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Sarah May Clarkson, Juniata College

Sarah May Clarkson.jpgFilmmaker Philip Gröning waited sixteen years for permission to capture the lives and work of French Carthusian monks on camera for his movie Into Great Silence. As academic advisors, we can wait for two or three seconds for a response to a question or we can allow an advising moment to extend for what seems like a lifetime without a spoken word.

In the din of our hectic and harried world, silence is an under-rated and under-valued gift. Between cell phones, MP3 players, Blackberries, television, e-mail, cars, subways, planes, and trains, many of us hardly ever experience stillness or silence. This article is not an attempt at religious conversion, but when academic advisors are mindful about using silence, or allowing silence to take hold, it can be, truly, revelatory. In my work, I serve both as an academic advisor and have responsibility for administering the college’s policy on academic integrity, so silence is something that I use at appropriate moments with good effect. And when I am speaking with parents or families, there is often nothing more powerful than a moment of rich silence.

First, advisors need to acknowledge what silence feels like as a part of conversation. In presenting on this topic, I have had folks describe silence in a number of ways – few of them complimentary. Silence can feel like a punishment, it can feel uncomfortable, it can be scary; silence can be awkward, frustrating, even infuriating. In a classroom, silence can be interpreted to mean that students are not prepared, are not intelligent, or are not engaged.

But silence is not necessarily absence, it is not docility or withdrawal; it can speak with a fullness that words may lack. When we note the absence of sound or chatter, silence can be quite full. If we want to use silence in our work with advisees, or in our personal or professional lives, we should have an awareness of the possibilities of silence that requires both reflection and attention.

There are many challenges to silence in our work e.g., budget cuts, larger enrollments, full days, multi-tasking (one of the real enemies of silence). We take pride, as we should, in our efficiency and our busy-ness. More than 150 years ago, Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden about the coolest technology of his day (trains) by saying, “We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us.” I’m sure we often feel the same about the various technologies to which we often feel attached, sometimes in a burdensome way. And so we approach silence with some trepidation, but with a sense that it has a place in academic advising.

When employing silence, keep the following things in mind:

  • Awareness– Allow silence in advising conversations to tell things; allow it to communicate. Silence in advising could be saying what the advisee cannot: fear, exhaustion, stress, uncertainty. As an advisor, be mindful of silence and its absence; the moment to address, confront, console, or counsel may present itself in a way that could not happen otherwise.
  • Listen– Listening does not necessarily translate into hearing. As professionals, we appreciate how important listening is. Perhaps we take it for granted that we listen well, but do not just listen to the words: listen to the body language, the tone of voice, and the moments without words. Listen.org is the Web site of the International Listening Association. HighGain.com has a 5- or 10-minute listening assessment that can be a good exercise for advisors.
  • Respect– In advising, respect is fundamental, and when advisors use silence in advising we genuinely seek conversation or an answer and are respectfully willing to wait for it. Respect in advising relationships is important and valuable; so is silence.
  • Restraint– Do not jump in to fill the silence. Do NOT rescue. Try to allow for what Marion Wrye (2000) calls “abundant pauses.” This may be the hardest task of all, but when an advisor has done it once or twice, we find that silence can feel absolutely appropriate.

I have found it helpful to go to certain works for encouragement and support regarding silence. Parker Palmer (1998) examines six paradoxes of pedagogy in The Courage to Teach. Number 6 is this:

The space should welcome both silence and speech. Words are not the sole medium of exchange in teaching and learning – we educate with silence as well. Silence gives us a chance to reflect on what we have said and heard, and silence itself can be a sort of speech, emerging from the deepest parts of ourselves, of others, of the world.

Psychologists say that a typical group can abide about fifteen seconds of silence before someone feels the need to break the tension by speaking. It is our old friend fear at work, interpreting the silence as something gone wrong, certain that worthwhile things will not happen if we are not making noise. But in authentic education, silence is treated as a trustworthy matrix for the inner work students must do, a medium for learning of the deepest sort (p. 77).
In Chaim Potok’s (1967) The Chosen, the devout rabbi tells his son Danny and his friend Reuven that “the heart speaks through silence” (p. 278). And David Macfarlane’s (1991) unforgettable memoir of Newfoundland, The Danger Tree, has a priceless passage (pages 16 to 18) about a 1962 Christmas dinner and a reticent uncle.

In advising, then, try not to run from silence. Embrace it. Silence asks hard things from us – presence, patience – but the rewards for us and our advisees can be plentiful indeed. The Quakers have a practice in worship of silence or what can be described as “centering down.” It requires time, thought, and an attitude of acceptance; but, much can be communicated when nothing is said. Think of it this way: talk less, say more.

Sarah May Clarkson
Academic Support Services
Juniata College
Huntingdon, Pennsylvania
[email protected]


Macfarlane, David. (1991).The Danger Tree: Memory, War, and the Search for a Family’s Past. New York: Walker & Company.

Palmer, Parker J. (1998).The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Potok, Chaim. (1967).The Chose. New York: Ballantine Books.

Thoreau, H.D. (1942).Walden. Roslyn, N : Walter J. Black. Chapter 2.

Wrye, Marion. (May, 2000). “The Silent Classroom.”English Journal(89) 5. pp. 79-83.

Cite this article using APA style as: Clarkson, S. (2007, September). The role of silence in advising. Academic Advising Today, 30(3). Retrieved from [insert url here]


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