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In a community, silence may be more productive than brainstorming

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Cedar Rapids residents attend a nearly four-hour-long City Planning Commission meeting on Nov. 7, 2019. — Izabela Zaluska/Little Village

Imagine a city council meeting where a citizen walks up to the microphone during the public comment period and says, “I would like to devote my time to being silent in order for all of us gathered here to consider our individual parts in this public issue we are discussing.”

Imagine a community forum where, rather than PowerPoint presentations and multiple easel pads and markers being broken out immediately, the moderator starts off by saying, “For the first 30 minutes, I would like you all to think quietly and write down your thoughts on the challenges and possible solutions to our issues.”

I suspect many would believe madness — or at least time-wasting — would ensue in such scenarios. But perhaps we do need more solitude and silence in our community-building.

This past fall, I was privileged to be selected to attend a Growing Edge retreat led by author, teacher and activist Parker Palmer and singer, songwriter, poet and activist Carrie Newcomer. The retreat was conducted using the “Circle of Trust” approach pioneered by Palmer and the organization he founded, the Center for Courage and Renewal (CCR).

The overall goal of the Circle of Trust approach is to bridge gaps between our inner and outer lives, what Palmer calls our “soul and role,” in order to be more effective at creating social change and strengthening our common life. One of the important principles is the paradox of “solitude and community.” They are complementary necessities, not opposites; as Palmer says in his book A Hidden Wholeness (Jossey-Bass, 2009), “Solitude does not necessarily mean living apart from others; rather, it means never living apart from one’s self. It is not about the absence of other people — it is about being fully present to ourselves, whether or not we are with others. Community does not necessarily mean living face-to-face with others; rather, it means never losing the awareness that we are connected to each other. It is not about the presence of other people — it is about being fully open to the reality of relationship, whether or not we are alone.”

Inner work requires solitude and community, according to the description of Circle of Trust principles on the CCR website. “Participants take an inner journey in community where we learn how to evoke and challenge each other without being judgmental, directive or invasive.”

Circle of Trust practices honor both solitude and community; promote deep listening and being fully present, honest, open and inquisitive; respecting others in the group; and suspending judgment and the desire to “fix” others.

Silence also plays an important role.

“Trust and learn from the silence,” CCR teaches. “Silence is a gift in our noisy world, and a way of knowing in itself. Treat silence as a member of the group. After someone has spoken, take time to reflect without immediately filling the space with words.” In fact, if you as an individual need to be silent, perhaps as part of the solitude you are practicing, that is to be respected — and held — by the entire group.

Iowa City can be a difficult place for those who value solitude and silence. Its social, cultural and public pace and processes can be loud and frenetic. There can be great pressure to “participate” in ways that may not be comfortable or even productive for some. Of course, that flurry is a sign of great engagement and creativity, which makes our community special — no doubt about that. And of course, much brilliant individual work — done in solitude, even silence — goes into the high quality of life we enjoy here. But our community could perhaps be even stronger if there was more space for solitude (and silence) in our public life, allowing us all to work from and understand our individual strengths in the best ways, which can include participating in community betterment by more solitary and silent means.

Harking back to my community forum example above, our current model of “brainstorming” in the workplace and, often, in public discourse was developed by advertising mogul Alex Osborn in the 1930s through the 1950s. You’re likely familiar with this process: get in a group, be freewheeling, criticize no ideas, go for quantity of ideas, etc.

As noted by Susan Cain in her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, the problem is that since the 1960s (starting with research by University of Minnesota psychology professor Marvin Dunnette), study after study has shown this group brainstorming process doesn’t work well — and the larger the group, the worse the performance.

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Much more effective — in generating both quantity and quality of ideas — is a process whereby individuals brainstorm ideas on their own which are then pooled, giving equal weight to ideas from both extroverted and introverted group members. Certainly in Iowa City, citizens have opportunities to think and express themselves individually on public issues, but, if we extrapolate a bit, even a common group process such as brainstorming can benefit from a “solitude in community” approach that leads to a stronger outcome in our common life.

I have pondered the solitude and community idea for several months now, having found it a refreshing experience in the Circle of Trust-oriented retreat last fall. I have not yet developed any specific suggestions for improving our community processes here at home — in fact, I’m still working to understand what this all means. But I have felt moved to share a general call for more space for solitude in our community, and for holding silence better in the boisterous and wonderful place we call home.

Thomas Dean, indeed, loves peace and quiet. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 280.


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