Wright, N. (2023), 'Silence in Action Learning', Action Learning Associates, 1 February.
“What questions remain unspoken?” (Emily Lomax)
As an Action Learning facilitator, there are all kinds of reasons why we may encounter silence in a group. A risk is that we may panic and fill the silence with our own fears, assumptions and words. I’ve found that an effective antidote to such anxiety is curiosity. This could mean, for instance, taking a deep breath, suspending our hypotheses and resting in a spirit of not-knowing. If the silence persists, I may wonder, tentatively, out loud: ‘I’m wondering how this silence feels for you?’ ‘I’m wondering what you would find useful at this point?’ ‘I’m wondering if there’s anything you need?’
One person with an introverted preference said he valued the silence as an opportunity to reflect deeply. Another said she didn’t feel comfortable, culturally, to pose questions to another person in an open group unless she was invited directly to do so. One group I worked with said they struggled to frame questions that would enable each other to think issues through. They were used to offering suggestions and advice, and the posing of open questions felt alien for them. Another group said they couldn’t see the point of asking exploratory questions if they believed the solution was obvious.
We can see from these examples how different people and groups may express silence for different underlying reasons. The same people and groups may also stay silent at different times or in different situations for varying reasons, depending on what’s real and important for them in that moment. As the group dynamics shift, we can adapt our choice of facilitation interventions too. Our response to each scenario will influence the quality of relationship(s), effectiveness of our work and what happens next. Non-judgemental curiosity can build openness, understanding and trust.
In the first instance, holding the silence until a person is ready to move on can be a powerful intervention: ‘We contribute by our attentive listening’ (Ruth Cook). In the second, we could revisit the group’s ground rules to incorporate inviting questions from peers directly, if that’s something participants would find useful. In the third, we could role model open questions, offer handouts with sample questions, or include further skills-building in framing open questions. In the fourth, we could review when Action Learning is useful (and not) and explore the power of personal agency.