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.


I played trumpet in high school and college, and I was really into Miles Davis. I loved his music, of course, but was probably more attracted to his coolness, what with the skinny suits and ties, the scowl, the seeming indifference to his audience.  (His 1980's glittery, be-goggled spaceman persona -- not so much).  Alas, I lacked the talent, the discipline, and the chops to emulate his sound. Prowling thrift shops for skinny ties was more my speed.


Among Miles' trademarks was his emphasis on the space between the notes as much as the notes themselves.  Silence was key to his music.  He was so cool he didn't feel the need to jam up every measure with noise.  Sometimes it's better to just stand there and not do something.


(FYI, in trainings, I've misquoted Miles Davis as saying "music is the space that lives between the notes," only to be told that Claude Debussy actually said it.  But he said it in French, so whatever.)


The point is, let silence be your friend in mediation.  Someone will eventually fill it....and it needn't be you.  Let words hang, don't feel the need to say something just to say something.  Sit back and be cool. Skinny tie optional.  (If you really, really can't resist the urge to jump in, you can call attention to it:  "So, no one's said anything for a while.  Help me understand the silence in the room.")


I observed one fabulous New York Peace Institute mediator preside over 32 seconds of silence.  It seemed like an eternity.  Like a zen monk watching slo-mo ping-pong, she calmly looked at one party, then the next, then back again.  One of the parties finally jumped in, less hostile than before. The silence allowed the anger to waft away, just a bit.


(Postscript: I complimented the mediator on her fearless use of silence.  Her response:  "You kidding me? I had no idea what to do, so I just kept looking at them."  But she looked awfully cool doing it.)



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