The Unintended Power of Silence | Acting in Networks

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By Donald Officer

We have become only too familiar with the overused term “generation gap.” But consider what it might look like if the gap were a chasm with frightful, fatal consequences for those it draws in.

Stephen Sillett primed attendees for that imaginary leap into danger at the March 2016 DwD when he invited us to explore the Networks of Influence model testing dramatizations his team uses in intergenerational communities as distant or diverse as North Eastern South Africa and Ontario’s Niagara Region.

We started with an experiential exercise, a Calabash of constructed fire. During this simulation we were not in real physical danger of course, as we were persuaded to step into the imaginary fire of the “calabash” cauldron, later to stamp out the flames together: An important lesson in trust like many facilitation icebreakers, but also a demonstration of how people become entrapped in collective blind trust in our customary roles.

Several after the fact observations:

  • This ritual brought our attention to how collective activity exerts a magical influence across perceptions of group members.
  • Forgetting the importance of rituals in our own communities, we miss the chance to examine our own customs or beliefs.
  • For instance, as an anthropologist turned Wall Street reporter, Gillian Tett saw the hidden rituals of the finance world tied to mental models and metaphors of how things are and watched how these dominated the risky actions of traders.
  • Culture trumps strategy.

Establishing a positive and workable context for the exploration to occur is key.  After the embodied opening exercise our paired discussions about influence and networks of influence unfolded unfolded more fluidly. Throughout the room you could feel the openness of the conversations – we already shared imagined worlds emerging from a jointly visualized hole in the ground. From that came insights into how we are influenced. Sharing in pairs again, we further reflected on “networks of influence.”

Over the three hours we spent together in OCAD University’s Strategic Innovation Lab (sLab) the roughly two dozen participants learned even more about dramatic enactment and the purpose of “Clean Language.” Clean Language (first presented in a session on Non-Directive Inquiry Stephen and Peter delivered), is a revealing form of unbiased speaking that strips away implicit judgments or unintended critical undertones that function to shut down communications in sensitive situations where pride, unspoken expectation and taboo are subtly, but often dangerously, in play. (Clean Language is a technique that originates from psychotherapy and coaching to help clients discover and develop symbols and metaphors without being influenced by the phrasing of a question.)

As the group began to edge into its own experiential learning circle, Stephen developed the contexts in which the trust fostering tools he was talking about were introduced by his team in the early days of their South African experience. Picture sub Saharan Africa just after the turn of this century. Almost everywhere communities had been hit hard by AIDS. Orphaned children were raised by their grandparents; whole communities were decimated.

Into a rural corner of Northern South Africa the Aiding Dramatic Change in Development group (ADCID) of which Stephen is now co-executive director, with his partner Jennifer Jimenez, humbly offered to help with the CrossGEN: Connecting across Age and Culture project. And humility was appropriate considering the wicked problem they faced. In that particular neighbourhood, young men felt pressure to father a child by 19 in order to be a man, and teenage pregnancy was very high. Marriage would be the focus of the plan except a young man with no cattle to offer the prospective bride’s family would never be groom material. A series of droughts and perpetual poverty meant that bar would stay too high for most of marrying age. Everyone looked the other way as young people routinely had unprotected sex with the aim of creating life even as they ran the risk of premature death.

Shame, guilt, fear and frustration shut down desperately needed intergenerational conversations between parents and adolescents before trust, acceptance and dialogue could be kindled. Why are such discussions avoided when so much is at stake? Ironically, it may be fear of the consequences of conflict.  unfortunately,  positions can’t be changed when they can’t be discussed. To make things worse, the rumor mill started up when suspicions spread that the HIV virus had been secretly inserted by authorities to contaminate the condom supply – one more destructive legacy of the apartheid era.

CrossGen

 

Networks of influence form in communities around the globe. They can be toxic barriers or powerful tools for intergenerational bonding depending on what is spoken or not spoken. How does ADCID bring parties and stakeholders to the point of transformation from negative to positive forces? In Southern Ontario, the problems and issues faced by yet another generational divide also presented gaps and taboos. As in Africa, trust building through multiple arts and dramatic mediums to reimagine community and connection opened eyes and hearts in the Niagara Region. Stephen and Jennifer’s transformation process seems to be transferable and repeatable.

The pictures and diagrams taken from Stephen’s work with ADCID illustrate the ingenuity that can be engaged to weave positive bonds of intergenerational communications while replacing the unspoken obstacles of the silent status quo. Note the mix of tools, institutions and media in the central Canada version of the CrossGEN: Connecting Across Age and Culture project diagram.

As often happens at DwD events, attendees brought their own broad swath of professional backgrounds to the session. Designers, health professionals, facilitators, marketing specialists, strategic foresight students and forecasters counted themselves in. Something about the process is contagious. Conversations energized as three hours flew by. Experiential learning works.