Listening into silence
A voice recorder can capture what is said, but only a human being can listen and look and feel and imagine all at the same time, connecting words to tone of voice, mood, gestures, sighs, silences, glances across the room.
We must listen carefully to the stories told by the Bhopalis because we are not just listening to the words. The sighs, silences, gestures and tears are all part of the story. All these things we note, and they will help us when we come to retell this story to the world.
Listening for ‘unspoken communication’ is really important, because silences, pauses, stutters and hesitation often show where the most emotionally powerful part of the story is, and the real meaning of what someone is trying to tell you often comes through in the pauses, the hesitations, the spaces between the words.
Silences of different kinds
Silences are as important as speech.
The person you are talking to will sometimes leave very important things unsaid. This can be for many reasons:
They don’t know the point is important.
They don’t dare to talk about it.
They are confused.
The experience is hard to put into words.
They’ve simply forgotten.
They are embarrassed to talk about something.
They are afraid of offending you.
They think you will not understand.
They think you might misrepresent them.
When someone is silent there is always something else going on.
A person who is silent in front of us may be screaming inside their head. We have to listen hard enough to hear that silent scream.
Story-shaped holes in speech
Suppose there is something that is never mentioned. Something not being said, or even acknowledged. If someone is avoiding a subject, working around it, never mentioning it, it is a pointer that this may be something important.
Painters talk of ‘positive’ and ‘negative space’. Positive space is the shapes of the objects being depicted. Negative space is the spacebetween the objects. Of the two, it is actually the negative space which is more important in a composition.
And sometimes (as below) the negative space is the story.
Clever use of negative space creates a hidden message about gun culture. The large pale grey shape is aesthetically as pleasing as the black shape of the gun. And the smooth calmness of these shapes makes the contrasting message more horrifying.