“Silence Is The Question”: a dialogue

I went to my first “seasonal dialogue” last week – named because there are four a year, I’m told. The group has been meeting for several years; I was invited by a friend and former colleague, who I had just caught up with after moving back to Edinburgh.

The group consisted of an eclectic mix of about ten people, though many now seemed to freelance in one capacity or another. There was no fixed topic for discussion, though the process (based on “open space“) seemed more formal and as a result the discussion more controlled, respectful and measured than other discussion groups I’ve been to: this made for a somewhat different experience – though perhaps quieter and with less excitement of exploration as others interject. (Normally I think of control as a bad thing, imposed externally to manage or manipulate; in this context, however, the control was self-imposed by members of the group, and a positive.)

In particular, we seemed respectful of the silence. One of the formalities was a “check in” question, to set the tone; and the discussion per se didn’t start till everyone had answered the check in. And people only responded when they chose to. I have never been to a Quaker meeting, but I’m guessing it might feel a but like this.

This was quite hard work: I had things I wanted to say and ask about others’ responses to the check in, and I had to bite my tongue until everyone had had their say. (I had jumped in with my response early on, eager to get going!)

Having to wait – and to listen to others – was humbling. Silence – all too rare in our connected, clouded and device-mediated times – was a good thing. The quality of listening was high: even if it was listening to the silence.

Similarly, the ease with which we disconnected from our devices and connected instead with the group was informative. Like many people, I regularly check Twitter and Facebook, write email or text messages whilst ostensibly doing something else. In the space of the dialogue group, the desire to fill the void created by the silence by getting out one’s phone and seeing what’s going on in the outside world rather than listening to what was going on in the group – albeit silence – wasn’t an option. This felt liberating and healthy.

Silence also played a major part in the discussion later on, as we shifted from one topic to another – unsurprisingly, the silence prompted introspection, and a conversation about silence itself. That silence should be an outcome of conversation sends pleasingly oxymoronic; that it should add value to the conversation doubly so.

There was much resonance with the discussion by Richard Sennett of dialogic as opposed to dialectic, adversarial debate, particularly with respect to learning. The subjunctive and empathetic approach of the dialogue group was certainly in line with Sennett’s approach. It seemed that we were mostly learning about ourselves.

(“Silence Is The Question” is the name of a piece of music written by Reid Anderson. His band The Bad Plus play it on this video.)

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