Own Your Silence

April 3, 2012 Leave a comment

I caught this drawing posted among many other charts in IISC Learning Center. It caught my attention. I have long been familiar with the idea that silence equals complicity. But I always applied it to movement and our work for justice. I never quite thought of it as applying to organizational dynamics.

Then I started thinking about those water cooler conversations. Not those exciting and serendipitous exchanges of ideas that can happen in a hallway, but the sneering and complaining that we do about each other, about our leaders and our colleagues. And I realized that this sort of talking is actually equal to silence.

Good facilitation, good group process, is all about breaking down the ways in which we conspire to keep things as they are. I don’t think the change process works when participants aren’t able to hold on to the ways in which they have been silent.

Yes! This is true at the level of social movements. But it is also true in our smaller and more personal organizational context.  It is likely true for you, right now.

What will you do to break your silence?

No Comments

  • Charlie Jones says:

    This is a powerful statement Gibran. And, it is also a statement that can more easily be made from a position of power.

    Consider that, for some, silence may be a means to keep bread on the table.

  • Jon Stahl says:

    What Charlie said. Silence is often motivated by fear of the consequences of speaking out. Both within organizations and between organizations.

  • Ariel Jacobson says:

    Another way to think about a related question is “what types of ‘conversations’ do we take part in?”

    Conversations can come in many forms from silence, to verbal interactions, to what thought communities we contribute to, to our participation in and consumption of various forms of media (e.g., think of how we engage in conversations through the news we read, the tweets we retweet, the television that we watch). And these conversations can have a range of vibrational dynamics, from those that bring energy and intention to “the work” at hand (broadly speaking) to those that distract from the work. I think even from a position of relative lack of authority or power, we still have the power to choose what types of conversations we engage in and/or support.

  • Curtis says:

    Looking at this from another perspective, we are often uncomfortable with silence in a culture that privileges extroversion. What would happen in our conversations if we just sat with silence more often and did not rush to fill it?

  • Gibrán says:

    Charlie and Jon,

    I truly appreciate your bringing up the relationship between privilege power and silence. It must be considered.

    As I look at the histories of oppression I have never seen freedom attained without some among those oppressed being willing to break silence – even if facing dogs and water hoses. But it is also true that they always find people with privilege to stand in solidarity. I wonder how this might apply to our organizational contexts.


    I am right there with you!


    I appreciate your comment but I don’t see its relevance here. As extroverted as I am, I am really keen on the power of the sort of silence that you’re talking about. But that is not the kind of silence that I’m talking about here. I’m talking about the silence that conspires to keep things as they are.

  • Jon Stahl says:


    I agree that it is necessary, and I celebrate those who have the courage to break their silence, but I don’t hold it against those who do not.

    I think you are spot in in suggesting that this dynamic applies within organizations much as it does between institutions, particularly within larger organizations… or any time there is a large power differential between different people in the organization.

    Whistleblowers come to mind as perhaps the ultimate breakers of silence from below. But they often suffer tremendously, both personally and professionally.

    One difference might be the extent to which leadership within an organization can create a culture that minimizes power differentials and the perceived risk of breaking silence. There is a clear incentive for organizational leaders to do this, perhaps somewhat less for leaders in interorganizational contexts.

    Great food for thought.

  • Gibrán says:

    Right on Jon! You’re right, we should not be blaming those who would be punished for speaking out.

    And yes, the organization back and minimize power differentials is an organization that can thrive in the work of justice.

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