Put Down The Pen


The criminal justice system is full of process. Booking in, risk assessing, rights reading, information giving, tape recording, interviewing, counter signing. I first observed the times in between the process as an appropriate adult volunteer, supporting young people in police interviews. How, when someone hands out the tea, or in the moments after the tape stops recording, the energy in the room releases a little, body language shifts and the lines between our roles and ourselves would blur.

While training as a probation officer, nearly twenty years ago, I was taught how to work with these moments with more intention.  How to sit with silence, because the most significant things often get said in the moments when quiet has gone on long enough that you start to feel uncomfortable. How silence can be a bridge between process and trust; a signal that you have left your space and can wait at the threshold of somewhere else, ready to be invited in. How endings matter and we need to give them proper time. I have heard many important revelations from someone with one hand on the door and one foot out of the room. Without these in-between moments you can follow the process, fill in all the forms and meet all the deadlines, without ever hearing about the real issues at hand – about substance use, experiences of bereavement or abuse and so on.

I have heard many important revelations from someone with one hand on the door and one foot out of the room.

Quite quickly I started to put down my pen in these moments. The pen that was usually poised above a file, or form, trying to fly through the paperwork as quickly as possible. It is a habit that has stuck in subsequent roles, as a researcher, facilitator, trainer, line manager.  In the moment when things shift and start to open, I put down my pen, as a signal that I am ready to stop doing, I am listening completely and that what you want to say is more important than the process that surrounds us. It is also a physical cue to myself – don’t rush on, get out of the way, be present, wait on the threshold, surrender the tools of your trade. Put down the pen.

As a researcher analysing data under time pressure, put down the analysis framework. Make time for back to basics questions on what it is to know something in a given context, from different perspectives. Make time to be wrong. As a consultant, put down the toolbox of fixes, step into the client’s discomfort, hang around for a while to understand it, before moving on together. Put down the pen.

Kerry McCarthyComment