Image Credit: Le Discret (1786), Joseph Ducreux, Spencer Museum of Art
You’ve probably heard the phrase ‘silence is golden’ before. This proverb suggests that staying quiet or not speaking can be beneficial in certain situations. How is silence a superpower that we can leverage to our advantage in the design and facilitation of our museum and gallery programmes?
Today I’m talking about why silence matters and I’m going to share some insights into why we should be harnessing this superpower to enhance our programmes.
But I’m also going to explore the flip-side – why some people feel uncomfortable around silence and how you can overcome this discomfort.
Then I’m exploring 8 reasons why silence is beneficial for both you as a facilitator and for your participants.
WHY SILENCE CAN MAKE PEOPLE FEEL UNCOMFORTABLE
Silence can make people feel awkward. This can be due to social conditioning, being anxious about introspection, being accustomed to or preferring noise and stimulation. Let’s look at some of these reasons
In many cultures, there is an expectation that conversation will be continuous and ongoing without any gaps in communication. Silence can even sometimes be perceived as rude or impolite. If that’s the expectation, then silence may be perceived as uncomfortable or awkward because it deviates from the social norms. People may feel pressured to fill any silence with words.
ANXIETY ABOUT INTROSPECTION
Secondly, some people may be anxious about being the introspection that silence brings. They may not be used to reflecting on their thoughts, feelings or emotions. It may even bring up uncomfortable emotions or thoughts which some people may prefer to avoid.
CONSTANT SENSORY STIMULATION
Likewise, in today’s fast-paced world, people are often accustomed to constant sensory stimulation, such as being ever-present on social media, being on their phones all day long, or being ‘always on’.
Silence can be unfamiliar and uncomfortable for those who are used to constant noise or distractions.
And in today’s world, silence is in fact a rarity, so it may be unfamiliar to lots of people or they have limited experience with it. If you’re not used to it, you might be uncomfortable with it.
DIFFERENT COMMUNICATION STYLES AND PERSONALITY TRAITS
And lastly, your groups that you work with in the museum are made up of a variety of communication styles and personality traits. Some participants may be more extroverted and feel the need to fill silence with words to maintain conversation or engagement, while others may be more introverted and prefer to process information internally before responding.
So, as you can see, discomfort with silence can be subjective and vary from person to person. It’s crucial to create a supportive and inclusive environment where participants feel comfortable expressing themselves in their own way, whether through words or silence.
You can help to avoid this by setting expectations at the start that you will be asking participants for thoughtful responses throughout the programme and by creating that warm and welcoming atmosphere that I talk about frequently.
You can also model being happy with silence yourself throughout your programme. Lead by example. If you show you are comfortable with silence or pauses throughout the programme and use it intentionally, it can encourage others to do the same.
HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT SILENCE?
But what if you feel uncomfortable with silence as the facilitator of a museum or gallery programme?
Maybe you’ve been used to a more traditional approach and you’re used to doing all the talking, all of the time. Silence just feels weird.
Maybe you feel a sense of responsibility to constantly engage and entertain participants during your programmes. Silence may be seen as a “gap” that needs to be filled with talking or activity or you worry you might lose engagement.
Perhaps you see it as a waste of time on a programme that is already filled to the brim with content?
It’s true that museum and gallery programmes have limited timeframes and you may feel under pressure to cover a lot of content within a specific time window. These can lead you thinking that silence is a luxury that you can ill afford.
However, it’s important to note that silence can have valuable benefits, including promoting reflection, deep thinking, and engagement with the information you’re sharing or the artwork you’re looking at.
It can also help create a more relaxed and inclusive atmosphere where participants feel comfortable to share their perspectives and engage in meaningful dialogue.
So it may involve a mindset shift from thinking about silence as ‘wasting time’ to reframing it as ‘productive reflection time’ before you can start to get more comfortable with silence as a concept in your programmes.
HOW CAN SILENCE BE BENEFICIAL IN MUSEUM AND GALLERY PROGRAMMES?
Museum and gallery programmes are all about talking – conversation, discussions and dialogue – they seem to revolve around it, so why is silence important and how can it be beneficial for us as facilitators in the museum space and for our participants too?
- ACTIVE LISTENING: Silence provides an opportunity for active listening, something that is so important in our programmes. When we stay silent we can focus on really understanding what someone is saying without interrupting or trying to formulate our response in our mind. This allows us to be present in that moment and better understand what someone is saying.
- SILENCE INVITES MORE SHARING: Silence creates space for your participants to gather their thoughts or feel more comfortable about speaking. All too often, I see museum educators and guides feeling awkward about silence and witness how they jump to fill in the space with words. By staying silent, we can create a welcoming space that actually encourages others to share their perspectives, thoughts and experience. Silence gives people time to think. Allow that process to happen.
- SILENCE PROMOTES INCLUSIVITY: Silence allows individuals the space and time to speak without interruption or dominating the conversation. It can help quieter members of the group to speak up, thus promoting a more inclusive conversation that doesn’t revolve around the more dominant group members.
- SILENCE CAN HELP MANAGE CONFLICT: Silence also helps to manage conflict, should any arise. It can allow for a pause in the conversation when emotions are high, providing an opportunity for people to calm down and gather their thoughts. Silence can prevent escalating tensions and facilitate more constructive communication and conflict resolution. Don’t underestimate the power of a pause in resetting a conversation that has got a little heated.
- SILENCE ALLOWS PROCESSING TIME: If you give participants a moment of silence after sharing new information, it allows them to mentally process and think through what they have learned or experienced. It literally helps people to think and avoids cognitive overload.
- SILENCE ENCOURAGES REFLECTION: It allows time for ‘reflection in action’. I talked about this in How to Develop a Reflective Practice. ‘Reflection in Action’ a term coined by Donald Schön, refers to the process of thinking and reflecting on an experience while it is happening, rather than reflecting on it afterwards. It allows you to pause and think, to change in the moment and do things differently if necessary.
- READ THE ROOM: Silence in a museum or gallery programme also provides you with the valuable opportunity to “read the room” and gauge the reactions and engagement of your audience. By pausing and allowing for moments of silence, you can observe how participants are responding to the artwork or the information you’ve just shared. You can notice their facial expressions, body language and gauge their level of interest. This allows you to adjust your approach, tailor your content, and respond to their needs in real-time again. It helps you to better understand your audience and adapt your programme accordingly, creating a more meaningful and effective experience for them.
- SILENCES CREATES CALM: Silence contributes to the overall pace of your museum or gallery programme, transforming it from a hurried, “headless chicken” highlights tour to a more serene, and spacious atmosphere that allows visitors to engage more deeply. Silence can create a sense of calm and relaxation, allowing the audience to feel more comfortable and engaged in the programme. It provides a space for participants to absorb everything, think critically and ask questions without feeling rushed or pressured to respond.
So in today’s episode, we’ve explored the concept of silence as a superpower in museum and gallery programs.
In this post, we’ve explored how silence can enhance our program design and our facilitation. We’ve also learned that some people can feel uncomfortable with silence and we’ve explored how to help them to overcome this discomfort. Finally, we’ve discussed 8 benefits of incorporating more silence into your programmes.
We know that contributes to a more meaningful and effective experience for all involved. So how can we create more opportunities for silence in our museum and gallery programmes?
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