Silence is golden

I’ve been thinking about listening a lot recently, as I’m working with several new action learning sets. What I have noticed is that at the beginning of the set’s life, there is a strong drive to ask questions, sometimes at the expense of actually listening to what the person talking about their issue is saying. It’s not unusual at this stage for group members to ask leading questions based on their own experience, rather than exploring the issue-holder’s experience. Group members can also feel under pressure to fill pauses with a question – any question. As a result, the issue-holder may end up spinning between questions, unable to do their best thinking.

As facilitator, I often find myself intervening in these early stages, to help slow down the process. I have recently drawn on the work of Nancy Kline, author of Time to Think, who devised an elegant paired exercise to show the power of listening with very few words. Working with a partner, you ask them ‘what would you like to think about, and what are your thoughts?’ And then you just listen, paying them full and engaged attention, while they speak. If they stop, you can ask ‘and what else do you think, or feel, or want to say?’ and wait again. Then reverse the roles. Each person has ten minutes. What’s striking is that when the speaker knows they are not going to be interrupted, and the questioner knows that it is fine to be silent, new thinking emerges.

Although this is a different process from action learning, it can help allay the fear that if no-one’s speaking, nothing’s happening.  Using this paired exercise can offer a powerful challenge to this perception. As an action learning group gets more comfortable with pauses and silences, there’s space for the issue-holder to think, and for questioners to reflect on what they’ve heard and what questions arise. Being comfortable with silence is an important part of the skill of listening, and it’s always amazing to see what a difference it makes when a set is able to use silence creatively.

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2 thoughts on “Silence is golden”

  1. This is such a brilliant comment. I am just about to start my first ALS as a facilitator. I am running a ‘taster session’ and I shall use this exercise as part of the session to demonstrate and practice questioning and listening. It will probably do me good as well!! Thank you Mandy.

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