drawing by yours truly, Brad Heckman
One of the hardest things to deal with in mediation, or in every day conversation for that matter, is silence. Venting, cursing, rambling, rattling on, this we can handle — we can reflect, reframe, summarize, repeat, validate — you name it. But pregnant pauses, awkward silences, teenage sullenness, hangdog moping — these are tough. And silence is culturally bound, making it hard to interpret, let alone respond to. For my raucous Slavic relatives, a nanosecond-long conversational gap may as well be a Buddhist vow of silence. To my stoic Pennsylvania Dutch branch, interminable pauses sandwiching 3-word sentences are as close as they get to rapid-fire screwball comedy banter.
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The way you select real life examples as the starting points of your reflections is very effective. One moment I’m mentally playing a Miles Davis riff, then next I’m thinking about silences in life. Almost imperceptibly, I notice that I’m now thinking about the art of working with silences in mediation. Each of your postings is a teaching moment. Mediation is not something apart from life, it is truly a part of life.
Even though Finns are said to be quiet, silences are difficult to us too. In our mediator training we always try to talk about silences and their meaning. Silences have many uses. It gives people time to think, time to make some sense of what they have heard and seen. It gives time to think, how you really feel and if for example solutions offered are what you really want. Silences give time to calm down. Silences give us a chance to stop for a while. The main point to mediators is to learn to be present and to feel, when silences are good, when they help people to move forward.
Then there are those silences, when everyone genuinely don’t know what to say. I once had a man in mediation, who needed time to think. There was one situation, where I thought he was thinking and the silence just went on and on. It felt like years, probably it lasted 3-4 minutes. Then I had to make a question, because everyone started to check, where the door was ;-).
There are situations, where we could use silences more systematically. For example when people are confused and where there are no time to think, because everyone wants to speak. The mediator could ask people to think, what they really want and say that they have for example 2 minutes to think about it and after that everyone has a minute to tell, what it is they really want.
So lets think about silences for a couple of minutes? 😉
Well said, Brad. Thank you for that. We been doing Community Conferencing (similar to mediation but it tends to be more people, sitting in a circle with no table) in Baltimore for 13 years, and it applies all the same!
Thanks Lauren….and we’re fans of your Community Conferencing & are now doing it here!
I really enjoyed reading this piece Brad. In Zen, when there is a Monk or Zen Master present and people are meditating, if someone falls asleep in the silence of their meditation or just gets “sleepy headed”, the person is smacked respectfully with a paddle on the shoulder by the guide who afterwards bows to them, to remind them to remain wakeful and aware (it is not painful). One of my favorite book titles is “The Voice of the Silence”. Yes, the dynamics of silence are worthy of being recognized, observed and incorporated into the ‘Symphony of Mediation’.
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