I sat in the Collaborative Process meeting with my head pounding. One party had just voiced the immensity of grief, frustration, despair and vulnerability she felt and that the other party shared in feeling. Both parties sat crying quietly. The room fell silent.
Seconds passed then minutes. Silence.
"What do I do now?"
Just the hum of the air conditioning unit and the sound of the distant ringing of a telephone in another office. Silence.
My smartwatch vibrated, reminding me to breath. I’ve often pondered the absurdity of a world where we have a device that reminds us to carry out the most basic of human functions – breathing. For the first time ever, I inwardly thanked it and drew in my first deep breath in a while. Silence.
Inside, part of me was screaming, “Say something, bring an end to this excruciating silence”.
Another few of the longest, slowest minutes (that were probably only seconds) ever experienced by anyone - ever - ticked by.
Inside, my thoughts continued to wrangle.
“Say. Something. Selina.
This silence is unbearable. This silence is confronting. Yes, this is an extraordinary situation but you are here to help these people through this process. Get a hold of yourself - you are never left without something to say so don't choose now to start being speechless. Say the right thing to move this along. Arrrggggh, what is the right thing to say? They will think you are useless. Well, they'd be right - at this point, you are being useless! They will think this process is terrible. They must be hating this too. Say something - anything - just break this intolerable silence!”
“Oh, Selina, yes, this silence is uncomfortable for you and yes, you very much don’t like it. Yes, right now, you are wishing you were the lucky sod who is, somewhere, at this moment, listening to fingernails running down a blackboard. For you, that would be preferable to this silence but this silence is likely what everyone needs right now. If they didn’t need it, they would have said something. The fact you are struggling to speak right now means it is what you also need for this moment.
Be kinder on yourself. Gently show your ego to the door – when did you become Imperial Lord & High Priestess of the Collaborative Experience of All? The experience of this process does not rest on your shoulders alone. Your experience of this silence may not be shared in the same way by the others. This is their process. That’s it, ego, there’s the door.
That was Big (with a capital B) but you, alone, don’t need to fix this for anyone. I have a feeling the silence is already starting to do that. Let’s just sit for a moment or two more with what just happened. Let’s just sit and see what unfolds.”
Then a voice.
It belongs to the party whose emotional outburst had triggered us all into silence. She is moving us all on. She is ready. I looked at my client - he slowly looked up and was ready to move on. I was later told, in debrief, that I was able to concisely reframe what I had heard at the heart of her outpouring. That the right words did come to me. I don’t really remember them. All I really remember is feeling a little disappointed the warm, golden silence had finally been broken.