Midjourney’s take on “a disengaged office worker”; not my prompt

Last week I was privileged to participate in one of David Gurteen’s long-standing Knowledge Cafés, this one on the subject of “Silence and Unheard Voices”. It began with a presentation by Mark Cole and John Higgins, authors of a new book on the subject called The Great Unheard at Work.

While the focus of the book is on workplace silence — how it is used and abused, how it can hurt and help organizations, and what to do about it — the conversation ranged wider, to all aspects of work and non-work life where people, for one reason or another, don’t speak, or aren’t listened to or heard.

And in a couple of conversations we broadened it further to explore all kinds of situations where people opt out of, refrain from, or disengage from normal healthy human social activities — conversing, sharing, collaborating, challenging, and innovating — or don’t do so in an honest and open way. And why they do so. And what that means for our society.

Not surprisingly, if you follow my writing, it immediately occurred to me that, in almost any social context, offering attention and intention to listen implies that the offeror has the free will to do so or not. And that the offeree has any free will over whether or how to respond to that offer. How much leeway, in other words, do we actually have to improve malfunctioning social processes?

We are conditioned creatures, after all, and that conditioning includes inattention, prejudgement, and often abuse of power. That conditioning also includes disengagement, leaving one’s head and heart at the door when starting (or returning home from) work. And it also includes secret-keeping, knowledge hoarding, complacent or complicit silences, and self-censorship, and the use of silence as a source of power. It includes any form of opting out of conversational opportunities, and any situation where we are conditioned (coerced, rewarded or self-conditioned) to say or do nothing instead of something.

The authors identified seven “shades” of silence, and in our conversation suggested the addition of an eighth:

  1. Silence that looks to include or recruit new voices to a conversation
  2. Silence that intends to exclude voices from a conversation
  3. Silence that is chosen, as an alternative to speaking up
  4. Silence that is imposed, where speaking up is not a (safe) alternative
  5. Silence that invites participation in and holds the space for conversation
  6. Silence that manipulates (eg the “silent treatment”, and ambiguous body language that stands in for speaking openly)
  7. Silence that punctuates, like a comma or em-dash — for a pause or emphasis
  8. Silence that reflects specific cultural conditioning that may not be understood by those from other cultures

These forms and shades of silence would seem to apply to all relationships, not just workplace ones — including relationships with family, community, polity, and society at large. And the stronger the hierarchy and imbalance of power and attention, the more silence and its analogues — disengagement, secret-keeping, knowledge hoarding, complacency, and self-censoring — may play a role. These are all acts of refraining from what might be considered normal, healthy human behaviour. My sense is that usually a betrayal (or lack of establishment) of trust underlies this reticence, and hence conditions us to behave in ways that, in evolutionary terms, are unhealthy.

To make matters worse, many corporations, politicians and other organizations with great power are increasingly using non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) as a means to “buy the silence” of the less powerful. It shows how far trust has fallen in our society.

The book devotes a full chapter to the process of dialogue (including Bohmian and other forms) which I’ve written at length about before. The following principles of dialogue are presented in the book:

  1. It is a philosophy first, a skill second — it’s about our attitude to learning and relationship, not a process to follow to ‘extract’ knowledge.
  2. It is incompatible with competitive individualism — collaboration and most community-based activities are not zero-sum games.
  3. It is incompatible with goal-driven instrumentalism — it’s not an analytical process to a predetermined end, and is about awareness of what we don’t know rather than the usual “performative knowing”.
  4. It privileges the quality of relationship over individual technical skills — Its quality depends heavily on the nature of the relationships of the participants — trust, appreciation, context, history, knowing where ‘they are coming from’.
  5. It assumes knowledge and insight are social, emergent phenomena — not just things learned in a book or from individual ideation.
  6. Its ethics are as good or bad as the culture within which it is practised — when done well, for example, it leaves agency about what should be done up to the participants, rather than creating consequent “who will do what by when” lists.
  7. Dialogue on the terms of the established elite is not dialogue (it’s a PR stunt and/or power play).
  8. Co-production and co-design are at the heart of any living dialogic practice — and a key part of that practice entails surfacing and challenging our assumptions, biases and judgements.

I thought these were interesting insights, but I kept returning, both during the Café conversation and while reading the book, to the two aforementioned questions: Why does our conditioning lead to such silences? and What do the resultant silences mean for what we face in the decades ahead?

Here are my thoughts so far on these questions. I’m hoping to have a few dialogues to explore them further!

Why does our conditioning lead to such silences and other “opting-out” behaviours? (strictly my own speculations):

  1. Because we don’t really want to hear ideas or knowledge or answers or perspectives that run counter to what we already believe. It complicates and slows things down. And as a species, we really don’t like complexity or change.
  2. Because it’s safer, less risky, and often more rewarded to shut up and say nothing. Whistle-blowers are punished, not rewarded. As a species, we are mostly risk-averse.
  3. Because we conflate silence with agreement and consent, and when we think it may be difficult to get agreement or consent, it’s more effective to just impose silence. The boss’ tacit threat of repercussions is analogous to the abusive husband’s yelling or the potential rapist’s knife. Patronizing public “engagement” and “consultation” processes that leave no space for dissent, come from the same manipulative place. So does political action that represses dissent and imposes self-censorship, both from within and from without, like what the US Democrats and UK Labour have done to their crushed left “wings”. Our conditioning rewards overcoming resistance more than it rewards paying attention to it.
  4. Because most verbal and written exchanges of language are not dialogues or even conversations, but arguments — statements and defences of beliefs. For many of us, such adversarial, combative “debating” activities are both counter-cultural and a waste of time. Coerced, manipulative “agreement” is no agreement at all.
  5. Because the scale and pace of our society are now such that there is no room or time for actually listening, thinking deeply or understanding; doing so would grind its functioning to a halt. (Such a halt would probably be a good thing, but our growth-obsessed culture mostly doesn’t see it that way.) Much of the dysfunction of large complex systems, I think, is a result of not having the time to listen, think and understand what the options are and what really is the best thing to do.

What do the resultant silences and social “opting out” mean for what we will face in the decades ahead? (again, strictly my own speculations):

  1. Lack of essential skills needed for dealing with collapse, and lack of practice using and seeing those skills demonstrated and modelled, will mean there will have to be a lot of flailing about before we relearn them. Learning and practicing dialogue, mentoring and facilitation might be a good start to address this.
  2. Our struggles to deal with collapse will likely be highly adversarial and combative, rather than collaborative and cooperative. It’s going to take us time to realize that, when it comes to collapse, we’re all in this together.
  3. As the value of most paper wealth disappears when economic collapse deepens, that shift in wealth will produce a major shift in power and in power dynamics. As anyone familiar with hyper-local politics can tell you, that doesn’t mean there will be any reduction in abuses of that power. Sadly, for many of us, zero-sum game thinking and using power coercively is all we know how to do. We’re going to have to patiently teach the tin hats in our communities how to listen and work collaboratively.
  4. On the positive side, collapse is likely to bring a massive relocalization of economic activities, and the disappearance of the whole idea of hierarchical ’employment’. That will expose us to new (and ancient) ways of relating to each other, and more time to practice it. And instead of having to refer to the ‘mission statement’ or the ‘strategic plan’, we are going to know directly, first-hand, what’s important to do, and listening carefully, learning and practicing new skills, and working cooperatively to do it, won’t be an option.

I’m not sure there’s much we can do proactively to prepare for this. Our conditioning will inevitably shift to meet the needs of the moment and the new reality of living in a collapsing and then a post-collapse world. Of course, some of us are already conditioned to try to look ahead and think ahead about what that might entail.

Still, I think it’s useful to get a sense of how our conditioning around silence and social disengagement has arisen in our modern, fractured, ‘busy’ and dysfunctional culture. Silence and disengagement are two of the ways we cope with an insane world.

And I think we’re going to surprise ourselves as the crises deepen. Conditioned though we may be, there is within us a core of biophilia and a passion for connection. Our cultural conditioning may be to shut up, disengage and say nothing. But our biological conditioning is to converse, to share, to collaborate, to learn, and to care about each other. No doubt in my mind which will eventually win out.

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2 Responses to Speechless

  1. Mahmoud Ghorbanifar says:

    where does the silence practiced, say, during a meditation retreat or as a spiritual commitment fit in here?
    or that doesn’t fit in to this scheme?

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    You might have to ask someone who’s experienced these activities as being useful, whether they apply to “internal dialogue”. Though my sense is that such activities are more about just being, and not thinking or self-conversations. Perhaps listening to that “small voice” inside us that so often goes unheard. Dialogue is about suspending judgement, so I suppose that could include suspending self-judgement.

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