Like Steps To A New Dance


One of the more interesting tidbits of information to have trickled out of leadership research in recent years tells us that people who are quickest to speak up in a group tend to give the impression that they are leadership material.

Of course, this only works up to a point. There is a line which can be crossed here between appearing knowledgeable and just looking like a know-it-all. If you manage to stay on the right side of that line you can influence people. If you cross it, you can bore them or even turn them against you.

For years I've made a practice of observing the ways people in leadership positions communicate, whether in formal presentations or small groups, not just with what they say, but how they say it, and the ways in which their approach to communication influences those they lead. I'm still unpacking an experience that occurred in San Francisco a few months ago because I'd never witnessed anything quite like it before.

While in the area for a denominational meeting and some visits with seminary supporters, I had a Saturday morning free, so I took a taxi to the San Francisco Zen Center. The Dharma Talk (think sermon, then forget about anything sermon-like) that day was dedicated to a celebration of the life of the late Mitsu Suzuki, the wife of the founder of the Zen Center, Shunryū Suzuki.* The abbot was giving the talk.

The room was crowded with Buddhist monks, other Buddhist practitioners, and some of the simply curious. All were greeted at the door with the same quiet, warm welcome. Chairs lined the back of the room while the remainder of the floor space was occupied by people on cushions sitting in the classic lotus or half-lotus positions. The abbot also sat in the lotus position, his notes before him. He began to speak. For the next thirty or more minutes, he related what he had learned from Mitsu Suzuki. The stories were wonderful, but it was the abbot's delivery of the talk which stuck with me.

He spoke in a clear, gentle voice, just loud enough to be heard. Each word was weighed, each phrase spoken as though from a center of absolute calm. No word was wasted. No word was rushed, nor did one word crowd another or try to step on the heels of its neighbors. A sentence or two, sometimes three, would be spoken, deliberately, thoughtfully, as though the words were precious grains of rice each of which deserved individual attention. When the abbot came to the end of a thought, he would pause, sometimes for a long time, sometimes closing his eyes in silence, sitting with the moment calmly until he was prepared to speak again.

The rhythm and modulation of the abbot's talk were remarkable. His listeners leaned in to hear him.

He would gather his thoughts in silence, then speak. Speak. And speak. Now pause ... Pause ... Pause ............ And then speak again.

We all waited together for the words to come. And because we all waited together - speaker and listeners - we were joined in an event of holy conversation, a kind of conversation that was not driven by a compulsion to speak up, to convince or compel, to argue, or persuade, or manipulate others verbally, but by a desire to attune ourselves to the deepest level of hearing. The entire Dharma Talk was a living and communal expression of Suzuki-roshi's admonition: "Moment after moment, completely devote yourself to listening to your inner voice."**

I would say his approach was the very antithesis of our typical Western approach to communication, but that's far too limited an assessment. His approach contrasts with many Eastern approaches as well.

The abbot's approach also runs contrary to that tendency some of us have to talk (and talk and talk and talk) until we figure out what we want to say, or to "hold forth" until someone else has no choice but to interrupt our soliloquy just to get a word in edgewise.

The spareness of the abbot's words magnified their value. His comments never drew attention to himself unnecessarily, never seemed motivated by anything except the goal of honoring his subject. It seemed that the words he spoke proceeded from some center of wholeness, as though spoken from a place of solitude. Listening, I couldn't help but think of the similarities between the abbot's way of talking and the admonitions of the early Christian Desert Fathers to speak only when absolutely necessary and only from inner silence.

Even as I sit here writing these comments this morning, I can conjure up the tangible sense of quiet calm that the abbot gathered around him like his robe, the peace and calm from which he spoke words of calm and peace. I can hear the pace of his words, each one placed with care like a foot upon a forest trail without a hint of haste, without a trace of anxiety. Conscious. Awake. Mindful.

The abbot's approach to communication impressed me deeply, but it hasn't changed my preaching or public speaking style, not really. I will rely on the classical forms of homiletical rhetoric that brought me to the dance to take me home again. However, the abbot has profoundly affected my approach to communicating in a variety of other groups.

What I have discovered is this: when I try to do what the abbot did, slowing down, listening more mindfully, weighing my words with deliberate care, pausing, not rushing to comment, I become much more aware of the impulses that drive me and the spirit of the group with whom I am in communication. I tend to create mental space to feel the anxiety when and if it rises in a conversation, especially when it is operating inside of me. I sense better when I am taking something personally. I sort through my feelings better, more able and readier to identify my own defensiveness when it arises.

Slowing down the pace of my comments, choosing with greater care the phrases, pausing to gather my thoughts, listening until I am sure I have understood before speaking: all of this can drive some folks in a group a little nuts sometimes, especially if they are pretty anxious. But the good of this approach to communication far outweighs any momentary frustrations.

Breathe. Pause. Listen. Speak, speak. Breathe. P A U S E. Listen. Breathe. Speak: Like steps in a new dance, a dance well worth learning, for leaders who have something to say and who value the relational context of communication.

*Shunryū Suzuki's thought is widely known because of the collection of his teachings published under the title, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (1970), a brilliant text grounded in the author's deep understanding of Soto Zen.
**David Chadwick, a student of Suzuki-roshe, has written an illuminating biography of his teacher, Crooked Cucumber: The Life and Zen Teaching of Shunryū Suzuki (1999). This passage appears on p. 59.
**Photo taken by Michael Jinkins at the San Francisco Zen Center, February 2016.