Monday, January 18, 2016

Silence, Space and Sense-making

Rachel Burnham writes: Back in the autumn there was a slew of blog articles about the value of silence and the importance of having space in our lives to think and consider.  In some of these pieces the author related this to meeting their needs as an introvert and as a fellow introvert this interested me.  I began to contemplate this article then, but somehow never found the space to write it…

Now, feeling the benefits of the break over Christmas and the space that gave me, I have made space to write this.

It is a commonplace when thinking about silence and the need for space in our lives to begin by acknowledging the sheer business of our lives and the myriad of information flows competing for our attention.  Particularly if you are into social media, like to read and have the usual array of electronic devices pumping radio, TV, and online options into your home and phone.  So I will take that as a given.

In the autumn, I started to switch off from the computer and social media for one day a week on a Saturday.  I felt I would benefit from time away – a proper break from work - and partly so that I could fully concentrate on other stuff.   I didn’t do this in a conscious ‘turning over a new leaf’ sort of way, it sort of emerged and then I found I liked it and did it more consciously.  I don’t have a hard and fast rule, so I might dip into Twitter, but I try hard not to have to turn my computer on.

And I have found interesting the different space it has created in Saturdays.   The different rhythm for the day.   And the different times it creates within the day.

I have been enjoying having silent times on Saturdays – not always possible when family is in and around our small house – but I like having even small pools of silence – shutting the kitchen door when cooking for example or working quietly on the allotment in the afternoon, when most of the regulars have already finished for the day.

I like have a task to do, one that engages my hands, but not is not too demanding – weeding always works, washing up is a good standby and during the winter I have been mending by hand a piece of upholstered furniture – just for the sheer pleasure to be quiet and contemplate.

One day in October, when I was in the house alone, working on that furniture, I just listened and thought about the ‘silence’.  It was still warm and I had the windows throughout the house open.  Here is what I heard:

Constant noises – the washing machine downstairs, water through the pipes, the soft drone of traffic on the nearby arterial road out of Manchester, a zooming noise – possible hoovering by a neighbour.

Intermittent noises – sounds like someone hammering, a vehicle slamming on the breaks, a car swerving, children laughing, person calling out, person shouting, bottles clanking in a crate – perhaps someone loading up the recycling bin, a door within the house creaking open, bird song (various), the sound of the wind – leaves rustling and my favourite the sound of a leaf falling (well, maybe a twig).

So, not silent at all.  And how much we miss, when we don’t pause and listen!

Often, it is when I’m silent that I really have time to think, recall, remember and make sense of what has happened, what I have read, heard, seen, said and done.  And can learn from it.  This links to Harold Jarche’s ‘Seek, Sense and Share’ framework.
My 'sense-making' image of Harold Jarche's 'Seek, Sense, Share' Framework

Yesterday I began reading ‘Cat’s Eye’ by Margaret Atwood.  It begins by reflecting on time ‘You don’t look back along time but down through it, like water.  Sometimes this comes to the surface, sometimes that, sometimes nothing.’

And that’s how it seems to me in those moments of silence and space that memories surface – sometimes old and often more recent.

One day in that silence in the autumn, I found myself seeing again my grandad’s hands – brief but vivid scenes of time spent with him when I was a child – he died when I was about 8.  His hands planting young leek plants, puddling them in and his thumbs and fingers firming the rich dark soil around the slender green slip.   Entranced, as he tied string around the neck of a jam jar to create a handle so my sister and I could collect and pick blackberries with him.  Stretching up to reach a shrub hanging over a redbrick wall of a garden and taking a cutting with the small olive green pruning scissors, I now have as my own – and my feelings of deep embarrassment at a church minister cutting at someone’s plant in the street!  You can tell that he influenced my love of gardening.

And sometimes in the silence, it is things that I have read – blogs and articles, or heard, questions asked and unasked, things I have said, things I wished I had said and things I wished I hadn’t said – that surface.  Sometimes connections are made or contradictions become clear – previously unnoticed.   Patterns emerge.  Ideas or new questions to ask or chasms of understanding appear.  Sometimes, it is possible to see how my actions contributed to something positive or played a part in something less successful and it is possible to identify different options, alternative courses of action that I could take in the future.  Reflections. Sense-making of the past, sense-making for now, sense-making for future actions.

But for me, none of that sense-making possible without silence and space.

Rachel Burnham


Burnham L & D Consultancy helps L&D professionals become even more effective.  I am particularly interested in blended learning, the uses of social media for learning, evaluation and anything that improves the impact of learning on performance.

Follow me on Twitter @BurnhamLandD

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