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The Power of Silence

I spent a week last summer driving across the United States, contemplating along the way which of my experiences most influenced my practice. Through vast spaces of solitude, absent audio books and music, I found myself considering the power of silence. An introvert, I am no stranger to the practice of reflection as a cognitive tool, but as a leadership coach, facilitator, and presenter, silence was not something I would deliberately weave into my work. Silence seemed something my presence intended to fill.

Almost a decade ago, however, I sat in a leadership class taught by Ron Heifetz at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. There I experienced the normative antithesis of most classrooms: silence. Ron greeted his 100 or so students in silence, standing in the front of the lecture hall, hands folded calmly in front of him. He waited. And waited. And waited. After three or four minutes, we became restless, shifting nervously in our seats. Another three minutes brought forth whispers. Ron continued to stand in silence. After ten minutes he moved to one side of the room, just out of sight, and sat down on a small step. By this time the room was noisy and we were conversing excitedly about this odd event until he debriefed the class on our experience.

Ron’s dramatic opening had a number of goals. Primarily, he wanted us to learn to access each other as resources, and draw attention away from himself as the expert, an important consideration when building ownership for change and transformation. I also believe he sought to create dissonance, to help us let go of our certainties in ways that enabled an openness to new ideas. The irritation he provoked involved strong emotion, lodging the experience powerfully in our memories to scaffold the forthcoming content. While I’ve never replicated Ron’s methods exactly, the strategies he modeled that day are critical components of our practice at Abeo. We often start learning sessions with an activity that provokes emotion to create curiosity and engagement. We use resources that are provocative and ambiguous, often causing some level of discomfort, but which bring people fully into the process as authentic learners. We always use protocols that are collaborative, providing alternate perspectives and public sense-making. And we do not rush to rescue the learner.

This last point – a willingness to let the learner struggle – is perhaps the most important signature of reflective practice and is one for which silence is such a powerful tool. Silence isn’t easy; it goes against a dominant culture of extraversion. In instructional design, its presence can feel aggressive and even intimidating, especially to adult learners. But I have watched Ron carefully over the years and have realized a much greater lesson from his strange introduction than engaging a class through an unexpected event. Silence is no anomaly to his practice. Ron is a very quiet teacher. He does not rush to answer questions when asked; he will take whatever time he needs to think before answering, even if standing before 100 people. As a learner in his classroom I have felt respected and responsible for my thinking, knowing that he’s genuinely contemplating what I’m asking instead of rushing with a response that may or may not have much to do with my curiosity. It makes me feel as if my question has merit and, in turn, promotes my own efficacy for inquiry. And it is this practice – providing space for thinking – that helps keep the learning where it belongs – with the learner.

This happens in many ways. Certainly I replicate Ron’s powerful model of silence before responding to questions. Often the question-asker will jump in before I’ve responded to fill the space; I’ve learned to say that I’m thinking about what he or she has asked, modeling the relationship of silence to thought. My wait time in classroom settings is, some would say, extreme but I am always amazed at the thinking that emerges from silent spaces. Perhaps most importantly, silence is also something I ask my clients to consider carefully when observing classrooms. Do students have time to think? And what’s the difference between a compliant silence and a thinking silence? A thinking silence suggests that students are the ones doing the thinking, and therefore the learning.

Silence was an unexpected gift throughout my journey last summer as it has been throughout my career. In and out of canyons and thunderstorms, across scruffy plains and stark deserts, the silence that loomed as the miles stretched ahead of us began each day as ominous, creating a similar sense of dissonance to the one Heifetz so carefully constructed in his classroom. But in the same way that I’ve learned to structure silence as an avenue to thought, those vast miles became a rich container for contemplation, inspired by the context of the terrain and unconstrained by the time we so seldom have to let our minds roam – and learn – from silence.

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