On dog walks in a local park, I would often see an elderly couple sitting together on a bench under a large sycamore tree. A stoic dog walker, I’m out in all weathers - and so it seems were this couple, the Sycamore providing them with shelter from rain and shade from sun. They would sit in silence mainly, always holding hands, sometimes one would point something out, eliciting a nod or shake of the head from the other. I began to worry if I didn’t spot them and it was always a relief to see them walking slowly, arm in arm, in step with one another towards their bench.
One day my dog, chasing a sqirrrel, ran towards the old couple and so I followed. They asked me about my dog and we spoke briefly, exchanging pleasantries, commenting on the fine weather . After that, whenever I saw them I would wave or sometimes head over to say hello. They were always pleased to see me – especially my dog. They’d had a dog many years ago they told me. I asked them how long they’d been married. Almost 70 years they said. They were both now in their early nineties.
What’s your secret to a happy marriage I asked. Holding hands they both replied. Holding hands? Yes they said. Holding hands is our way of acknowledging each other , giving comfort and reassurance, it connects us. But you should know, they said, we have only been happy in our marriage for the last twenty years. Before then we didn’t communicate properly. We led busy lives (the had both been doctors), brought up our children , ran our home, but we didn’t make time for one another. Not really. We never asked how the other was feeling, never pointed out the little things that might make the other smile. In fact, after our children left home we thought about divorcing. We did separate for a while. It was tough and neither of us was happy. But we didn’t seem happy together either. It was a confusing time.
One day, the old man said, I was out walking, feeling pretty sad, when I spotted my wife sitting on this very bench. I walked over to her. She seemed pleased to see me and invited me to sit awhile. We spent the rest of the morning sitting comfortably side by side, not saying too much, but every now and then remarking on something going on in the park. We laughed for the first time in ages. We asked how each other was feeling and we met again the next morning and then the next and then it became every morning. My wife told me I had never held her hand when we were together. That shocked me. Now I hold her hand as much as possible. We sit here together holding hands and it is our way of communicating.
I thought about what he said. A simple gesture can be such a powerful one. It occurred to me communication does not always mean talking. It can be small acts of kindness, a touch, a gesture. Connecting with another person can be as simple as a smile, asking how they are, offering to bring them a coffee, and in the case of this elderly couple, holding hands
In my mediation work, I witness the breakdown of communication on a regular basis. The less we flex our communication muscle the less we remember how to communicate and it becomes strained and unnatural. Until we simply stop. In a recent workplace mediation the relationship between two key managers had broken down and they essentially stopped communicating apart from perfunctory emails. It was having a disastrous impact on staff morale. In the private pre mediation sessions they both told me that they had once been good friends, often joining one another on coffee breaks and going out for lunch. However, since they had been put on different shifts they had begun seeing less of one another. Their easy camaraderie suffered due to the lack of habitual interaction and then other staff members brought complaints to one manager about the other. In the past when this had happened they would meet up for their regular coffee and talk things through, discover the real issues involved. Now there was a lack of communication and trust issues had built up between them. They both more readily just accepted the staff grievances. Even on days when their shifts overlapped they avoided one another. They were carrying the burdens dumped on them by other staff and didn’t know how to discuss these issues with one other.
Without communication there are only assumptions and ignorance which lead to lack of trust. This, in turn, results in cementing the lack of communication. It’s a vicious cycle. Of course there were other more specific issues involved in this mediation but the overarching one was lack of communication. Once this had been discussed with both parties, the open session worked well. An acknowledgement of breakdown in communication, feelings of being unheard (even mis-heard ) were talked through. Misunderstandings were cleared up and the two managers left the mediation exhausted (it lasted around 5 hours) but relieved and positive. They agreed to make changes in their timetables, when there were any shift overlaps they would make a point to meet up and go through anything that needed sorting, and even when there was nothing in particular they agreed to meet up anyway and keep their lines of communications open.
My dog died last year so I hadn’t been back to the park for quite a while but when I went there recently with my new dog, the elderly couple weren’t sitting on their bench. I walked over with a sense of foreboding. I think I guessed before I saw it. A brass plaque on the back of the bench said In memory of Ernest and Margaret who loved this park and sat together on this bench for over 20 years. Wherever they are now I'm sure they are still holding hands.