Hold the Tension

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I was taught manners by my mother, an Anglophile who insisted that my confrontational behavior meant I could not have tea with the Queen of England. I now realize that however neatly I cross my ankles, I will never sip Earl Grey with royalty, and I take my manners where I can. Recently, I received a lesson in etiquette from a yurt.

Yurts are round Mongolian tents that dot ranches and high-end resorts, recalling our ancient nomadic need to pull up stakes and head for better ground when the going gets rough. The yurt I encountered is part of a Zen center where I spent five days studying conflict resolution with a bunch of lawyers, possibly the most oxymoronic enterprise I have ever undertaken.

We took turns mediating role-plays during our training -- searching for the interwoven needs and motivations that lead to resolution. To my surprise, inhabiting the roles of imaginary opponents led to real anger, interruptions and other boorish behavior. Certain that the Queen of England would disapprove, I sought ground rules of decorum from our facilitator who replied, "Sometimes you have to hold the tension. Sitting with discomfort can move the process forward."

He was right, high emotion can unveil truth masked by the bonds of etiquette. Words spoken in the heat of passion burnish an essential reality. Learning how to take advantage of rude behavior is key for a good mediator to effect unexpected resolution.

While considering how I might better mediate amidst bad manners, I studied the yurt's structure. The walls, a lattice of delicate, interlaced slats, reflect careful handiwork. Fifty rafters radiated to the top edge of the lattice from a central ring through which the light streams mid-morning. The yurt's integrity depends on a cable running the circumference at the top of the lattice. This cable is called a tension band -- without it, the central ring would twist and fail, beams crash down and the walls collapse. It is only by holding the tension that the delicate walls and soaring beams create shelter that can withstand strong weather, and be moved to greener pastures.


With a Perspective, I'm Sophia Kleppner.

Sophia Kleppner is a neuroscientist. She lives in Menlo Park, where there are no yurts.