The Gift of the Non-Response

Logic would dictate that to love someone, at the very least, you have to respond to them. That the basic building blocks of healthy dialogue are the give-and-take, a back-and-forth offering of views and perspectives, a statement and response and then counter-response. How else can communication happen? And without communication, doesn’t a relationship die? And so, not responding to someone constitutes disengagement, disinterest, apathy, or alienation. Even if you don’t love someone but you want to show respect or courtesy, you respond.

And so it was a shocking revelation to me to discover that sometimes the most helpful, useful, loving, respectful, and indeed generous thing I can do is not respond. Let me clarify: this depends on the situation. Non-response can still easily imply disinterest. If someone emails me and I don’t respond, it usually means either I’m too busy or I am not interested in dialogue. This is not the kind of non-response I’m talking about. Or if my wife asks me if I can help her out with a home project and I demur. That’s not a very respectful or loving response.

Rather, the non-response I’m speaking of is when you are actually very engaged with someone, listening well, usually in person (not over the internet), intent upon every word that falls from their lips . . . and instead of jumping in with a response, you keep your mouth shut. At first, especially if this is not your typical modus operandi, you may throw people off; they may not know what’s going on. But if you’re not on your way out the door and if your body language indicates that you are actually very interested in what they are saying, the non-response actually IS a response: it says, “I hear you, I understand you, I acknowledge the substance of your words, and (lo and behold!) I’d like to hear more. I am not responding because I want you to go on. I think you have more to say and I don’t want to get in the way. I value what you are saying enough to solicit further explanation.” My non-response yells: “go on.” It’s an invitation. And when it is said authentically, when your friend or loved one actually believes that you want them to say more, to expand, to elaborate, to let it all out, to just keep going, your reticence, ironic as it sounds, can be the sweetest music to their ears.

Other times, it’s not so much further explanation or elaboration that you can solicit, but rather exploration and inquiry. Sometimes people don’t need to get more out; rather, they need to contemplate what already came out, they need to reflect on what was just said and draw some conclusions from it. Your non-response gives them the space to do so. This is an even more generous gift because now you’re communicating not just that what they have to say is important but that who they are is important, important enough to wait until they’ve figured out whatever it is they need to discern.

I have found the non-response helpful in counseling sessions, coffeehouse chats, group discussions, and even those late night talks. When people learn that you don’t feel compelled to snap a response back to everything they say, it frees them up. They begin to think more freely, converse more openly, and think more profoundly with you. Fair warning: people may want to spend even more time with you!

As an election nears, a pandemic re-surges, and a national debate on race persists, conversation is critical. Good conversation is essential. Let’s commit to putting the non-response in our toolkit as an acceptable, and maybe even laudable, possible technique for communicating love and respect. Let’s let people explain more, expand more fully, think more broadly, and do so with greater deference from us. Non-response offers the space for citizens not just to put up with each other but to live well and thrive together.

Remember: what you don’t say can communicate just as much, sometimes more, than what you do.

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