Silence is Just Plain Sound

silence“Hello darkness, my old friend,” begins Paul Simon’s “Sounds of Silence” made famous by the movie The Graduate. “People talking without speaking, people hearing without listening.”

As mediators and lawyers we should take the need of silence to heart. For many of us, silence occupies a place of fear and inadequacy, perhaps dating back to a public speaking terror, or even that most ruthless of childhood peer punishments: the silent treatment. But what role does silence play in mediation?

A growing body of research on the role silence plays in brain development spells caution for the technology age, and is already heeded by mediators with experience. The brain needs time to reflect and create new ideas. Performers know the power of silence. Silence can be the key to a joke delivery, a song verse, or the news that either causes a messenger to be shot or amass a million twitter followers. As such, silence should be cultivated effectively by mediators.

Two parties locked deep enough into conflict to benefit from the services of a mediator are likely to benefit from a seasoned dose of silence. When parties are negotiating, sometimes it is the time between communications that can cause a settlement to blossom. Perhaps letting an hour pass before responding can be more fruitful than a quick response. Decision making absent the cordial period to allow for thought (silence) can feel a lot less conciliatory to parties (and ultimately less likely to settle).

The magic of creating silence in mediation can be the ultimate difference between the same party pulling a rabbit from a hat or sawing their opposition in half. For those of us who practice as lawyers and want to resolve matters away from a jury, it is a reminder to practice active listening and patience, with your clients and also your mediators.

About the author:

Gabriel Bellman is a San Francisco mediator and attorney and is currently the Graduate Class Advisor at UC Hastings College of the Law. For years, he worked exclusively for MTV, Miramax, and Playboy. He is a member of BASF’s Mediation Services Panel; more information about him and about BASF’s mediation program can be found at www.sfbar.org/mediation.