Facilitation Friday #26: Silence as an Invitation

Sometimes what groups most need from facilitators is silence, the simple act of holding the space in solitude and allowing individuals time to reflect, contemplate, and gather their thoughts and feelings.

In The Courage to Teach, Parker Palmer notes that for classrooms to be effective spaces for learning they must bounded and open, as well as hospitable and charged. In addition, the space should: invite the voice of the individual and the voice of the group; honor the “little” stories of the participants and the “big” stories of the disciplines and tradition; support solitude and surround it with the resources of community; and welcome both silence and speech.

Embracing these paradoxes is uncomfortable for many individuals and perhaps that accounts for why I doubt many learning environments fulfill the framework Palmer articulates. While Palmer speaks of classroom learning, his ideas are valuable for any learning environment we might facilitate, including meetings, planning sessions, and the workspace itself. Beyond just considering the physical elements of a particular environment, it is also worth considering whether or not the organizational culture and group norms support the opposites contained in Palmer’s paradox, as well as honor and embrace quiet.

When facilitating, we can invite them to do so and The Facilitator's Guide to Participatory Decision-Making counsels us further on why it is important that we do and how we might effectively do so.

Provides enough quiet time for individuals to collect their thoughts and/or speak more fully. Honors introverts’ need for time to process internally before speaking.

Hold the space silent for a short time while focusing on the speaker. Hold off others who may try to break the silence. If the majority of a group has become distracted suggest the entire group take a brief period of silence to reflect on what has been said.

Preceded by a provocative question, silence can allow time for individuals to gather the wherewithal to speak the difficult truths that often are required in order for a group to move forward.  Some of the catalysts comments I find myself usingin these moments include:
  • I wonder if we are talking right now about what matters most?
  • What needs to be discussed today, but might be difficulty to put on the table?
  • Is our conversation so far reflective of what you most want to create?
  • What voices and perspective are we not considering in these deliberations?
Given the increasing amount of noise in our lives on a daily basis, it strikes me that our facilitation should correspondingly increase efforts to create spaces that support solitude while surrounding it with accessible community.  Our work in meetings, workshops and conferences need to allow people time to disconnect and just think, to engage in quiet introspection and conversations with themselves that only appear as silence to those of us on the outside looking in.

While I'm not sure I agree with all of her assertions, Susan Cain explores the need for a quiet revolution in her book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts You can hear her make the case in this well-received talk at TED.

Our ranks consist no doubt of many voices with many needs and preferences, some of which remain unspoken or unacknowledged. Simple gestures on our part can go a long way toward ensuring they are heard.  Effective facilitation should more often invite the sounds of silence into the conversation so that we each may hear others more effectively, only then can a truly unified voice be discovered.

Note: Some of this post's content is revised from an earlier 2003 post.

Every Friday in 2012, I post information and insights about effective facilitation, sharing some of the content and thinking I provide in the one-day and half-day facilitation workshops that groups often engage me to present.  You can find previous posts by searching for the tag: facilitationfriday.

I'll be leading an open registration full-day course on The Art of Facilitation: How to Maximize Individuals' Contributions and Commitments on Tuesday, August 21, in Washington, DC, for the American Society of Association Executives.  Learn more/register here. 

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