The Juilliard String Quartet taught me an important lesson about how to have a respectful and productive conversation


Silence is one of the great arts of conversation. Cicero

Several years ago I heard the Juilliard String Quartet present a lecture/recital. Their playing was wonderful,  but my biggest take-away from the event had nothing to do with music but rather the quality of their conversation.  While I was intrigued by what they had to say, I was particularly fascinated by how they conversed. Through their example I learned how important it is to have times of silence throughout conversations.

Before the quartet played, they shared their thoughts about the musical piece they would play. They also conversed in-between movements. It was a relaxed and thoughtful conversational atmosphere in which each player had the opportunity to speak.

One at a time, a player would share his thoughts, and when he was finished there would be silence— sometimes lasting 10-15 seconds—before another member of the quartet would comment on what had just been shared. The group had such high respect for what each colleague was sharing that they allowed time for each statement to “sink in” before another thought was introduced into the conversation. Also, while one person shared, the others seemed to truly listen; they were not just using that time to craft what they would say when it was their turn.

For instance, one member might say, “The thing I enjoy most about the second movement of the Beethoven is that it borrows the theme from the first movement but develops it in a unique way.” Then there would be silence. And then another player might offer, “At first glance, the themes seem to compete with each other, but near the end of the movement one understands that they are actually complementary.” Then another pause…and so on.

The key element in this respectful and profitable conversation was the moments of silence.

When was the last time you conversed with a group of people and the conversation contained times of silence? It’s a rare occurrence. Normally, we try to anticipate the end of someone’s sentence and then compete with others for who speaks next. Sometimes we don’t even allow a person to finish his thought; the beginning of our new sentence overlaps the end of his.

This concept is so foreign to most people that the only way I’ve been able to incorporate it is to discuss it with a particular group and then practice. I did this with my family. I distributed this essay, we talked about it, and then staged a trial conversation. At first, it was difficult and awkward—it’s hard to change deeply-ingrained patterns—but eventually the conversation became well-paced, courteous, and profitable.

What are your thoughts?

8 Replies to “The Juilliard String Quartet taught me an important lesson about how to have a respectful and productive conversation”

  1. Thank you for sharing the important message of pausing instead of responding/reacting to the person right after or even before finishing his/her thoughts. I struggle to communicate in the way that makes the other person feel important.
    Question: What would you do when a person dominates whole conversation?

    1. Hi Angie. Thanks for taking the time to respond. When someone is dominating a conversation, I don’t hesitate to intervene. I’ll say something like, “John, what you’re saying is interesting. Susan, what do you think?” Or, if it’s just two people in the conversation I’ll assert my thoughts and opinions. Take care, Don.

  2. It seems a wonderful way to converse and one I will definitely try to incorporate.

    Thank you for always writing such interesting and insightful messages.

    1. Thanks, Janis, for taking the time to write a kind and encouraging response to my post. I do hope my posts are beneficial. Take care, Don.

  3. This is so good and so needed especially when conversing with a non Believer. I will definitely take this to heart. Thanks

    1. Charlene, thanks for taking the time to write. You’re right. Often we argue with others, when the most effective approach is simply to listen. Take care, Don.

  4. Thank you for another time for commentary. I’m sitting here wondering how I might be able to incorporate this into conversations.

    1. Thanks, Dave. That’s precisely what I want people to do: think about the topics I write about and consider how they can impact our lives.

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