“If you have a community, or a company, or a team, probably you have mostly people who believe in airing it all,o r they believe in not talking about it. I’m here to advocate for a blend, a mix of the two. I’m here to advocate for the judicious use of gentle silence.”
Transcript and notes:
Recorded 20 March 2023.
Hi, everyone, thanks for tuning in.
When I was a little kid, and then when I grew up, and when I was a young adult, all the way up through probably my early 30s, I absolutely positively wanted high engagement all the time. If something was in conflict, if something was exciting if something was important to me, I almost needed the people around me to be engaged at the same emotional pitch that I was.
It's part of being an intensive. We want the people around us to be intense, too. We want them to engage with us in that way, so that we feel like our enthusiasm, or our passion, is reflected in them. And so I went through a lot of stress. I went through a lot of distress and a lot of stress. I would engage with people at that high level, I would draw people into my life who liked to engage at that high level, we would engage with each other at that high level, but that made everything really high-stakes. Everything was high-stakes.
So like, relationships were high-stakes. School was high-stakes. Outside projects were high-stakes. Choir, acapella group, writing class, everything was high-stakes. Everything I did, I wanted to be the best, or if I couldn't be the best I wanted to be like in the top 10%. And I wanted to do it in such a way that it looked both effortless and flawless.
Now there are a lot of reasons that I brought that to the table. The way that I grew up, the people I surrounded myself with. The places that I tried to succeed were places where that was what success was understood to be.
And so I kept pushing for that kind of success. I kept wanting, craving the high of getting it right. Of getting it so right that nobody could tell. Of walking down the street and having someone ask if I was local rather than sticking out as a tourist. Of achieving something on the first try that most people didn't achieve on twenty. It felt important to me, it felt it felt like a survival need.
I talked about this a little years ago, I made a parenting pack for parents of intensive kids. And in that project, I talked about the way that many intensive kids feel our desires and our passions as life or death. They feel like we absolutely are poised on the edge of not surviving. And because of that we react like an animal in a cage.
When we find ourselves in a situation where that's not being taken seriously, when people around us don't get it, when nobody is mirroring back that sense of deep, intense engagement and urgency- We get confused, we get scared. And we fear for our lives. At some deep bone deep level we fear for our lives.
As we get older, that creates a little dissonance because a lot of times we can look at this situation and know that there's no life threat. It's not even that horrible thing they've done studies about where your boss walks by your desk and says "hey, can we talk later?" and then you're just a complete stress ball until you talk. Because all you can imagine is that the thing is going to be terrible, whatever it is.
But it's not even that. It's not even things that do directly affect survival or livelihood. It's anything. It's "oh my god, I forgot to buy butter, and now my partner is gonna hate me." Your partner's not gonna hate you for that. Or if they are, there's a different problem and it's not you.
But we start to see the dissonance between our emotional reactions, and what the like logical reality is of the thing. We know that it's not life or death, and we don't know what to do about it. When it is life or death, we get furious almost immediately, that everyone around us can't tell. That they're not on the same page. That they don't know. That they're refusing to take it seriously. But that's more understandable.
It's the times when we know intellectually that it's not life or death, but our body is still reacting like it is life or death. Our brain is still spinning like we can't let go of thinking about this because we might die if we do. It's like a hyper hyper focus, a doubled down hyper focus that holds us in its thrall.
And so it took me a really, really long time to get to the point where I could recognize the benefit of low engagement. I know a lot of relationship experts say never go to bed mad. But I can tell you that when I'm significantly dysregulated, that is not necessarily the best time to be trying to work anything out.
Now, the best scenario possible. One hundred percent the best scenario possible is that the person that I am perceiving a conflict with, whether or not there is actually a conflict, will be able to co regulate with me, without resolving the issue on the table. We don't have to come to resolution or agreement.
But if they can hold me, if we're lovers, or if we can sit and have a connected experience together, then my system down regulates itself. My system comes back to a place where thinking is more of a possibility. It's not just operating on panic. And maybe we sleep on it. Maybe that's all we do. Maybe we get up in the morning, and nobody brings it up. Because it turns out, it doesn't really need to be brought up.
That was such a weird thing for me the first time it happened. Big conflict. No explicit resolution, go to bed. Wake up in the morning, I don't really want to bring it up. It doesn't really feel like there's anything to bring up. Sometimes time and silence actually heals. This is a thing that we know that the silent generation knows. But they never talked about stuff. And boomers are complicated. And so at the tail end of Gen X, I have one toe in silence, and one toe in processing. Sometimes processing is not the way to go.
And this isn't just for individuals. But you need a culture that understands this. So if you have a community, or a company, or a team, probably you have mostly people who believe in one or the other. They believe in airing it all and getting it out. Or they believe in not talking about it. I'm here to advocate for a blend, a mix of the two.
I'm here to advocate for the judicious use of gentle silence. Sometimes when there's a big institutional conflict, there has to be a lot of hashing out. And sometimes when there's a big institutional conflict, for legal or personal or privacy reasons, you can't have a big hashing out. You just can't You can't. You can't do the things that you might do in a personal relationship. There's too much going on. There's too much confidential. There's too much complex. There's too much backstage delicate dancing, that just won't play well on the mainstage. It just won't play well in the spotlight.
But sometimes, most of the time, I'm finding what you need is actually a mix of the two. A little bit of hashing, a little bit of talking. Some space. But bounded space to explain or describe, to allow people to do their own internal processing while it's happening out loud. And then some silence. And then some peace and then... and then a place to let time, and the subtleties of subconscious maneuvering, do their work.
Now, you have to be careful, we all have to be careful. Because if there are people who are making up stories, they are absolutely at work making up stories. They're trying to fill in the gaps, if they don't have enough information, they're trying to fill the gaps, and then they're going to fill it in, in whatever way reflects their history and their past experience. And that's not necessarily what's true. And if they take actions, or have feelings or beliefs based on that, it could send things off entirely in the wrong direction. So not too much.
But also sometimes a beat. Two beats. Sometimes slowing down the pace of conversation. Going from the rapid fire, oh my god, oh my god, oh my god to something a little bit more peaceful. A little bit more slow, a little bit more thoughtful, something with more space in it.
For those of us who are intensives, that's often not our innate cadence. That's not how we usually do things. That doesn't come naturally to us, we have to work on it. We have to develop habits or even literal physical fidgets. Say something, and twirl the ring on your finger two times, and then say something else.
But there is wisdom in the space. There's wisdom, and enough time for a breath between speakers. It's not the only way to go. Absolutely the rapid fire overlapping, rich, deep conversations shot through with emotion are wonderful, often. But then there's that moment where it seems like it's a snowball running down the hill, and everything is getting worse. And nobody is quite understanding anybody else. And in those moments, sometimes slowing the cadence slowing the pace, creating some openness in the structure, is exactly what's needed.
What does that look like? How does that transfer or transmit? Sometimes the conversation just dies out. Sometimes the conversation finds the things that are the most important and those things float back to the surface, but everyone has a little more energy for them. Sometimes everyone recognizes they're tired, and is able to say into the silence: "I'm tired. And I love you. And I don't know what the answer is. But I don't want to hurt you." We don't want to hurt each other.
As leaders of companies, of institutions, we're discouraged, at least in this culture, from tending too much to the emotions of others unless those emotions are of people who give us money. And that has never seemed quite right to me. Emotions are real. Humans have them. We can't not have them. That's just how it is.
So how, how will we give each other space for that without taking responsibility for it? Sometimes, not always, but sometimes: the answer is time. And silence.
Thanks for tuning in.