The sound of silence: listening between the lines

The sound of silenceSome cases you remember vividly; the impressions they leave are lasting.

The plaintiff, seated with my co-mediator and me, had just heard us convey the defendant’s final proposal. The plaintiff said, “I need a moment.” I asked if they (and I hope you will excuse me for using the pronoun “they” in the ungrammatical singular) wished to take a break to think about the offer. They declined and said, “No, let me sit here with you. But give me a moment to think.”

The plaintiff sat not for a moment but over the course of many moments – in silence for 20 full minutes. My co-mediator and I sat, looking at each other from time to time, witness to this inner struggle. So deep was the plaintiff’s concentration, so palpably serious, that we both felt humbled in its presence. Their focused concentration, and the accompanying silence, became a fourth person in that room. My watch ticked off the minutes. Into that silence of thinking and weighing, other, minute noises intruded. Around us, the building’s heating and ventilation system produced bursts of noise; my co-mediator’s stomach growled insistently; outside once we heard a siren wail. I could hear my breath, in and out, as we sat our patient vigil.

I knew that they’d reached a decision when suddenly I heard them exhale. “Yes,” they said, and the silence ended, as they thanked us for giving them the space to think.

Bearing witness to silent concentration was a profound experience. Later we discussed it, my co-mediator and I. The impulse to break that silence was strong at first. But as the silence lengthened, waiting became easier. Apart from sounds, too, there were other things to attend to. Their face, for example, spoke volumes about the progress of the struggle within, shadowed first by doubt and then growing lighter with certainty. Even in total silence, there is something to hear.

What reminded me of that long-ago case? I happened to hear an interview on NPR with acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton, a man on a quest to record the sounds of natural environments and to protect land from the intrusion of human noise. Watch the video on the page I’ve linked to; whether the cry of swiftly flying birds or the steady melt of snow as winter recedes, it’s astonishing how much sound our natural landscapes contain when the din of human activity falls silent. Listen closely to what remains.

3 responses to “The sound of silence: listening between the lines

  1. Sometimes waiting through that silence is what a person needs to feel heard.

    Great post. Thanks.

  2. Tom, your opinion matters to me and your kind words mean a lot. Thank you so much.

  3. Silence is so powerful. Even as an experienced mediator, I have to fight off my desire and my own need to break the silence. It’s amazing what can happen when, in brainstorming, participants sit in silence for extended periods of time and then suddenly, after exhausting what they thought was every possible idea, someone blurts out a breakthrough solution that not only could resolve the conflict, but also change the very nature of their interactions.

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