Last weekend I was in Beijing on a mission. I was invited to contribute to resolving a personal conflict between two parties, a conflict that had been going on for years. The setting was interesting – and challenging – for several reasons, but one stands out: the two parties and I did not share a common language. This meant that everything had to be translated – substantially slowing down proceedings. We did not have a professional interpreter who could provide real-time interpreting. Rather, each sentence was translated after it was spoken.
There was a distinct possibility that this would be awkward. Resolving conflict depends on mutual understanding, and it would be easy to think that the lack of a common language would seriously impede progress. As it turns out, we made great progress; the parties achieved a real breakthrough.
Reflecting on this, it struck me that we turned what looked like an impediment – the lack of a common language – into a great strength. Because everything had to be translated, it gave people time to reflect. It gave the speaker (at any moment) time to think carefully about how to phrase the next part of their explanation, while the previous argument was being translated. It gave the listener time to digest the most recently translated argument, while the next statement was spoken. This forced time for reflection had a huge impact.
Naturally, this was not the sole key to the breakthrough. Other important factors include a conducive environment (a private room in a wonderful Japanese-style teahouse), mutual respect, willingness to listen, skillful acknowledgement of what was heard, expression of empathy and creativity. Nevertheless, the forced slowing-down imposed by the language gap was a key success factor.
How can we use this learning in other settings – the more common conflict settings where everyone does share a common language? I suggest four approaches.
The first approach is straightforward. You can unilaterally decide to reduce your own pace. You can use shorter sentences, slow your speech and take longer pauses. This will give everyone in the room more time to reflect. This will very likely affect the other parties, and you will see them mirror your behavior – slowing down. This will happen, quite naturally, even without any explicit conversation about pace.
The second approach is more explicit. At the start of the conversation, take time to acknowledge that this will be a difficult conversation and re-confirm that all involved parties are keen to understand one another and to find a solution. Then agree some ground rules for the conversation. This might include something about reducing the pace, taking time to reflect along the way and consciously acknowledging the contributions from other parties. This approach may work better if there is a third party in the room – a mediator, a counselor or some other trusted party that can facilitate the discussion. It will often be easier for such a facilitator to create the arena for a productive dialog, and to help ensure that everyone slows down. But, with practice, this can also be done without a facilitator, provided the parties trust one another
The third approach is more formal. It involves using a talking stick, also called a speaker’s staff. The stick confers the right to speak to the person holding the stick. This is a practice used in council meetings of traditional communities, especially those of indigenous peoples of the Northwest Coast of North America. The talking stick can be a beautiful, ornate, custom-made stick. It can also be any item of suitable size that can be held in the hand and passed around. Using a talking stick feels artificial in the beginning, but people typically get used to it within fifteen minutes, provided they have an open mind and are inclined to try something different. Using the talking stick slows things down – there is necessarily a pause when the stick is passed from one person to another. It also makes it more clear when someone is hogging the air space or someone is not participating. Offering the stick to a quiet person can be a way to get them involved.
The fourth and most radical approach can be seen as a simulation of the setting where everything is translated into another language. It involves using a talking stick, and takes the concept one step further. Now, after I have spoken for a short while, I pause, and I invite you to echo back to me what you heard, in your own words. Only when I feel heard, do I continue. When I have completed what I had to say – and you have echoed back to me what you heard at regular intervals – I pass the stick to you. Now it is your turn to speak and my turn to reflect back to you what I am hearing, seeking confirmation that I am hearing you correctly. This takes some getting used to. But it is a powerful technique for breaking out of established, dysfunctional patterns where people are speaking, but not listening.
In the coming week, pick an important conversation you are having, and slow down – using one of the approaches I have sketched. You may find that you reach results faster. Slowing down is a powerful way to speed up.