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Relationships — When Silence Is Golden

We might think that our spoken words express what people take in. Yet studies by Dr. Albert Mehrabian and colleagues (1) confirm the truth of the familiar maxim, “It’s not what you say; it’s how you say it.”

Here is what they found regarding how much of the message received by the listener is based on the sender’s words, voice, and body language when people are communicating about their feelings and attitudes:

  • Spoken words: 7 percent
  • Voice tone: 38 percent
  • Body language: 55 percent

Voice tone includes volume and inflection. Examples of body language include eye contact or lack thereof, facial expression, body position (such as facing toward or turned away from the other person, arms open or crossed), and posture. Especially during an important conversation, be aware of your voice tone and body language, as well as of the words you say.

Remember to smile when you express appreciation and to look your partner in the eye when you want to connect. Use a friendly, soft voice if you want to come across as accepting and compassionate, even when discussing a problem or challenge. When you sit side by side, rather than across from each other, you help foster a sense of cooperation.

The Gift of Silence

Saying nothing can be the kindest and most effective form of communication when done sensitively, especially when your partner most needs to feel heard and understood. Listening with complete concentration, not injecting your own thoughts and feelings into the moment, can be a treasured gift.

Dr. Larry Meredith, my former boss at San Francisco’s Alcoholism Evaluation and Treatment Center, eventually became the Director of Health and Human Services for Marin County, where I reside. After he gave a talk and stepped down from the stage, I joined a group surrounding him, waiting for my turn to say hello.

An irate woman approached and proceeded to loudly criticize him about a matter for which she viewed him responsible. Did Larry defend himself? Apologize? Repeat back to her what he’d heard so she’d know he’d been listening? Ask her what she wanted him to do now?

No. He remained silent while looking into her eyes with a startlingly compassionate expression while she spoke and after she finished. A few seconds later, her face softened. Regarding him appreciatively, she said, “Thank you,” and walked away.

Larry knows how to make everyone feel that he values what they have to say and that he understands, because he genuinely listens and cares.

Listening Can Say More Than Words

Larry’s compassionate listening style serves as a model to apply in marriage. Your spouse may complain about a job concern, rude driver, or you. What is most wanted, at least at first, is to know that you are really, fully listening. Often the best thing you can do is to sincerely, silently project this attitude.

Compassionate listening happens naturally when we empathize. It is not a “technique” or something we can fake. Listening halfheartedly while viewing a smartphone or television screen is counterproductive. Pretending to listen when our thoughts are elsewhere shows a lack of concern. Pay attention to yourself. Know when you’re really being fully present for each other.

If a verbal response is wanted, the person might request your opinion or advice. If you’re not sure, you can ask, “Do you want to hear my thoughts?” Your feedback might be helpful, if sought.

Many of us find that venting helps us process our thoughts and feelings. When we are simply heard, a solution often arises from within, as if by magic. Which is, by the way, what happens in good psychotherapy.

The challenge is to avoid injecting our own thoughts and feelings into the conversation when not asked for them. It can take a conscious effort to notice when we’re tempted to jump in too fast. Breathe in and out a few times, then return to pure listening.

Certainly, there’s a place for words. Yet most communication, and often the most powerful kind, is expressed with silence.


  1. A. Mehrabian and M. Wiener, “Decoding of Inconsistent Communications,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 6 (1967): 109–14; and A. Mehrabian and S. R. Ferris, “Inference of Attitudes from Nonverbal Communication in Two Channels,” Journal of Consulting Psychology 31, no. 3 (1967): 248–52. Other pertinent articles are listed on Mehrabian’s website under “Personality and Communication: Psychological Books and Articles of Popular Interest,”

Listening photo available from Shutterstock

Relationships — When Silence Is Golden

Marcia Naomi Berger, MSW, LCSW

Marcia Naomi Berger, MSW, LCSW, author of Marriage Meetings for Lasting Love: 30 Minutes a Week to the Relationship You’ve Always Wanted (New World Library, 2014, audiobook, 2020), has a private psychotherapy practice in San Rafael, California. She offers and workshops for couples and singles, and continuing education classes for therapists at NASW conferences and online. She has taught also at the UCSF School of Medicine, UC Berkeley Extension, and Alliant International University. A former executive director of a family service agency, she earlier held senior level positions in child welfare, alcoholism treatment, and psychiatry.

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APA Reference
Berger, M. (2018). Relationships — When Silence Is Golden. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 1, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 24 Jan 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.