The power of silence

Reading chapter 56 of the Tao Te Ching

Dennis Hambeukers
Published in
5 min readDec 20, 2023


“One who knows doesn’t speak; one who speaks doesn’t know.
Block the openings; shut the doors. Blunt the sharpness; untangle the knots; soften the glare; let your wheels only move along old ruts.
This is known as mysterious sameness.
Hence you cannot get close to it, nor can you keep it at arms length; you cannot bestow benefit on it, nor can you do it harm; you cannot ennoble it, nor can you debase it.
Therefor it is valued by the empire.”

This is one of the most famous quotes of the Tao Te Ching. People who know don’t speak and the people who speak do not know. What is that about? Is it about humility and no action? Why is it that people who know shouldn’t speak? Is it chapter XLIII (no action) and chapter LXI (humility) rolled into one?

Lao Tzu is talking about keeping things to yourself (block the openings, shut the doors), about tempering your sharpness, keeping things simple (untangle the knots), masking your brightness (soften the glare). He states that it is best to not stand out, to be the same as others, to blend in. If you do that, you can keep just the right amount of distance and things can neither be overrated nor put down. You can achieve inner peace. Keep your knowledge to yourself.

Why should you do that? Why not share your knowledge with the world? The world can benefit from your knowledge and you will receive respect and honor for your knowledge. You will appear confident and be respected, right?

Wrong! We humans are not truth seeking animals. We are social animals. The truth can be hurtful, inconvenient, impolite. Knowledge can be intimidating. People want to fit in. Anything that endangers the social ties like inconvenient truths, putting your head above the the parapet, will be rejected and create friction. This will harm your social ties and your inner peace. The more knowledge you gather and the bigger the gap to the knowledge of other people, the more urgent this becomes.

We have a built in urge to speak. Talking creates social connections. The way I see it, there are two types of conversations. One type is social: socially acceptable strings of words that serve no other purpose than to create social connections. There is no truth in them and only generally accepted and friendly things are uttered. The other type is truth seeking: creative friction to enhance the knowledge of both parties. Most conversations are of the first type. There might be a little friction, a little teasing, funny things or a slight hint at something deeper but it remains shallow. Small talk. Small talk is meant to be entertaining, light hearted. Then there is big talk. Big talk is philosophical, it is aimed at attaining deeper understanding of life. Small talk produces social connection. Big talk produces knowledge. Big talk is philosophy, love of wisdom. In philosophy, anything should be questionable. Nothing is off limits. There is also no failure. Wrong ideas are stepping stones to better ideas. This is only possible in a safe space. It is vulnerable.

Big talk is invitation only. Big talk has levels of depth. What is deep for one person can be shallow for another. When you speak, it is important to make a distinction between small talk and big talk. Small talk is relaxing and entertaining. Big talk can be disruptive and exhausting. The more knowledge you gather, the bigger the gap, the more you have to be careful about the level of depth of a conversation. I have fallen into the trap of wanting to dive too deep in conversations with people who I thought were up for that. I have had to learn to mix deep talks with small talks and to hold back speaking about deep shit.

One who knows doesn’t speak. That has such a risk of sounding arrogant. So it might actually be better not to speak of it. Haha. But I think it is fair to say that not all people are the same. Some have more desire to go deep and develop knowledge than others. Some are more skilled at small talk. None is better than the other. Only different. I think being better at small talk actually gives you are far better chance for success in life than big talk. The Tao is beyond judgement of good and bad. It just states that there are people that know and people that don’t and that if you know, you better hold back on speaking that knowledge. When people are ready, they will come to you, ask you, invite you. Don’t let your ego tempt you to speak. Only the ego wants to show off knowledge. The Tao is about a state where you have no need to prove yourself, no need to be seen.

The tendency for people that do not know to speak, and to speak with confidence has also been found by David Dunning and Justin Kruger. The so-called Dunning-Kruger effect states that people with low levels of competence tend to overestimate themselves and be most confident. The Tao Te Ching seems to point at a state that is both confident and humble. A state where one is knowledgable but not arrogant and loud but humble and quiet, not speaking to those who do not understand.

“We can’t expect a blind. man to appreciate beautiful patterns or a deaf man to listen to bells and drums. And blindness and deafness are not confined to the body alone — the understanding has them, too, as your words just now have shown.” — Zhuangzi

The first chapter of the Tao Te Ching states that the Tao is indefinable, teaching that each person can discover the Tao for themselves. This is my reading of the Tao. Thank you for taking the time to read this essay. I hope you enjoyed it. If you clap for this essay, I will know I connected with you. If you follow me here on Medium, you will see more essays pop up on your Medium homepage. You can also subscribe to an email service here on Medium which will drop new essays right into your inbox. You can also connect with me on LinkedIn to see new articles in your timeline or chat with me there.



Dennis Hambeukers

Design Thinker, Agile Evangelist, Practical Strategist, Creativity Facilitator, Business Artist, Corporate Rebel, Product Owner, Chaos Pilot, Humble Warrior