Silent listening is a group facilitation technique, often used to avoid reporting back and to encourage multiple perspectives to form at an early stage in conversation, as well as deeper listening and scanning for information. It is a stand-alone method as well as a component of other methods. Silent listening is not passive but an active process where the speaker is given the opportunity to outline their case in their own time and listeners take notes. It is a process that means that listening of itself becomes a "radical act"  but without the need for prior coaching. The deliberate application of the method also means that the impulse to listen only for the sake of responding is curbed since immediate response is not an option. Like most complex facilitation techniques it creates a process from which the behaviour arises, rather than trying to define the behaviour.
Ritual Dissent is improved (and any risk reduced) if preceded by a round of silent listening and silent listening is a crucial component of the method itself.
No prior knowledge or theoretical understanding is needed to practice this.
Preparation and requirements to use this method
Facilitation skills Required
The core of the Silent listening method is simple and can be applied to a range of different methods and approaches without requiring extensive facilitation skills. Specific methods that include Silent listening might require an additional set of skills, and an understanding of the principles of complex facilitation is helpful in understanding the contexts where it can be best applied.
No preparation is needed assuming at least three groups with a minimum of 3/5 participants working in each.
No participant onboarding or prior knowledge is required on the part of the participants.
The method is normally used as a stand-alone after smaller groups have completed a task to either describe what is happening or come up with proposals about what should be done. In process facilitation each group would normally report back to the group as a whole, here we have multiple groups giving feedback in parallel. These instructions assume three groups, but you can extend to any number but going much beyond seven gets tedious. So in larger groups you might run this with three clusters of five tables to handle fifteen groups overall or similar.
Silent Listening is also a key component of the Triopticon method. Silent listening is used most prominently during the Eagle presentations (by the Eagles as well as the Ravens) as well as during the Raven circles.
|STAGE INSTRUCTION||COMMENTARY & TIPS|
|Each group is asked to appoint a spokesperson and if the group is large (say over ten but this is not rigid) an observer|
|Each spokesperson then moves to the next group moving clockwise or anti-clockwise||Do not move to the next stage until you have everyone in the right place!|
|The group is told that they must listen in complete silence while they hear the presentation. Once complete, the spokesperson much be completely silent and the group should then talk about what was said as if the spokesperson had left the room and was no longer there. The spokesperson is not able to talk at all, not even to offer clarifications or explanations.||You may have to enforce this, preventing any questions of clarification or similar.|
|The spokesperson presents the work of their group for a maximum of four minutes and then falls silent and listens to what is said. If there is an observer they are silent throughout, only permitted to take notes||How long this takes place is really a judgement call - look for signs of falling energy levels.|
|Once complete the spokesperson moves onto the next group and is not permitted to talk about what was said||Again it is likely you will have to enforce this|
|Once the full round is complete the spokesperson, and observer if appointed, go back to their original group. The facilitator points out that they have heard n responses to their idea, the original group has heard n proposals and they should now be told to ask themselves one of the standard questions||Again there is no hard and fast rule on how long this should carry on.|
|The process may be repeated with up to two more revisions, or move directly into ritual dissent|
Do's and Don'ts
This technique can be used to examine the situational assessment and/or proposals of each group - not their hidden motivations or attitudes. Groups should be given a general warning about ad hominem feedback and told to comment on the idea, not the person.
- Time to Think: Listening to Ignite the Human. N. Kline
- Dave Snowden, Complex facilitation, January 8, 2021: a blog that outlines the characteristics of complex facilitation, including the use of silent listening instead of reporting back
- Dave Snowden, Twelvetide 20:05 Narrative the early years, December 29, 2020: discussion of Silent Listening as an ancestor of ritual dissent
- Dave Snowden, The Triopticon revisited, September 10, 2020: a recent outline of the Triopticon method explaining the role silent listening plays within it
None listed yet
In a virtual environment
The method has been conducted in virtual settings with success over a range of platforms. The core principles and method description is fairly easy to apply to meeting rooms rather than physical groups or tables. Monitoring energy levels can be carried out through monitoring of tools such as collaboratives
See also Virtual facilitation
Method card material
This material will be extracted for the method cards
Possible symbols or illustrations
Front page description
Silent listening is a group facilitation technique. As a stand-alone method it is often used as an alternative to “reporting back”, while as a component of other methods it is especially important to Ritual Dissent and the Triopticon.
Back of card summary
As the name suggests, silence really is the key element here. Silent listening encourages multiple perspectives to emerge, avoids the bias created by the first response, and prompts deeper listening and scanning for information. These elements are encouraged by the process rather than being dictated in principle. In essence, the method is all about presenting to a silent audience, and then silently listening to the audience’s reactions, comments, and discussions without being able to offer comments, explanations, or clarifications.
How can it be used?
- Silent listening can be a component of exploratory methods or stages or methods, such as the Eagle presentations and subsequent discussions in the triopticon.
- The running of several rounds encourages deeper and improved information scanning
- To allow multiple options and perspectives to remain open and prevent premature convergence and the bias created by the first response
- In combination with methods used for intervention design and refinement, such as Ritual dissent
Method Properties - Ratings
Represented by symbols - interpretation/voting scales are:
COST & RESOURCES: How resource-intensive is the Method in terms of materials and tools required, and thus costs?
- Requires only common office equipment (eg paper and pens)
- Requires simple facilitation materials (special hexies, printouts, whiteboards etc)
- Requires some inexpensive but specific tools and materials
- Requires moderate investment in tools or software to apply
- Requires significant investment in software or other specialist tools
COMPLEX FACILITATION SKILL: How much training and skill in complex facilitation does the Method require?
- No complex facilitation experience is required
- Some complex facilitation experience needed - practice in a safe space
- Should be mentored while developing complex facilitation skill
- Requires Mentoring until proven, familiarity with theory critical
- Advanced, requires deep knowledge of theory and experience
ENGAGEMENT GRADIENT: How challenging is engagement of participants into the Method likely to be?
- Ad hoc technique - can be used in multiple contexts with relative ease
- Requires time commitment but overall, engaging and not difficult to achieve
- Mild uncertainty or discomfort, may need work to keep people engaged
- Indirect/ambiguous method, requires engagement through sustained levels of uncertainty
- Challenging method – may incur resistance if people expect a more traditional approach