It was the last day of a four-day Training of Trainers at United for a Fair Economy. The training was electric. It was a racially diverse group made up of lifetime organizers and people who were just getting their footing.
Throughout the training, most of the group of 25 participants had spoken up during one activity or another, but there was one participant -an elder Latina- who had hardly spoken at all.
During small group activities, I sat in and posed some questions, eager to hear her thoughts. She gave a short three-word answer and passed it off to a fellow participant.
Ok, I thought, no need to push.
Really though, her silence made me nervous. Did she disapprove? Did she feel unsafe? I thought there might be something we were doing wrong or, at the very least, that we needed to adjust.
At the end of the training, we sat in a circle and passed around a talking piece. The person with the piece was invited to say something they were carrying with them in their head (knowledge), heart (emotion), and hands (skill). On the first go-around, everyone spoke but her.
What was she taking with her? I took a deep breath to ease my anxiousness.
I’ve learned from our circle-keeper Eroc that once the talking piece has made it around the circle we send it around once more to give those who passed another chance to share with the group. So that's what we did: one more go-around.
When the talking piece reached her she held onto it and waited. Suddenly she began to cry, "you don't know how much this experience has meant to me" she shared in Spanish. She elaborated on how few opportunities she has had to be in such an open and caring space. I sat, captivated, and let a few tears go too.
Sometimes we perceive silence negatively. When it's one participant we think it's lack of engagement. When it's the whole group we call it "awkward silence."
But silence is a critical tool for us as facilitators. Silence isn't always lack of engagement. It's often an essential component of the learning process.
Eva Alerby and Susanne Westman from the Lula University of Technology in Sweden speak of the importance of silence in learning.
Talking about schools they state, "Some students may be experienced by others, or by themselves, as silent. Perhaps they neither are given nor do they take the silent space that is required for participation in a conversation or in an exam. A student might remain silent even though the ongoing discussion wakens thoughts, reflections and opinions, and might also continue to be silent even though he or she knows the answer to the question which the teacher has just asked."
They conclude, "to open up for knowledge beyond predetermined outcomes, as well as dialogue and critical thinking, silence and diverse forms of expressions need to be allowed."
Here are some tools that you can use when you facilitate to encourage silence for learning.
(1) Let Silence Marinate
When in the large group ask if anyone who hasn't spoken yet has something to offer. Then wait. As a friend and colleague at CTUL (a workers center in Minnesota) says, "sometimes you need to let the silence marinate."
(2) Use a Variety of Types of activities.
Balance whole group discussion with pairs and small group work. Spend time exploring through journaling, drama, or art. While the participant mentioned above hardly spoke up, she danced her heart out during one of our evening dance sessions. Need some ideas? Check out our resource 80 Methods of Teaching and Learning.
(3) Read the room, not people's minds.
One technique of great facilitation is to look for signs of engagement, energy, tiredness. We can't read people's minds though. Rather than reading silence as disapproval check-in with the group. “I would like to propose a break, is anyone opposed to that idea?” Or if it's a single person find time to check-in directly and ask, “how are you doing?”
Silence, well-used, offers more opportunities not only for listening but for making meaning of what we've learned. Often that’s the difference between learning and transformation.
What about you, how do you use silence when facilitating groups?