Counseling a client is closely related to teaching a student. A good teacher adjusts the pace of delivery to give students time to understand, process and synthesize a lesson. Whether literally taking notes on paper, or simply taking note in one’s head, attentive students and clients both need time for that learning to happen.

Contemplate your own thinking and speaking. How consciously do you vary the speed of your verbal delivery to accommodate the complexity of your topic or the cluelessness of your listener? Shifting intentionally from fast-thinking and fast-talking to slower-thinking and slower-speaking will help you explain things more coherently. Most important, it will allow complex ideas to sink into your listeners’ long-term memory.

Time for Silence

But what does it mean to “speak slower”? Slow really isn’t slow in the sense that your lips, teeth and tongue move at a glacial pace. That would make you sound comically and cognitively “slow,” as in dim-witted. It is more useful to consider your relative rate of speech combined with the natural pauses we find in everyday conversation. Those pauses generate silence. We often suggest using the Pledge of Allegiance to help feel the rhythm of speaking a phrase at a time while leaving time for silence.

Think for a moment about the vital importance of silence in the midst of speaking. Although people usually quote only the second half of it, the applicable proverb, fully rendered, is, “Speech is silver, but silence is golden.” In the essential interplay between talking and silence, silence is the secret ingredient of understanding.

your only goal while speaking is to hear silence between phrasesIn reality, your clients don’t learn anything from you as you speak. If and when clients learn from you, it is while they are processing what you just said. Your silver-tongued delivery must be offset by the shimmering silence of their comprehension. We learn best when you give us time to think. Thinking requires silence. Stop talking, and let your words sink in. Learning happens in silence.

It’s not unfair to say that lawyers like to talk, and many are especially good at it. But the flip side of being a good talker is being a good listener. The very silence that your client may need to understand what you are saying is the kind of silence that allows her the time to talk and ask questions. Active listening can only happen in purposeful silence.