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From Of Seeds and Sowers, NAICR’s distinguished newsletter that includes current programs, projects and tele-classes, as well as humor and inspiration. Visit the site to learn more about the work of Barbara Ashley Phillips and Kenneth Cloke.

Much of our lives are lived in a world where culturally speaking, it is generally not okay to say what we think, to share what we know, to be who we are. We approach such a world at arms length, using long antennae to ferret out what is expected or desired of us. In this way, we make our experience of the world about ourselves – always measuring how something will affect us and calculating advantages and disadvantages to ourselves. This is exhausting and under the strain, we generally feel unappreciated and unloved.

For many, this drives us into an uncomfortable silence. We don’t trust ourselves to say something acceptable, so we don’t say anything at all. We suppress small irritations, and allow them to grow, out of consciousness, until we can contain them no longer. When they pop out, the accumulated frustration is often directed toward a person or situation that had nothing to do with building the head of steam in the first place. If we’re honest in that moment, we learn something of great value. Often, we cover the event with justification that – when listened to from inside – is completely phony.

No doubt we thought it was the way the world ran, when we moved away from what we actually knew inside. Even now, we may find ourselves justifying an uncomfortable or numb silence by thinking it will preserve a relationship or get a task done. However the tendency to go opaque or to fudge what it is we have to say, undermines both the relationships we are trying to preserve and the accomplishment we seek. By only taking the short-term into account, we set ourselves up to get clobbered by the long-term cost of such dis-honesty.

When we willfully suppress something we know is true, within, we pay for it. There is tightness and noisiness to willed silence. Each time we deny our values, each time we bob and weave instead of speaking or acknowledging the plain truth as we see it, each time we ignore the generous spirit within, we increase our separation from others and our effectiveness with them. This is a lower order of silence.

We can choose, now, a different kind of silence, part of a more engaged way of being. The key to a truer way of being silent is simply paying attention to what is really going on in our silences with others, and then acting on what we notice: a simple, 4 step process: notice, stop/let go, drop down, take it in.

Our passion for truth is a lifeline to hold on to, when there seems to be some personal advantage in using silence as a weapon – for not being honest with ourselves and with others. Leonard Cohen in the song, In My Secret Life, sings

I smile when I’m angry.
I cheat and I lie.
I do what I have to do
To get by.
But I know what is wrong,
And I know what is right.
And I’d die for the truth
In My Secret Life.

When you find yourself justifying, notice. There is freedom only in honesty. When the burden of dishonesty lifts, you taste that. As Sissela Bok pointed out in her book, Lies, we are so acculturated to lying, we hardly notice it anymore. This is only true of the head. The heart notices and is wounded by it.

Here’s the 4 step process:

Notice: First, notice when you are considering or are using silence for personal advantage.

Stop/Let Go: Then, let go of that. Stop doing it. Stop considering it.

Drop Down: Drop down inside, all the way to your feet.

Take It All In. Let yourself really see and feel what you were just doing with your use of lower-order silence, from the point of view of mind connected to feet.

As you become consciously aware of your feet, you are opening to your own wisdom that is present in your larger mind and in your body all of the time. There is silence there – and although you may not notice it instantly, when you do, you’ll find it utterly quiet – while at the same time being generative. If you look for this silence with your ordinary mind, you won’t find it. You can only drop into it. It is an act of letting go rather than an act of willing. This is a far higher order of silence.

Out of this silence comes creative response and the capacity to act true to what you honestly know, despite apparent disadvantages in doing so. When you speak from such a place, your words have weight not because you are putting weight on them, but because they already have weight. It is effortless.

Tight Silence and Open Silence: All that remains is to apply this 4-step process in every aspect your daily life and work. To change a pattern, nothing less than applying the 4 steps to every situation, all the time, actually works. Here’s an example of how it works:

Transforming the meaningless meeting: We all have had the experience of going to a meeting where we know there are issues but we sit around and don’t talk about them. We leave the meeting saying how proud we are that there is so much consensus, but behind closed doors we say, “What a waste of time. We didn’t deal with any of our issues.” Yet it is we who sat there and did not raise any issues.

Next time, let your awareness drop into your feet, as the meeting begins. From there, you will notice in the next one of these meetings, little opportunities to lob in something of value – something that will support constructive initiatives by others, something that draws people to their own deeply held values. There is a rule in this work: it is the rule of one. It only takes one to change the game. Every person in the meeting is part of the system that is the group. This means that everyone influences not only themselves, but everyone else in the group. In fact, since systems make their own rules as they go, your gentle or bold intervention affects the rule-making of the system.

Best of all, this is much more interesting than a boring meeting. You often come out of the meeting refreshed and energized. Whether you got bouquets, brickbats or the silent treatment, you’ll know you made a difference. When your awareness is in your feet, destructive response will no longer hurt you.

It is no exaggeration to say that even the tiniest intervention by you, timed in accordance with your inner knowing, phrased with the utmost kindness, has huge impact.

What is this qualifier, “phrased with the utmost kindness?” It’s not a “to do,” thing. It’s the hallmark of something that comes from deep inside, rather than from our patterns. No kindness, no truth. No kindness, no real value. Simple. Easy to distinguish from being nice. Niceness is willed. Kindness emerges.

Here is how silence may be used in conflicts and other stressful situations. The deeper your silence within – with your attention firmly anchored in your feet – the more profound the effect on yourself and others. A tight silence pressures others externally, implicitly demanding compliance. It drives honest response underground. This is the typical dysfunctional silence – leading others to talk behind our back.

An open silence also communicates and the results are infinitely better. The open silence is at rest, not needing any particular thing. It is closer to your feet than to your head. It invites honest response and it is empowering. Something of value is happening. Silence need not be an abdication of responsibility.


Barbara Ashley Phillips

Barbara Phillips has 19 years of widely varied mediation experience, specializing in complex, technical and sensitive matters. A graduate of Yale Law School, Phillips served as an Assistant United States Attorney and practiced primarily federal civil trial law in Oregon and California prior to becoming a mediator. In Phillips' mediations,… MORE >

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