Whether we’re participants in a conflict conversation or mediating it, creating space for a question to be contemplated before answering is a powerful gift. When we fill the space out of our own discomfort with the silence, we inadvertently smother the possibility of a deeper answer.
It was freshman orientation at Amherst College in Massachusetts and 70 first-year students had arrived for a meditation and yoga workshop. Mirabai Bush was teaching them mindfulness and having them watch their breath.
Bush deliberately left space for reflection as she taught the mindfulness practice. She’d say things like, “So, any reflections on that? Any questions?”
Each time, her question was met with silence.
Bush recollects, “Nobody would make themselves vulnerable enough to ask a question.” A veteran of dozens of first-year orientations myself, back from my days as a college dean, I recall well that orientation is a particularly difficult time to allow one’s vulnerability to show.
The next morning, she gave each of them a leaf. The practice was to bring their attention to the leaf, and if distractions arose, let them go and bring their mind back again to the leaf.
After 5-10 minutes of this practice, Bush once again invited reflections.
But she waited anyway.
A beautiful question begs for time to consider a proper answer. [Click to tweet this] A deeply personal question begs for time to consider how much vulnerability one wishes to expose. We would do well not let our own vulnerability over-shadow those considerations.
We may well feel vulnerable in the ensuing silence after we’ve asked a question. We may think, Oh no, did I ask a bad/hard/wrong question? Why are they quiet? How long should I let this deadly silence continue? What is the other person thinking? Why won’t they answer me? Should I fill the silence now? No? How about now?
But when we pour filler into the silence in order to cover our own discomfort with quiet airspace, we risk smothering possibility.
They may, after all, still be thinking. They may be thinking, How do I answer that? How honest should I be here? What will she say when I say that? What is the risk if I give my real answer? How will he use my answer? I don’t know the answer (yet). What should I do?
Who knows what they are thinking? Let’s not impose our own internal narrative on them. Let’s wait and see.
In Mirabai Bush’s mindfulness workshop, there was a football player in the back row that morning. In Bush’s mind, he’d become almost representative of resistance to vulnerability.
But in that silence, as she simply waited, he raised his hand. “Can I say something?” he asked.
“Definitely,” replied Bush.
He said, “I love my leaf.”