Fun Fact: When you are silent people have the tendency to yell at you.

One of four flashcards I used during my vow of silence.
One of four flashcards I used during my vow of silence.

They also become more animated–one coffee barista tried using sign language. All I wanted to do was scream:

Just because I am silent doesn’t mean I can’t hear!

But of course, I couldn’t say a word. So I let people yell at me and took mental notes for the moment I would be able to write this post for you.

I never thought I would miss words so much.

So far I have spent 10 days of my life in complete silence–those are some of the hardest, most introspective, interesting days of my life. And yes, I highly recommend it.

Confession: Silence terrifies me.

Awkward pauses literally make my heart pound out of my chest. In order to prevent these awkward moments from happening I have the bad habit of interrupting someone just in case there *might* be a long pause. Not only is this incredibly rude and a terrible way to interact, it also forces me to think pre-plan my statements.

There is nothing worse than someone who is only half listening to you while they simply think about their own response. I am that person. I am trying not to be.

Enter: Vow of Silence.

I realized the only way to curb my interrupting and over-thinking addiction was to go cold turkey. No talking at all. If I can’t respond at all, then there is nothing to pre-plan. When I can’t speak, all I can do is listen.

During my vows of silence I do everything I normally do–networking events, business masterminds, outings with friends but I don’t speak and I don’t write. My number one goal is to be supportive and truly and deeply listen to those around me.

What It’s Like During a Vow of Silence

It’s like you’re mourning the death of your ability to speak.

This crazy thing happens when people are speaking to you and you can’t speak back. While sitting silently in one of my masterminds this week I realized it’s very much like the 5 Stages of Grief…except you are mourning the end of your speaking and entering into the 5 Stages of Silence. No joke, I go through each of these 5 stages every single time I meet someone new during my vow. It doesn’t happen just once at the beginning, it often happens over and over again during each new interaction. Here’s what happens:

Denial and Isolation

The first reaction to not being able to speak is to try to pretend it’s not happening and deny the reality of the situation. Yes, people will ask you questions and you won’t be able to respond. Yes, people will say things that really bother you and you won’t be able to say a *** word! Denial is a normal reaction to rationalize overwhelming emotions–and not being able to use your major mode of communication is completely overwhelming (at first). This is a defense mechanism that buffers the immediate fear of being silent and judged or missing out.

Just to be clear: The first few moments of not speaking are the worst. At my first silent networking event I broke out in a sweat, my stomach started to cramp and I felt the desire to run from the room. Be prepared for this–it’s denial at it’s best. It does get better…read on.

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Anger

As the reality sets in and you realize, truly, you can’t say anything. An intense feeling comes up: I am not ready for this. I think this intense emotion comes from our vulnerable core, because we are terrified people will judge us, not like us or we won’t be able to stand up for ourselves. This vulnerability comes out as anger. Rationally, we know that we chose to be silent, but it still feels infuriating at first that we decided to do it! I think frustration is the best way to describe this stage. Specifically:

  • You show people a card saying you are on a vow of silence and then they ask you how it’s going. Bah!
  • You have advice for a friend going through something but you can’t say anything. Bah!
  • You have a really, really funny joke to add to the conversation. Bah!
  • Someone says something about you and you are dying to correct them. Bah!

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Bargaining

At some point you begin to hope that maybe you could figure out a way to express something. You use body language and eyebrow flashes. You point and gesticulate wildly. You make frustrated sounds and stomp your foot. Nope, still you can’t talk–and most likely you can’t express much. Vow of Silences are for listening and introspection NOT expression. That is a tough pill to swallow and so we bargain with it for as long as possible before…

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Depression

It is incredible the depth of tremendous sadness you feel when you can’t express yourself. I have never had such a great appreciation for those who are truly unable to speak. Once I have realized that I can’t bargain my way into communication, there is a sadness and regret that often floods into my body. I welcome this stage because I think this is what it truly means to be out of your comfort zone. I find it interesting to pay attention to when this happens during a vow of silence. Aha moments for me:

  • I want to help! I forget how often people ask for advice or feedback–and how often I also need help and feedback. When you can’t speak you are alone with your problems and they are alone with theirs. This brought me great sadness during my vow. However, not focusing on the solution let me be fully present and deep dive even further into the problem. It’s amazing how your silence makes people dig deep. I couldn’t solve her problem, but I could listen deeply.
  • Yesterday, a friend told me about a difficult time she was experiencing. I couldn’t respond verbally so I hugged her. It wasn’t enough. This showed me how important verbal empathy is to our connections and how much it helps me AND her to show compassion and understanding towards other human beings.
  • At one of my meetings someone mentioned a professional frustration–she has mentioned this same frustration many times before. In the past, I jump in with suggestions and solutions. But because I was silent I heard her for real and noticed the pattern–my suggestions aren’t working. I was sad not to help, but in my silence I realized I haven’t been helping. When I really listened I heard that what she is dealing with is emotional, not professional. I was sad I couldn’t share it right away (our next meeting should be good!) but excited to see it for the first time.

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Acceptance

Many people quit their vow before reaching this stage. They feel frustrated and say, “F*** this!” Or they feel incapacitated and they give up. Or they feel sad and lonely and so they go back to words. Thats ok! That process in itself can be illuminating. But, I will say the anger, bargaining, denial…it’s all worth the final stage: when you accept your silence and the words of those around you.

In the Indian religions religious silence is called Mauna and the name for a sage muni literally means ‘silent one’.

Wisdom comes from both listening and getting through the tough part to reach understanding. It takes bravery not to speak and to be fully vulnerable to those around you. Once you push through there is a wonderful reward.

At some point during your vow, if you stick with it, you will feel amazing calm.

It’s not quite happiness, but there is a content acceptance. It’s as if your mind finally accepts the fact that you are just there to listen. Finally the chatter in your brain will cease and you will just be listening.

I call this silent bliss.

It’s worth the 4 previous stages of silence. You hear more, you see more, you are more present and you learn so much. You will learn about others:

  • I learned that emotional fear can stop professional success.
  • I learned that if you give someone a little extra pause after they are done speaking, they will often go deeper.
  • I learned that people LOVE to talk about themselves–and that is a joyous thing to watch and support.

You will learn about yourself:

  • I learned that I interrupt people.
  • I learned that I have to stop fixing people. Sometimes they just want to be listened to.
  • I learned that I need lots of advice and it’s hard not being able to ask for it.

I will continue to do a Vow of Silence every summer and want to encourage you to do the same. I know a ton of readers joined me in my vow and I can’t wait to hear about their experiences. Do you want to take a vow of silence? Here’s how:

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How to Take a Vow of Silence

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Know Your Why

People take vows of silence for all kinds of amazing reasons. Typically people want to reset–they want to speak better, listen better or feel more.

When you take away one form of communication all others are heightened.

Here are a few of the most common reasons for vows of silence:

  • No Idle Words: In monasteries of many religious orders there are specific places and times (usually at night) where speaking was more strictly prohibited. Useless and idle words are often forbidden to make speech more purposeful. Do you speak purposefully?
  • Presence & Introspection: When we cease speaking to the outside world we turn internal. Taking away speaking as an option forces you to be with yourself. Do you have self-exploration to do?
  • Better Listening: When you can’t talk you become a far better listener because you can no longer think about what you will say next. It is an incredible experience. Not needing to speak also makes you incredibly present is what is happening around you because you can’t think about your next move. Do you need to be a better listener?
  • No Gossip: Hurtful words are impossible to take back and tend to harm everyone involved. Gossiping is like ripping open a feather pillow–it is impossible to stuff all those feathers back in. Do you speak with kindness?
  • As a Statement: Some individuals take a vow of silence to take a stance on an issue. On November 30th many Canadian students take a 24 hour vow of silence for Free The Children to speak up against poverty and child labor. John Francis took a 17 year vow of silence for the environment! What’s your purpose?

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Your Rules

Everyone does Vows of Silence differently. You have to know what works for you based on your why. If you are trying to stop gossiping and find that you gossip most with friends during the day, maybe you go silent in those areas of your life. If you are trying to self-explore you want to pair your vow of silence with alone time so you are not distracted by others.

  • Times of Day? Some people are silent just during the day and speak at night.
  • Online or Offline? Some people do Digital Vows of Silence and go quiet on social media and email.
  • Writing and Speaking? Some people stop writing AND speaking.
  • How long? Some people set a time limit to be silent, other’s keep their vow for as long as they feel necessary. On my first vow of silence I said I would only start speaking again when I stopped being afraid of the silence. For me that took 6 days! For my latest vow of silence I just wanted a reminder of that feeling and set the vow for 2 days.
  • Where? Do you want to be interacting with people during your vow to force you to listen or do you want to be alone so you can be introspective?

Decide on your rules before embarking on your journey.

Special Note: Somepeople want to still write during their vow of silence. I think journaling and taking notes on your experiences is awesome, but writing notes to others is still a form of speaking. One of the best parts of the vow of silence is being completely introspective and not focused on what you’re going to say. If you can simply write out your answer it defeats the purpose. In fact, you might spend even less time listening or being present because you are furiously writing notes to people.

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Timing

Once you’ve done some soul searching to find your why and figured out your boundaries, you have to get down to the nitty-gritty planning. I take a Vow of Silence every year and have learned that the right planning can make your vow easier and help you focus on what really matters. It’s important to pick a time that is conducive to being silent–and this very much depends on your goals. Here are some of the tips I have picked up along the way:

  • Silent Vacation: If you want introspection, you might want to go to a retreat or hotel and let the staff know ahead of time about your Vow.
  • Social Calendar: If you want to be a better listener, it’s best to have events or social plans on the calendar where you can practice the art of listening. One-on-one’s are really hard because you can give no feedback at all and it puts a lot of pressure on them. I like 3 or more so you can listen and be supportive but not force one person to do all the talking.
  • Day to Day: Some of the day to day stuff can be the hardest on a vow of silence–ordering coffee, picking up a prescription, etc. Try to pick a time with fewer appointments and errands if possible–unless that is part of your challenge!

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Logistics

I personally don’t allow myself to write at all when I am on a vow of silence, except for 4 notecards that I print up and carry around with me:

  1. “I’ve taken a vow of silence. I’m trying to become a better listener.”
  2. “Please tell me about yourself.”
  3. “I’m sorry.”
  4. “This has been as awkward for you as it was for me. Thank you for trying it with me!”

I have found that these 4 are just enough to get by and stimulate conversation (remember, mine is all about being a better listener). Do you have a few standard phrases you think will be important? As long as your goal isn’t to personally make communication as hard as possible, printing up a few standard phrases can make it easier so you can focus on your real goal.

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Alert People

Before embarking on your vow of silence let everyone know. It’s also important to get buy in from the people who you will really burden–your spouse, your kids, your colleagues. Make sure they are onboard. Specifically:

  • Change your voicemail so people don’t expect a call back.
  • Set an email autoresponder.
  • Tell your friends–otherwise they text you and wonder why they don’t hear back (sorry Christian!!)

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Prepare Special Activities

Being silent is a truly amazing and unique experience and you might want to try some amazing and unique activities while you do it. I love taking long hikes and walks during my vows to think and process. Some people like to listen to music, meditate and do yoga classes. I have heard people who plan road trips, read old journals, look through photo albums or even eat special mushrooms. It’s a time of experimentation–get creative.

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It’s Selfish

I learned this during my most recent vow of silence: speaking is a gift. It is a gift to be able to express yourself verbally and it is also a gift to those around you. When you stop speaking you are listening to others, but you are also relying exclusively on them to carry the conversation for you. You also can’t respond to their question, their pleas for advice, their need for support. While listening is a way to give to others during your vow, keep in mind that you are also forcing other’s out of their comfort zone.

Quick Story:

I met with a friend during my vow of silence who is very quiet. In fact, I didn’t realize how quiet she was until I was quiet too! I was actually excited to get together with her because I thought that it would be a great opportunity for me to listen to her for a change — I feel like I am always the one blabbering away. That’s not quite what happened. I wish I could say that we got together and for the first time ever she poured her heart out. While that has happened before with someone while I was on a vow of silence, it didn’t happen this time. In fact, she shut down even more. She was just as nervous having to talk as I was with not being able to! Now, I love getting people out of their comfort zone but I forced this upon her and felt terrible. She said, “this is one of the hardest things I have ever done and you are the one on the vow of silence!” Oops.

This made me realize how different people are. Taking a vow of silence can be a personal challenge and a social challenge! Be sure to think about how your vow could affect those around you.

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End on a High

The best part of taking a vow of silence is the reflection afterwards.

  • Processing: Writing this post has been wonderfully rewarding for me as I process the last few days–thank you for reading.
  • Gratitude: Thank the people who you challenged! My very next task is to write thank you notes to all of the people who helped me during this vow.
  • Next Time: What would you do differently next time? Is there a next time?

I know there is a next time for me! Follow me on Twitter for my next vow of silence…I hope you’ll silently join me.

Until next time:

Thank you for your patience as I embarked on this silent adventure.

About Vanessa Van Edwards

Vanessa Van Edwards is a national best selling author & founder at Science of People. Her groundbreaking book, Captivate: The Science of Succeeding with People has been translated into more than 16 languages. As a recovering awkward person, Vanessa helps millions find their inner charisma. She regularly leads innovative corporate workshops and helps thousands of individual professionals in her online program People School. Vanessa works with entrepreneurs, growing businesses, and trillion dollar companies; and has been featured on CNN, BBC, CBS, Fast Company, Inc., Entrepreneur Magazine, USA Today, the Today Show and many more.

4 replies on “How to Take a Vow of Silence and Why You Should Try Taking One”

  1. Vincent

    Hi my name is Vince and my first experience with not speaking ( writing some), was the other night when I got Soo heated with my ex, I decided if I can’t say anything right then I won’t say anything at all. At first I think I used it as a weapon reflecting back on it, but I did notice something. I did not get angry with my words, which boggles me because I can easily do that texting.
    Sigh, I know there needs to be a question here so I guess what I am asking is, is this a good reason? It felt good to control what I wanted to say on paper and not let my emotions control me, but it almost felt wrong to feel a sense of control, like I’m manipulating.
    I know I have communication problems, not just with her but in my immediate circle and family. These two times I’ve spent not speaking for an evening, gesturing with head nods and such and some writing, has in some way giving me a sense of satisfaction, and not in the sense of a weapon, as a way to communicate better.
    I read your whole page,
    And I don’t know if I would be doing this for the right reasons.

  2. Gizmo

    More of a question. I dont socialize alot and I listen enough to get a feel of the situation then respond. With living with my brother and my boyfriend and with us interacting day to day, can using text or notes he used but only using monosyllable words in responses 6 words or less be ok?

  3. Bob

    I grew up as a very shy person so I was not much of a talker. Now at 59 and looking back being silent made me the person I am today. I was always amazed when just listening to a group of people how no one was listening to one another. I learned the art of listening and people seemed to always open up to me because I did not want the focus on me but to hear and understand what the other person was going through.

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