In a recent conversation with a close friend I noticed I was getting angry and decided to “go to the balcony”* so I could avoid blurting out something I would later regret. This helped me take a broader view of what was actually going on and remember how important this friend is to me.
“Going to the balcony”—as if you were looking down on an interaction from the distance of a balcony—can change your perspective and your emotion about it. Because emotions arise before we are conscious of them, we often say and do things in difficult conversations for which we later feel remorse. As short story writer Ambrose Bierce wrote, “Speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.”
Seeing the interaction with my friend from the balcony changed my perspective and enabled me to say what I wanted to say in a constructive instead of a destructive manner.
In your interactions, once you get to the balcony you don’t get to stay there for long. To influence a situation for good, you’ll need to move back and forth between the balcony and the main floor.
From the balcony you’ll have a broader, perhaps more unbiased view of what is going on. You’ll also be able to better hear the emotional tone of the interaction without getting reactive and notice what you are doing and saying that might or might not be helpful.
From the balcony, you can decide whether you want to share observations that you think might move the conversation forward and notice the impact of your observations on the interaction. When sharing your observations, be sure to separate what you are seeing and hearing from your inferences or judgments about it. (e.g., “I notice we have started to interrupt one another and talk more quickly.” Instead of, “You are starting to be rude and overbearing.”)
This ability to move back and forth between the balcony and being part of the action is key to being able to create constructive and productive interactions with others. Ideally, over time, you will be able to simultaneously be on the balcony—take a broader, impartial view of what is going on—and participate in the interaction.
Going to the balcony takes practice before and during conversations. First, prepare yourself to be able to go to the balcony beforehand. Since conflict is normal and ubiquitous, the more you go there, the more easily you’ll be able to go there. Develop your awareness and equanimity through meditation or some contemplative practice that enables you to notice and manage your internal state (thoughts, emotions and body sensations) and more accurately and neutrally observe what is going on around you.
Second, practice pausing, stepping back, and taking a broader view in all your conversations. Don’t wait for the difficult ones. In other words, practice in calm waters so you are ready when you inevitably hit white water.
Periodic time on the balcony enables you to have insights about how a conversation is progressing along with insights about the content, what is being talked about. Most interactions at work, in our community, and with our families are made better when we spend at least some of the time on the balcony calming ourselves and noticing the larger picture.
*Richard A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky introduced the idea of “going to the balcony” in Leadership on the Line. William Ury, co-author of the best-selling Getting to Yes, incorporated this practice into his work as one of the best-known experts on negotiation and mediation.