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Voice of Experience

Voice of Experience: March 2024


Eric York Drogin


  • Silence may have health benefits and boost work productivity.
  • Have you considered using silence to help a jury understand your client?
  • Silence may be a helpful tool in the courtroom, but what about those who are neurodivergent and struggle with silence?

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This article was originally published by Kentucky Bar Association.

Following so closely on the heels of such a topic as “Music,” “Silence” may appear at first blush to represent little more than an attempt to even up the score.  We would do well, however, to consider that musicians recognize the saliency of silence in their own work product, aided by various symbols that stand for a timed gap in the proceedings that is called a “rest.”  Surely prosecutors, with their own measured parts to play, can relate to a rest.

Although words are the advocate’s primary stock in trade, it is the silence between those words that not only punctuates and lends gravitas but that can also, when extended, send a powerfully effective message of its own.  “Excruciating silence” appeared in a recent Google search about 114,000 times, surpassed in terms of frequency if not degree by “awkward silence,” which appeared almost four and a half million times.  Do we want to make our jury memorably uncomfortable and drive home a critical point into the bargain?  Make them sit in silence for the five minutes it took for our client to tolerate something even more burdensome and monotonous than our own case in chief.  This time-honored device is a different sort of “silence in the court” that the bench typically demands of its own accord, which may help to explain why we’re allowed to flourish it only on occasion, and not without limit.

As a general matter, silence performs a rather different function when we seek it out on our own between memorably triumphant courtroom appearances.  According to researchers at the Psychophysical Research Laboratory of the University of Applied Sciences in Turku, Finland—where it’s typically so quiet that one can actually hear it snowing—silence beats the pants off of even mild background speech as an environmental condition conducive to focused, effective productivity.

Tell this, however, to persons who experience Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).  In a fascinating and telling display of neurodiversity, silence for these individuals is often anything but a friend.  An apt case in point is exemplified by a colleague of mine for whom the minimum requirements for a suitable workspace include the constant drone of televised situation comedies in the background, supplemented by intermittent telephone and social media-based conversations.  Dogs whine and bark.  A hamster incessantly attempts to tunnel out of its cage.  All of this can be a requisite grist for the ADHD workmill.  Does output quality appear to suffer?  Not in the slightest. 

There is always far more to wellness than the extent to which it augments our professional activities.  Researchers at the Cleveland Clinic point out that in addition to its ability to “increase focus and cognition,” silence can exercise specifically physiological effects that include “lower your blood pressure,” “decrease your heart rate,” “steady your breathing,” and “reduce muscle tension." Doctors at PsychCentral—predictably focused on the mental element—further note that silence “encourages mindfulness,” “promotes self-awareness,” “stimulates brain cells,” “relieves stress,” “helps with information processing,” “boosts creativity,” and “aids with concentration."

Mental health professionals are so enamored of the clinical efficacy of silence that they have actually developed a treatment modality called “silence therapy.”  An early pioneer of silence therapy was psychologist Moshe Lang, who described its use in helping Holocaust survivors with explicit acknowledgment that “silence is often experienced as strength, courage, and a testimonial to those who perished."

According to physician Michael Lam and colleagues, silence therapy taps “a completely different neuronal pathway in the auditory cortex that fires when silence begins.  This pathway soon stops firing as the silence lengthens, also.  This pathway is different from but similar to the one that fires when noise stimulation is heard.  This second pathway also stops firing as noise continues."  Psychotherapists avail themselves of this neurologically based phenomenon by emphasizing—as described by therapist Catalina Goerke—how patients can locate “the tools to find home within themselves through self-observation, stillness and the ability to tune in to the voice of our inner wisdom.” 

None of this leads inexorably to the conclusion that silence is always golden when it comes to clinical intervention.  Psychologist Joshua Schultz cautions that silence can sometimes be “counterproductive in group therapy,” given that while “members can learn and grow vicariously through other group members’ work, they are more likely to benefit from the treatment if they are verbally engaged during the session,” and that silence “can also be a sign of resistance or disengagement,” although “it’s important not to jump to this conclusion.”  Similarly, psychologist Michael Jackson has opined that “silence often makes people uncomfortable,” such that “we are prone to filling up silences in conversations as quickly as possible,” one reason for which is that “prolonged silence may be interpreted as a sign of discomfort” as well as disapproval.

To the extent that silence is both desirable and attainable, how can we set about accessing and promoting it in the most practical and convenient ways possible?  Coaching expert Leo Babauta recommends that we “rise early,” that alternatively we see out “late nights,” that we “get out into nature,” that we embrace “meditation,” that we “exercise,” that we “take a break and take a walk,” that we try “yoga,” that we promote “reading” and “journaling”—unlike yoga, not all that much of a stretch for most lawyers—and that we seek out such carefully cultivated zones as “museums,” “art galleries,” “libraries,” and “gardens."

Some will move a step beyond such comparatively attainable measures and go “all in” with a fully realized silence retreat.  Sites are located around the country; for example, in California, Colorado, New York, North Carolina, and Texas. As with any other self-funded getaway, options range to spartan to opulent and everything in between.  Whatever source or methodology we can tap, each and every one of us could benefit from a little quiet time, as a respite from a profession that periodically immerses us in angry, self-generated noise.  Let’s try to keep it down.