Thursday, October 29, 2009

Sounds of Silence, Part Three: Silence in Consensus

Communication is a huge field, and obviously integral to understanding cooperative group dynamics, which is where I work and play. In this field, one of the trickiest things to accurately interpret is silence. I want to talk about what it means when people aren't talking, and I'm offering this as a four-part harmony, one blog at a time:

Part One: Silence in Conversation (Oct 1)

Part Two: Silence on the Road to Speaking (Oct 8)

Part Three: Silence in Consensus

Part Four: Silence on Email

The roots of consensus follow two main historical threads: one is the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and the other is a Native American tradition, especially the tribes of the Iroquois Federation. Among Quakers it is understood that silence means assent. In that culture it is the responsibility of each member to speak his or her mind. Meetings proceed at a pace where there is ample spaciousness for each person to voice their views, and if a member of a Quaker Meeting chooses not to speak it is understood that the group can move forward on solid footing.

In contrast with that, it is my understanding that the reverse was true among Native American cultures. There, silence was understood to be a withholding of agreement, and no decision could move forward until everyone had spoken.

Upon reflection, it’s obvious that you could go either way on this. The important thing is for everyone to understand which way to interpret silence in your group. After working for decades with contemporary groups using consensus, I’ve found the best solution is generally a hybrid. I ask groups for permission to interpret silence as assent on procedural matters (“Here is my summary of the conversation so far: ____. Does that seem complete and balanced?” or “I suggest that we alter the focus of the conversation from X to Y; is that OK with the group?”), yet typically insist on some active sign from each member about their views when asking for formal agreement on a proposal. I figure the stakes are fairly low when it comes to how the group focuses its attention, and fairly high when it comes to determining policy. I’m willing to go for a streamlined approach to questions about how the meeting will progress, and then slow it down for decisions establishing agreements that will bind the group into the foreseeable future.

Absent an explicit understanding about silence, it's easy to understand how the group can get into trouble. For example, a member may feel that they have nothing to add to the conversation and is not speaking out of respect for the group's time. However, someone observing that member may not be sure that's what's going on. You may guess that the member's silence is out of confusion, or possibly because they're still cogitating about what they think or how to express it. (For this reason, it's common for consensus groups to encourage members who have not addressed a topic to voice something like, "So-and-so speaks my mind" to let others know that everything is copacetic rather than unsettled. It's a simple step that can dissipate the fog and needn't take more than a few seconds.)

In addition, silence in meetings can be a powerful tool in shifting the energy or in shifting the level of engagement. It can be terrific, for example, as a change of pace. When discussions get bogged down a moment of silence can help members step back, take a deep breath, and remove themselves from unproductive wheel spinning by reflecting on what's already been contributed—the better to identify what might have not yet been voiced, or to identify what potential connections between statements have been overlooked. Alternately, silence can be used effectively to ask participants to drop into a deeper level of connection, perhaps where people speak from their hearts more than from their heads.

While the potency of this approach tends to diminish with overuse, it can nonetheless be a valuable option if used sparingly, and in the right moments.

In groups which embrace the autobahn philosophy of open discussion (no posted speed limits on how quickly one person speaks after another), an occasional moment of breath-taking can dramatically alter who feels comfortable entering the traffic flow, resulting in input from the shyer folks in the room—people who may otherwise never be heard from.

If you're part of a consensus group that doesn't normally work much with silence, I have the same advice that Dr. Zeuss offers regarding green eggs and ham: Try it, you may like it!

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