‘You’ve got a whole repertoire of silences, don’t you?’

‘You’ve got a pissed-off one, and a resentful one, an I-hate-you-so-much-I’m-pretending-to-be-deaf one, and a worse one which is I-hate-you-so-much-I’m-pretending-to-be-foreign-and-I-don’t-understand-anything-you’re-saying. Your silences are the most eloquent thing about you. I can read them the way an eskimo reads snow.’

From ‘Memory of Water & Five Kinds of Silence’ by Shelagh Stevenson.

We don’t like silence in organisations. Apart from Quaker business meetings, I can’t imagine that most businesses would begin with a few moments silence to orient people. We plough on, with agenda, timetables, interruption, challenge. I’ve never before made a real list of silences and in fact was going to blog on something else triggered by this play but it’s too important to pass up now I’ve happened on it. Lets try and make a list of organisational silences.

1. There’s the management-speaking-at-you-which-silences-you silence
2. There’s the deafening-silence-of-lack-of-feedback
3. There’s the worker-silenced-and-the-management-doesn’t-even-notice silence
4. There’s the silence-about-what’s-really-going-on-masked-by-a-plethora-of-apparently-informative-memos silence
5. There’s the I-sent-you-an-email-asking-for-your-commentary-and-you-didn’t-reply silence
6. There’s the silence-of-avoidance-and-survival – if I keep quiet she won’t ask me to do such and such
7. There’s the silence-of-one-unwilling-to-blow-the-whistle-on-bad-practice-because-he-will-be-shot-as-the-messenger

I’m going to spend the day adding to this list. I doubt any of them would be positive. In fact I wonder whether most of them boil down to an unlistening leadership (and lets not confuse listening with consultation), a neglectful management, poorly handled requests for help or the silence of a workforce bleak with cynicism after the last round of consultation where their opinions were asked and appeared to count for nothing.

In story and narrative terms, silence and pause are essential to the rhythm and unfolding of the story. Silences are moments of recognition, high emotion and drama, or pause – shifts from one state to another. In conversations, silences are attention, acknowledgement, contemplation of what is being said. In some cultures, it’s appropriate to hold a silence, to allow what the other has said to sink in. So by squeezing out silence or using silence as a means of avoidance or disapproval, organisations do themselves no favours.

In one piece of work, we were investigating the relationship between functional services and the emotional context wrapped round them. Would people respond differently to a poor service if it were handled with empathy, or would that cut no ice? We worked with members of a callcentre, whose normal function was to pursue people who had not fulfilled contracts of various kinds. Their training was to use silence to nudge the recipient of the call into a flush of discomfort – not aggressively, just careful polite silences to get people to feel more obliged to cough up their side of the bargain. In working with us they found it quite a challenge to shift to a warm silence, an invitation, a leaning back to create a space between the caller and the recipient in which the conversation would grow. They were too used to leaning in, getting a bit close and face to face, pushing the other to lean back onto the back foot.

In the story work we’ve done, we’ve found silence essential, but also quite difficult to manage. One technique in workshops is to encourage people, at the end of a telling, to sit in silence, and perhaps wave their fingers and hands above their heads instead of clapping. Clapping cuts off the story and the pause it needs to sink in.

When we use pinboards, we often find it useful to mix rounds of call-out, small group work etc with silent rounds of card writing. These perform several functions
1. those with quiet voices or unpopular views are not drowned out – they get a chance to write what they want and this becomes part of collection of views which are ordered by the participants themselves
2. it’s important to make room for the second wave, the unrehearsed thoughts and memories where real nuggets of insight are to be found. There’s a great tendency only to give room to the rehearsed and ready, and miss sight of the fact that the unrehearsed, more private messy stuff behind it is the thing one needs to be giving room to.

I experienced the power of silence in great force once, in a workshop run for the London International Festival of Theatre by Peter Reder. A group of business people and young musicians met at the Union Chapel in Islington. Each of us brought 5 items and started by sitting in circles, telling the person next door what these items signified. Then we were asked to gather in one big group and, in silence, lay out objects, one of us at a time, in a way which we privately thought them to be associated. We created characters – a bloke with snazzy dark glasses, a mobile phone, a packet of fags, a bottle of vodka, who you could almost see sitting at a bar in a speakeasy. A young woman with a shell necklace, swaying in a grass skirt under a palm tree on a desert island somewhere.

And then Peter asked us to move the objects from where they were and create different groupings, again all in silence. We catalogued them – all the mobile phones together, all the car keys. And then we did a third round, I can’t remember what. And then we did speak about how we’d come to do this together and why we’d made the choices we had. There’d been almost a dreamy limbo, a sense of moving through water, not air, or a dance, as we’d collaborated in silence to make these groupings.

So its less about silence than about shifts in pace – a move from the relentless timetabling of organisations, deluded into thinking they and their meetings and projects are trains, and can run on time. Room for slowness, tempo shifts, rhythms of work (something Clive Holtham and I used to write about a lot under the working title of Slow Knowledge).

Yesterday I was reading a lovely little book – ‘Parallels and Paradoxes: Explorations in Music and Soicety’ a note of conversations held between Daniel Barenboim, the Jewish musician, and Edward W Said, the Palestinian author. At one point in it, Barenboim talks of the mistakes musicians make about tempo:

‘You know, tempo is always related to content, and many musicians make, to my mind, the fatal mistake of first deciding on a tempo. They take a metronome, sometimes given by the composer, which is inevitably too fast because when the composer writes the metronome marktins, he doesn’t have the weight of sound. He only has the imagination in his brain.

…Anyway, this has led, at least, many musicians simply to take the decision of the tempo as a first decision and, then, see what content you put into it. And you cannot do that. It’s exactly the other way. IT’s the content htat really determines the tempo.’

He does go on to say that there is a certain necessary speed as well if the music (say the last movement of Beethoven’s Seventh) is not to dissipate – things lose the chance to succeed when the tempo becomes too slow.

But my point is this: what leader of an organisation do you know who is willing to eschew ‘quick wins’ and to stand up to auditors, board members and investors in establishing the right tempo for different projects, plans and kinds of work? What workers are willing to slow things down or speed them up because the internal rhythm of the work demands it, not the external demands of the organisational planning cycle?

An unpronounceable Chzech man, whose name I must recall but which has remarkably few vowels for its length, wrote well on this. He called the best kind of time ‘flow’ – the moment when you are alive in time and lose track of time – in the making of a sculpture, or writing a good passage, or performing, or attending a performance which holds you entranced. Why not make ‘flow’ the aspiration of the organisation at all levels?

It’s the same with all units of time. From a ten minute telephone call (something you could Dennet-wise call an organisational meme) to a one hour meeting to a monthly team meeting to a Board meeting or the annual reporting cycle. They all take time, and much of it is redundant time dressed up in busy-ness, noise and action. If we had the courage to tug at time, slow things down, speed them up, change the beat, use time in the variety of ways it offers, not in the monolithic way we’ve been convinced of – well, then, time (and it’s wise use) would generate tremendous energy, not the pall of inertia which so often hangs of the processes and production cycles of the system.

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One response to “‘You’ve got a whole repertoire of silences, don’t you?’

  1. The name you are after is Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. Silence & time are an odd couple you’ve set up here. Both ultimately refuse to be managed and yet are targets of control. If I was feeling pretentious (and I often am) I would say they are both liminal.

    Most of us want some kind of choice about when we speak and when we are silent, and the speed at which our time is utilised. Sometimes we get that option.

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