The first is tactical. During a mediation, we may remain silent while one party to a dispute wrestles with how to respond to a proposal, or maybe comes up with an alternative offer. This tactic can lead to a settlement. I don’t use it often, but when employed at the right time, it can move the process forward and eventually yield agreement.
The second can be tragic. This is the silence of unsaid words. The silence that comes when someone cannot bring him or herself to say, “I’m sorry” or “I’m to blame.” Or express a long submerged emotion that could shatter the silence and steer relations on a more positive course.
In a recent case the parents of a handicapped teen-ager were at loggerheads over visitation. Because their relationship was so toxic, they could not work out a visitation plan. I suggested that together they talk with their son and listen to how he wanted to spend time with Dad. While I wasn’t party to the conversation, it shifted the atmospherics. Dad and son reached an understanding on how their son wanted visits to take place. After participating in the discussion, Mom agreed that giving their son a voice in the process made sense and a visitation plan emerged.
That was relatively easy. In other cases, years of antipathy may restrict us from expressing remorse, regret or repentance:
- Trust has dissolved;
- Assumptions abound.
- Avoidance replaces contact.
But what if your antagonist died, and you never cleared the air? Imagine she has memory loss and lacks capacity to understand the words, “I’m sorry.” Consider the possibility that you can no longer physically express the words churning in your mind, and lack the thread to mend the torn fabric of your relationship.
What does it require to take the first step? The first steps are the hardest and may require the ultimate in courage.
Imagining the unimaginable may be the first step. What happens next may surprise you.
The simplest of words may crack the shell of silence. Given time and courage a few words may roll back the waters of guilt and reverse the tide of contempt.
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