‘The teacher works with the students; the students work on the language.’ (Caleb Gattegno)
The Silent Way. It sounds like a monastic tradition. As a student at International House Newcastle last week, I was invited by teachers, Sally Muse and Jane-Maria Harding da Rosa, to lead a teaching-English class in…silence. The experiment was to demonstrate and experience the power of silence in a learning process. It can sound counter-intuitive for leaders, managers and trainers who are used to directing, guiding and imparting knowledge. It involves evoking, eliciting and enabling discovery with minimal input and interference from the teacher. I led the class without speaking a word.
So now I’m thinking about leadership, OD, coaching, mentoring and training. The Silent Way calls for discernment, discipline and self-restraint, providing just-enough input where needed so that people are able to focus, grasp, struggle-with and find their own way forward. The image come to mind of a parent stepping back, letting go, coaxing with gestures and smiles as a child takes its first steps. It’s hard at first yet, in overcoming the barriers, in achieving the task, the child finds courage, confidence and new abilities. The parent offers challenge and support but it’s the child who walks.
There are useful parallels here in e.g. coactive leadership, process consultation, non-directive facilitation and coaching. It’s not always about holding absolute silence. It is about having a clear intention; paying attention to who is doing the talking and why; noticing what the impacts are on the relationship, the person’s growth and the outcomes. Very often, listening and minimal prompts are good and enough: e.g. ‘So?’, ‘And?’, ‘Then?’, ‘Who?’, ‘What else?’, ‘Next?’ You can almost see and hear the cogs whirring. Do you ever say too much when silence could achieve a better result?
If you’ve got nothing to say, say it.’ As teenagers at school, we could always tell the teacher was annoyed when he would blurt out these words in exasperation. It was usually when the class was noisy, people chatting away excitedly but paying no attention whatsoever to the teacher at the front. I have to confess that, at the time, its subtlety was lost on us.
We would look at each other across the room, puzzled faces, mouthing silently, ‘It?’ Over many years working as leader, coach and facilitator, however, I have noticed, discovered, the real value of staying silent. As someone with a clear introverted preference, being quiet comes easily to me. However, the silence I’m talking about here isn’t quietness per se but silence as presence – active, engaged, being-with.
Often, silence is associated with absence, avoidance, withdrawal from. You can imagine, for instance, the stony silence that follows an argument or the silence of a bored colleague gazing out of the window during a team meeting. I know extroverted trainers who dread working with introverted participant groups because they find the silence deafening, impenetrable, debilitating.
The silence I’m talking about, though, is a deliberate space, choosing contact with another person or a group (or God) rather than filling that space with our words. It’s a silence that invites the other, assures the other of our attention and believes that that connection, that quality of relationship itself, can be transformative. It’s about offering ourselves – and believing that is enough.
When I first started out in my career, I was keen to make a difference through my efforts and concerned about how others would perceive me. I felt I had to speak to convince others of my worthwhile-ness, to show that I had something useful to say. It was all about displaying and asserting my own knowledge and experience. Over time, however, I discovered that my speaking was sometimes, paradoxically, counter-productive.
As a leader, it could inhibit others from speaking their own words. As a coach and facilitator, it could be a distraction, an interference. I realised that awakening and building the best in others often involves silence, listening, genuine curiosity and care. It entails pausing before stepping in, allowing the silence to do its own work.
My silence allows me to not-know. It allows me space to listen, truly listen, to the sound behind a person’s voice; the silent, vibrant, resonating sound of deeply-held beliefs and values, unspoken questions, hopes and fears. My attention, my presence, supports the other person as a human being, nurturing what is within to emerge, to rise to the surface and, in doing so, it affirms something of my own humanity too.
Of course, silence itself is not the only quality that matters in our work. There are times where we do need to speak up, to share and show what we think, feel and believe. Nevertheless, silence can evoke the space, the environment, the conditions, the opportunity, for creative conversation, energetic dialogue and a dynamic way forward.
Nick is a coach, trainer and OD consultant.