When someone struggles, it’s gracious to offer a helping hand. Except all the time, too early, or for the wrong reason.

During a videoconference of Vistage Chairs this morning, one of the Chairs was wrestling with a question. The question required consideration. Consideration required time. The time was filled with silence.

A second person on the call spoke up, breaking the silence. “This is a hard question for Louie.” (Louie is not the real name.)

What Happened?
From my perspective, here’s what happened:

  • Louie was asked a challenging question.
  • Louie was considering in silence.
  • The call went silent. This is the Unresolved Gestalt. (Unresolved Gestalt is a big idea. I’m applying it in a small way here: like during a brainstorm, when we are compiling a numbered list of ideas on the whiteboard. If the facilitator adds a number for the next, not yet spoken idea, that numbered bullet sits as an Unresolved Gestalt, creating tension, inspiring everyone to provide an idea to complete that numbered bullet.)
  • The second person spoke up to rescue Louie from his challenge.

But That’s Not What Happened
I often do that. I fill the silence in a magnanimous attempt to rescue every Louie from the tension of not knowing the answer quickly enough. (Quickly enough for whom?)

I am thinking, “Poor Louie. Louie doesn’t know the answer. I will save Louie by cutting the tension in the room.”

What a nice intention.

What a self-deception on my part!

What Really Happened
One of my peer groups challenged me on this impulse. During a meeting of Working Surface — a Vistage group of trusted advisors and micro-enterprise entrepreneurs — I spoke up, rescuing Louie from an unresolved Gestalt, and someone asked, “Why are you doing that? What are you doing? Why are you talking?”

I claimed, “I’m helping.”

My response was challenged. We went deeper. I expanded my claim to: “I’m rescuing Louie.”

The group challenged me. We went to the “working surface,” where there is friction producing heat and tension, where the real work gets done. We discovered: I was not rescuing Louie. I was rescuing myself. I couldn’t stand the tension. I was afraid of the mess. What mess did I fear? That Louie would feel ignorant. And, in turn, I would feel like the room was experiencing Not Knowing. I compulsively rescued the room from one of our primary missions: to wrestle with anything we are Not Knowing.

What I Am Trying To Learn
How to sit in Not Knowing. How to resist rescuing anyone, including myself. How to teach — and then, the hard part, role model — sitting in silence. How to, as Susan Scott writes in Fierce Conversations, “let silence do the heavy lifting.”