people I was scared. I told people I was stressed. And when my closest friends asked what I needed, I did something new. I answered them directly. “I need proactive communication. Please reach out and ask how I am.” I’ve never felt more loved than I did this past month. I was surrounded by multiple texts, emails, pictures, gifts, cards and offers to have loved ones sit and read to me in my silence. I received exactly what I had honestly asked for, and the smallest investment of honest communication paid back in huge dividends.
2) Noise is a silent killer!
After the surgery “hangover” lifted, I ventured into the world again, hanging out with housemates, having conversations at church, going to my favorite coffee shops. Determined to engage, I tried acting like nothing had changed. But two days into the silence, I started to crack up.
I couldn’t type fast enough to keep up with conversation on my notepad. A thought would cross my mind, and then, by the time I’d finally gotten it spelled correctly, people would have already moved on.
I couldn’t figure out why I felt isolated surrounded by people until I realized I was listening to no one. I’d been in groups for extended periods without being able to speak, but I still couldn’t tell you what they’d said. The noise of trying to figure out how to be heard was so loud that I could hear no one else.
I didn’t realize how crammed my brain was with outside noises being piped in until I was trapped in my own interior self for ten days. Like most Americans, I was accustomed to walking my puppy to music and to listening to Netflix while he played fetch. I typically manage my XM radio obsessively to check if there is a better song on another channel. It’s rare for me to sit in a public space without piping some outside noise into my ears.
Trapped in my mind for ten days, I realized that there was no mental space in there. My mind was crammed so full of noises that I realized I had been living like a mental hoarder.
Something had to change. I turned off the radio in my car and suddenly saw people on the street. Now, as I walked the dogs, I prayed, processed and meditated. When I took my earbuds out, I discovered fascinating people as I sat in coffee shops listening to the world around me without the insulation of BOSE. The noise in our heads, while silent to others, can be deafening to us. I’m still driving around in silence. Once I made space in my head, there was a place and desire to invite people in.
3) There is great strength in weakness.
During my ten days of silence, I rediscovered that people are incredibly generous, patient and kind.
My first Starbucks run after surgery I held my breath as I handed over my phone to a cashier so they could read “HI, I’M SORRY, I CAN’T TALK. CAN I PLEASE HAVE A FLAT WHITE WITH TWO SPLENDA? THANK YOU.” I felt awkward, vulnerable and small. I experienced insecurities that I hadn’t experienced since puberty. But then something amazing happened. The focused “work face” on the cashier became a smile of compassion. Her attitude shifted, her tone changed. This barista actually cared for me. This was not an isolated incident. It happened over and over again for ten days straight.
I found myself looking forward to running errands, as every encounter with a stranger seemed to bring out a new moment of generosity and kindness. It was like my weakness provided them a chance to show their protective strength. My vulnerability brought out the best of them.
Vulnerability isn’t my thing. I can be transparent all day long, but I am terrible at being vulnerable. (The significant difference between the two is another post for another day) I like being the driver, the influencer, the first to sacrifice or engage. That being said, it was fascinating to discover, that I saw people best when I approached them in weakness rather than in strength. We try so hard to be invincible as leaders, but clearly that approach is not working. Perhaps it is about time we attempt some vulnerability.
In the rush of your life and leadership roles, consider these sagacious tidbits from my days of silence.
-Ask for what you need.
-Replace mental noise with silence and consideration of others.
-Be strong enough to be vulnerable.
Looking back I didn’t need vocal cord surgery to learn these lessons. I only required silence. Which is after all quite the sage.
Thanks for reading.
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