What Every Leader Needs: Silence and Solitude

In my last blog post I suggested that the cure to our noisy, frenzied, busy world lies in practicing silence and solitude. I shared some quotes and key Scriptures that relate to these spiritual disciplines. In this post I suggest reasons why we should practice silence and solitude and some ways to begin to build that practice into your life.

In essence, silence and solitude are tools God uses to restore our souls by breaking engagements with the world. This discipline is really more of a state of heart than a place. Granted, it does include away-ness from others, but as you mature you can actually be in a huge crowd and experience the rejuvenating power of solitude. It can create the ability to carry around with you your own portable sanctuary, sacred place, place of rest, connection to God even in a loud, distracting world.On the other hand you can become a hermit and never experience the power of solitude.

Before I give you my suggestions, read this funny story.

A monk newly initiated into his order was told that he’d have to spend the initial 20 years of training in complete silence. He was told that he would only be allowed to say two words every three years. After 3 years of studiously keeping this vow he was summoned before the Abbot and asked if he had anything to say, in two words or less. He replied, “Food bad.” Three more years went by when he was again summoned before the Abbot. “Well, do you have anything to say now,” the monk was asked. “Bed hard,” was the answer. After three more years the Abbot found our friend and asked him if he’d like to speak. “I quit!” said the monk. “Well, I’m not surprised,” said his Abbot. “You’ve done nothing but complain since you arrived.” (source unknown)

Now, the practical benefits of practicing silence and solitude and tips for building it into your life.

Practical benefits of practiing silence and solitude

1. It breaks the power of hurry.

It breaks the adrenalin addiction, the “have to do” mentality of life. Willard explains it this way. The person who is capable of doing nothing might be capable of refraining from doing the wrong thing. And then perhaps he or she would be better able to do the right thing.[1]

2. It brings spiritual renewal.

Francis de Sales said (1500’s), “There is no clock, no matter how good it may be, that doesn’t need resetting and rewinding twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening. In addition, at least once a year it must be taken apart to remove the dirt clogging it, straighten out bent parts, and repair those worn out. In like manner, every morning and evening a man who really takes care of he heart must rewind it for God’s service . . . . Moreover, he must often reflect on his condition in order to reform and improve it. Finally, at least once a year he must take it apart and examine every piece in detail, that is every affection and passion, in order to repair whatever defects there may be.[2]

3. It reminds us that life will still go on without us

It interrupts the cycle of constantly having to manage things and be in control. It breaks us from a sense of being indispensable.

4. It clears the storm of life and mind for wise decision making and planning.

Jesus illustrates this in Luke 6:12-13 before he chose his disciples. “And it was at this time that He went off to the mountain to pray, and He spent the whole night in prayer to God. And when day came, He called His disciples to Him; and chose twelve of them, whom He also named as apostles.”

5. It creates inner space to hear the voice of God.

After Elijah’s power encounter on Mt Carmel with the Baal worshippers he fled because he heard that Queen Jezebel had a price on his head. He hid in a cave and whined to God. God told him to step outside the cave and cover his face because he was about to speak to him. A storm and wind and earthquake and fire appeared, but God was not in any of those. Rather, God spoke in a whisper. 1Kings 19.2…And after the fire came a gentle whisper.

6. It helps us disconnect from the world and deeply connect to our soul.

Henry Nouwen said, “In solitude, I get rid of my scaffolding.” Scaffolding is the stuff we use to keep ourselves propped up, friends, family, TV, radio, books, job, technology, work, achievement, our bank account, etc.[3]

7. It helps us control our tongue

If frees us from the tyranny we hold over others with our words. When we are silent, it is much more difficult to manipulate and control the people and circumstances around us. Words are the weapons we lay down when we practice silence. We give up our insistence of being heard and obeyed.

8. It helps us with the other disciplines

It enhances the other disciplines.


Practical tips to incorporate silence and solitude into your life.

1. Plan for it.

2. Find a quiet place.

3. Be considerate of those who will be affected.

4. Zip it

James 1:26 If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless.

5. Expect some apprehension.

Our busy world often hinders us from looking within, so don’t quit if deep things in your soul begin to surface

6. Length?

Walk before run.

7. Realize that this discipline comes more easily to some.

I recommend a great book to understand your particular spiritual pathway. It’s a book called Sacred Pathways by Gary Thomas.

What do you find most difficult about silence and solitude?


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[1]Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, p. 359.

[2] John Ortberg, The Life You’ve Always Wanted, p. 94.

[3]ibid,p. 92

How to Break the Power of Hurry

We live in a world that bombards us with incessant visual stimuli and noise. It’s easy to become addicted to that noise without realizing it. We often turn the radio on in the car when we drive. We leave the TV on, even though we aren’t watching it. And our cell phones are seldom silenced. Not only do we live in a noisy world, but we live in a busy one as well. Our time saving devices (cell phones, computers, faster internet connections) relentlessly remind us that we should get more done in less time so that we have more time to get even more done. As a result we are addicted not only to noise, but to hurry. John Ortberg says that, “Hurry is not just a disordered schedule. Hurry is a disordered heart.”[1] So, what do we do?

Ortberg also writes about an article that appeared in a newspaper in Tacoma, Washington, a few years ago about Tattoo the basset hound.

Tattoo didn’t intend to go for an evening run, but when his owner shut his leash in the car door and took off for a drive with Tattoo still outside the vehicle, he had no choice.

Motorcycle officer Terry Filbert noticed a passing vehicle with something dragging behind it, “the basset hound picking them up and putting them down as fast as he could.” He chased the car to a stop, and Tattoo was rescued, but not before the dog had reached a speed of 20-25 miles per hour, rolling over several times.

He then observes that often we live like Tattoo, “our days mark by picking them up and putting them down as fast as we can.”

Hurry, noise, and incessant busyness are enemies of a healthy spiritual life. I can attest to that in my life. It easily sneaks up on you. But God does not want us to conform to a superficial lifestyle marked by incessant noise and busyness. The Apostle Paul wrote these familiar words.

Rom. 12.2 (NIV) Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is — his good, pleasing and perfect will.

I believe the cure for this malady lies in two related spiritual disciplines: silence and solitude. In this blog I quote some famous people who wrote about these disciplines and list some key Bible verses on the subject. I hope this blog will stir your thoughts about building this practice into your life.

In my next blog I will list ways that silence and solitude can help us become better leaders and Christians and I suggest a simple plan that can help incorporate silence and solitude into your life, if you’ve not yet done so.

But first, some simple definitions.

Solitude: The practice of temporarily being absent from other people (in isolation or anonymity) and other things so that you can be present with God.

Silence: The practice of voluntarily and temporarily abstaining from speaking so that certain spiritual goals might be sought.

Powerful quotes on silence and solitude:

Henri Nowen: “Without (silence and solittude) it is virtually impossible to live a spiritual life.”[2] “It is a good discipline to wonder in each new situation if people wouldn’t be better served by our silence than by our words.”? (The Way of the Heart)

Dallas Willard: “… this one (silence and solitude) is generally the most fundamental in the beginning of the spiritual life, and it must be returned to again and again as that life develops.”[3]

Pascal: “I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they are unable to stay quietly in their own room.”[4]

Austin Phelps (a pastor in the1800s): “It has been said that no great work in literature or in science was ever wrought by a man who did not love solitude. We may lay it down as an elemental principle of religion, that no large growth in holiness was ever gained by one who did not take time to be often long alone with God.”[5]

Significant Scriptures on silence and solitude:

Eccl. 3:7 there is. . . a time to be silent …

Eccl. 5: 2 Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few.

Psa. 46:10 Be still, and know that I am God…

Mark 1:35 Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.

Luke 5:16 But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.

Mark 6:31 Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.”

How has silence and solitude helped you become a better leader?

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[1] John Ortberg, The Life Youve Always Wanted, p. 84.

[2]Devotional Classics, p. 95.

[3]Dallas Willard, Spirit of the Disciplines, p. 161.

[4]Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, p. 358.

[5] Whitney, The Spiritual Disciplines, p. 194.

Five Neuroscience Techniques that Improve Brainstorming

Several years ago I started a small side business to create ‘white board’ animations for companies that wanted to communicate difficult concepts, train employees, or market their products. I managed the process, created the script, and did the voiceover for the animation (done by an animator). With client I spent a half-day with four members of the company that had hired us to create a three-minute animation to explain a very complicated proprietary brokerage service they offered. I used several neuroscience techniques in that meeting that you might try the next time you lead a brainstorming session. I unpack what I did using those techniques below.

Neuroscience techniques to improve brainstorming.

  • To help set up the day I created a clear agenda and emailed it several days prior to the meeting. This is called pre-encoding. Encoding is the process of learning when our brain lays down new networks of neuronal connections. Pre-encoding, as the word implies, sets up the brain to receive that learning (the actual encoding). The agenda clearly articulated the meeting’s objectives and set us up for greater productivity. When we met, we knew exactly what we wanted the brainstorming session to accomplish. Here’s what it included.
    • Who: Clarify the target audience for the animation and the audience’s felt needs
    • What: Clarify the call to action the animation should evoke
    • How: Create a rough draft of the script and brainstorm potential visual concepts that could illustrate the message
  • I began the session by sharing a bit about my life to create a relational connection (two in the group were total strangers). When people feel they relate to you, they will follow your leadership and more readily learn from you. The early church understood this when they met house to house and built strong relational bonds through Biblical community (Acts 2.42).
  • I gave everybody a chocolate bar and explained that chocolate can aid focus and creativity by causing helpful neurotransmitters in our brains to release (Roizman, n.d.). Not only did I provide brain fuel with the candy, but I also heightened expectations that the session would result in lots of ideas. The brain needs both oxygen and glucose (energy) to function well. While too much sugar can certainly cause a brain lag later on, providing chocolate, coffee, or healthy snacks can help the brain function optimally.
  • During the meeting we needed to generate personality traits to describe the target audience (the broker), list potential metaphors to use in the animation, and create a basic script. Instead of using the traditional brainstorming technique where everybody shares their ideas out loud, I asked each person to first privately write down their ideas. Then they shared them out loud and I recorded them on the white board after which we eliminated the ones that didn’t fit. Traditional brainstorming, where everybody verbalizes their ideas at the beginning, has been shown to not generate as many ideas as when people are asked to generate them privately (Lehrer, 2012). So, the simple act of having then jot down their ideas privately encouraged more idea generation.
  • During our discussion time I subtly encouraged dissent and disagreement about the ideas, contrary to traditional brainstorming (get all the ideas out without criticizing any of them). Neuroscientists have found that dissent, when done in a “non-threatening to status” way, actually increases creativity (Nemeth et al., 2004).

The next time you lead a staff brainstorming session include a few of these five ingredients in your meeting and see what happens.

  1. Healthy dissent to prompt creative thinking.
  2. Private idea generation before public discussion.
  3. Food such as chocolate or coffee to get the brain focused and alert.
  4. Relationship building to engender likeability among the team.
  5. A clear agenda to pre-encode what you want to accomplish.

What have you found that has helped make brainstorming more productive?


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Sources:

Lehrer, J. (2012) Groupthink. The New Yorker. Available from: <http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2012/01/30/120130fa_fact_lehrer> [Accessed 25 February 2013].

Nemeth, C.J., Personnaz, B., Personnaz, M. & Goncalo, J.A. (2004) The liberating role of conflict in group creativity. European Journal of Social Psychology, 34, pp.365-374.

Roizman, T. Chocolate & Dopamine [Internet]. Available from: <http://healthyeating.sfgate.com/chocolate-dopamine-3660.html> [Accessed 23 February 2013].

Is this the #1 Reason Why Leaders Succeed? Take this quiz and find out.

Bill George, Harvard Business School Professor and best selling author thinks self awareness or the lack thereof is a key to why leaders succeed or not. When he did research for his book True North he interviewed 125 authentic leaders. These leaders revealed that self-awareness defined the essence of great leadership. You can read his article hereRead the follow 10 questions and rate your self-awareness.

  1. Am I aware of my strengths and gifts?
  2. Am I aware of where satan trips me up the most?
  3. Am I aware of my internal mind chatter that drains me?
  4. Am I aware of how I come across to others?
  5. Am I aware of unhealthy relational patterns I bring from my family of origin?
  6. Am I aware of how much God loves me, despite my faults?
  7. Am I aware of how much God loves those who give me fits?
  8. Am I aware of when circumstances are setting me up for a fall?
  9. Am I aware of my deepest longings and dreams?
  10. Am I aware of my blind spots?

Honestly answer all 10 questions.

Did any area of unawareness jump out at you?

If so, what should be your next step?

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Are your sermons hard or easy to listen to?

While earning my executive master’s degree in the neuroscience of leadership, I learned some fascinating insights about the brain that can help us pastors lead, speak, and live more effectively. To prep you for today’s post, answer this question? How would people describe my sermons: hard to listen to or easy to listen to? Take a moment and stop reading and honestly answer that question for yourself. Whatever your answer, we can all improve our preaching. In this post I share some interesting insight about the brain that can make your sermons easier to listen to.

I’ve included below a short checklist based on neuroscience insight that might give you a clue and help you improve.

But before that checklist, I’ve listed a few important brain facts to set the stage.

  1. The executive brain functions like concentration, abstract reasoning, problem solving, and attention occur primarily in the pre-frontal cortex (PFC), the area roughly behind your forehead. This is the part of the brain you hope your sermons engage. If your listeners don’t engage this part of the brain, your sermon “went in one ear and out the other.”
  2. The PFC processes information in a serial fashion (one thing at a time). Think of a conveyer belt with an item on it followed by another followed by another, etc. You may recall Lucille Ball’s famous candy conveyor belt episode. If something happens at the front end of that conveyer belt and all the items get clogged up, then nothing moves forward. The same thing happens in the brain. It will only process one thing at a time and if overloaded, it processes very little information. Multi-tasking is a misnomer. See my blog post on multi-tasking here.
  3. The PFC tires easily. If a speaker does not give breaks for the listener’s brain to rest, it will take its own breaks.
  4. Five fundamental processes summarize what the PFC does: it understands, decides, recalls, memorizes, and inhibits (that is, blocks out distractions).

Many complex processes are happening inside the brains of our listeners. So, how can we maximally engage their brains so that the Holy Spirit has lots of biblical truth to work with in their hearts to ultimately bring about life transformation?

I’ve included a few ideas below based on neuroscience.

  • Start out telling the people where you’re going with your sermon. Give an outline or a metaphor that points in a specific direction. The term is called pre-encoding. Learning is the encoding part. Pre-encoding sets up the listener to learn.
  • Don’t aimlessly ramble. If you constantly chase rabbits, their brains will check out.
  • Don’t use complex terms and long sentences. When you do, the listener’s brain will tune you out to try to figure out what you just said. They essentially won’t hear what you say next.
  • A close cousin to the above: be careful about using abstract ideas. Again, the brain will try to process abstract ideas and tune out what you say next.
  • If you do present a complex idea, stop and pause a few seconds to allow people to process it and think about it. In other words, mix up the rate at which you deliver your sermons. Well placed pauses are good.
  • Simplify your power points. Use only a few words per slide. Pictures that explain your points are even better. In this post I suggest some practical ways to make your visual presentations better.
  • Don’t get long-winded. You may have the speaking ability to keep people’s attention for more than 30 or so minutes. If you do, you don’t need to read this blog. But in an age when attention spans are rapidly decreasing (the average person’s attention span is shorter than a goldfish, really), shorter sermons will stick better.

What insights have you discovered that help your listeners absorb more of your sermons?

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