I know very little about war. I have never served in the armed forces, have never been shot at, and know few combat veterans. I occasionally read some military history.

Here is one of the few things I know: War must be horrific beyond imagining.

I pick that up from what experiences I do have with those who have served: through friends of friends, through literature, through stories picked up along the way. The overwhelming impression I get is of young men and women who return from combat and remain, resolutely, silent. From what I hear, they often carry their experiences unspoken to the grave.

From this silence I draw conclusions. Is that a legitimate thing to do?

It can certainly be tricky. Since words are our basic currency of communication, we are not practiced in interpreting silence. It is easy to filter silence through our own perspectives and biases. The results can be profoundly misleading.

And yet silence does communicate. We know this intuitively. It’s built into our language: “Her silence spoke volumes.” “The silence was deafening.”

How do we know what we’re hearing when we listen to silence?

It helps when more verbal forms of communication back up the message we think we hear. We know about the horror of war from people who have spoken up. Many Holocaust survivors have told their stories. Civil War soldiers, among others, wrote home from the front with sometimes graphic descriptions of battle. Combine such verbal evidence with our aforementioned silent veterans, and the silence speaks more clearly.

Reading nonverbal cues—especially actions—can draw the message from the silence as well. This, too, we know intuitively: hence we say that “actions speak louder than words.” So the incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide among veterans adds clarity to their silence.

We could, I suppose, insist on words from everyone to get more clarity in dialogue. But people cannot always speak their mind. Veterans have no words for the stark realities of war. Citizens of dictatorships dare not speak out for fear of their lives. The same is true of those who have suffered domestic violence.

Listening to silence demands care, full attention, a curious mind, and an open heart. But it is part of dialogue. Without it, we would miss the powerful witness of those who cannot speak.