Slay the silence

The news that King Charles has cancer has prompted messages of support from across the world. Rishi Sunak announced it has been ‘caught early’, and both Joe Biden and Donald Trump sent their best. Northern Ireland’s First Minister Michelle O’Neill and Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly expressed their good wishes as they start to work together; surely a sign of hope in a world full of political turmoil and distressing news.

Illness is a great leveller, as Nicci Gerrard observes in The Guardian. It can be a catalyst for some families pulling together and others falling apart. A serious condition can bring sharply into focus what really matters: care for the sick person, comfort for the suffering and laying aside past hurts. But it can also trigger old fears, long-standing resentments and unresolved sibling rivalry. A stony silence or an all-out conflict only make matters worse for the family.

In this article, I explore how silence can be both an obstacle and a resource for having a ‘bridge-building’ conversation. I share three things you can do to transform hostility to harmony in families, teams and organisations. As Neale Donald Walsch kindly wrote in the foreword to my first book:

“How to Have Meaningful Conversations throws a lifeline to those who are drowning in silence, living moments (and sometimes entire lives!) of “quiet desperation”. Here are techniques, approaches and verbal devices that work − in short, the tools that most people wish they had when they wish things were different.”

The suffering of a schism

My heart goes out to the royal family beset, as many families are, by a painful schism. The diagnosis of a serious illness will only add to the suffering. In my own wider family system, there are difficult conversations yet to be had. As the years roll on, hurts deepen and there’s a risk that hearts harden. It’s an upsetting place to be. Unanswered texts and unopened doors (when I have summoned the courage to knock) leave me feeling sad and disheartened. It takes two to dialogue. As Gerrard writes in her moving piece:

“The painful spectacle of Harry racing back to see King Charles for a brief visit, and not even meeting his elder brother, is a reminder of how a family can be the saddest and unsafest place. The shadow of cancer, rather than healing that, exposes it.”

Since the publication of his memoir, Spare, in 2023, Harry has become practically estranged from his family of origin. A sense of time running out can bring out the best – and worst – in all of us. Gerrard continues:

“Soon it might be too late to rescue the past. Harry’s dash to be beside his father’s side reads like a frantic attempt to win forgiveness and love. That he didn’t meet William reads like an implacable door shutting. And even when a parent eventually dies (for, of course, Charles might well have decades, like his mother and grandmother before him), the struggle isn’t over, because it is a struggle with the self as well as with the other.”

That is a profoundly true statement: the difficulty is with the self not just the other. The hard truth is that we can’t do anything about them (and their willingness, or not, to have a dialogue); we can only really have an influence on ourselves.

Overcoming the struggle

All of us have reactive tendencies that can scupper our best attempts to communicate. Some of us go silent, distance ourselves and turn the other way feeling grim. Others turn controlling and try to micro-manage. Others become overly accommodating and comply rather than speak out, keeping a false harmony in play and a real conversation at bay.

Understanding your reactivity creates the possibility of stepping away from it (see my post on Turning down the heat). In families these defensive dynamics can become calcified. As Megan Nolan writes in a recent article in the New Statesman:

“Many of the arguments I’ve had with family as an adult are expressions of ancient reactive mechanisms from when I was too young to have autonomy: when I receive criticism in my everyday life I may not like it but I can accept it without a meltdown. At home my inability to hear criticism is ludicrous and disproportionate, whether it’s about an unwashed mug or my life choices.”

When we fail to have this level of honesty with ourselves, the fallout from a conversation poorly handled or altogether avoided can be catastrophic. Our inability to stay in the room and talk together is the root cause of many problems between partners, siblings, parents and children, as well as managers, leaders and diplomats. How can we even start the conversation without one of us sliding into a silence or into verbal violence?

The spaciousness of silence

Before sharing some tools to cut through stonewalling, I want to acknowledge that there is a healthy version of silence. As a coach, I’ve learnt that leaving a pause can fork the talk down an entirely different path. In a recent session, a client scribbled notes as the insights were coming so fast. My job, in that moment, was not to interfere. Speaking can sometimes be meddling. As Arthur F. Turner writes in his chapter on Silence in Coaching:

“Intolerance of silence may lead to one of the traps of coaching practice: that of interruption, or the coach being drawn into suggestions and advice.”

In conversation, as in coaching, when we rush to fill the space with words, we take up space rather than ‘hold space’ for the other. Our ‘re-loading’ can even derail the conversation. We do our best, freshest thinking in the unhurried gap between words. Spaciousness, stillness and pausing deepen our access to the wisdom that’s right there in our midst.

Slay the silence

Not all silence is pregnant with fertile pauses. Silence can at times be hostile, cold and distancing. If that’s true for you, here are three things to try.

  1. Weigh up whether to talk
  2. Find your opening
  3. Call on an ally

Accepting that there are risks in starting conversation and risks in staying silent can help you to make an informed choice about whether to try to talk. Take your time to think through the two options: (1) have the conversation, or (2) stay silent. You might also consider the short-term and the long-term view.

Sometimes not talking is the right decision. If, for example, the other person is so full of hate that it would be damaging to talk with them, wisdom could say: keep your own counsel. When this decision is conscious, there is a sense of relief.

When talking is the right decision, knowing this means that you can call up your courage more easily. One coachee worked her way through this ‘trade-off’ exercise and decided that the 25-year estrangement she’d had with her now-elderly father had become so painful that it was worth the risk of trying to talk. By rehearsing her opening line and picking her moment, she found a way to build a bridge across a chasm.

In the cut-and-thrust of corporate and family life, it often seems easier in the short term to hide behind email or polite silence rather than call up our courage and talk. The risks of staying silent, however, are often greater than the risks of speaking out, as resentments fester and relationships flounder.

Once you’ve decided to have the conversation, talk about your decision with someone. It doesn’t have to be a professional coach; it could be a trusted friend, colleague or family member. Knowing that you have an ally makes a huge difference: it’s one way to ensure that you follow through on your intention.

Discussing the ‘big conversation’ helps you uncover what you really want to say. Feelings can be difficult to discover and sometimes even more tricky to acknowledge. Figuring out what you need to say before launching in, where the stakes are much higher, helps to build confidence and courage.

Asking your ally to check with you after you’ve had the ‘big conversation’ is a valuable way to ‘hold your feet to the fire.’ It’s understandable that you might need some time to let everything percolate. The coachee I mentioned earlier shared with me how talking with her father had given her the courage to have a difficult conversation with her boss. When I bumped into her at a wellness festival in London several years later, she shared that her career had gone on to flourish as a result of how she’d learnt to ‘slay the silence.’

Closing remarks

When a relationship has become estranged, it can be difficult to start a conversation. The longer you leave it, the trickier it becomes. Even though there might be some uncomfortable

moments when you do talk, they’re worth it. As grievances are aired, hurts shared, and souls bared, new energy is released. Whether you are king, prince or subject, you do not need to suffer in silence.


Nicci Gerrard (2024) Will the king’s cancer heal his feuding sons or create a new schism? The Guardian, 11 February.

Megan Nolan (2024) Out of the Ordinary column, The New Statesman, 2-8 February.

Arthur F. Turner (2020) Silence in coaching. In Passmore, J. (Ed) The Coaches’ Handbook: The Complete Practitioner Guide for Professional Coaches. Routledge.

Sarah Rozenthuler
Sarah Rozenthuler