Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Oh So Quiet?

I’m greatly enjoying reading Susan Cain’s book Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking 

I’m only half way through, and have been surprised to identify with a number of the feelings which she attributes to people who are more introverts than extroverts. Particularly because I am in my element when facilitating or training large-ish groups of people, and I don’t have any major fears about giving presentations in front of large groups of people - though I’m glad I don’t have to that very often.

However I do get stuck a lot in meetings of over about 6 people, and especially when my thinking feels quite different to theirs. This happened last Friday and a comment from someone involved in running the session has prompted me to reflect on what I did during the session.

The session was a workshop on 

Reconceptualising Representation: 
Exploring alternative spaces and modes of representation
A seminar that will open up conversations around the various ‘seen’ and ‘unseen’ representational form structures within society and governance. 
These discussions will inform critical research and insights into the effectiveness and impact of different representational forms and provide a better understanding into what representation is, its value and how do we best use it. Through discussions we will look at alternative modes and spaces of representation, such as applying the arts, and how this can be adapted and applied to enhance policy and governance practices.

Following introductions of everyone around the table, there were a couple of quite short presentations, including a couple of great videos, and then a few people involved in the research project and in arts projects were invited to talk about (really interesting and inspiring) pieces of work they had been involved in. After a couple of half attempts at opening the discussion more widely some questions were asked, but as is often the case with groups of over 5 or 6 people, those who had already contributed significantly continued to be the main contributors to the discussion. Lots of questions had been posed in the very first presentation, but with no-one helping the group to consider and respond to these in the subsequent discussions I felt that they were sadly wasted, in my view - a real shame as they were great questions.

Image credit: daevildevous
It didn’t appear to me as though anyone had taken on the role of facilitating - this would have involved them remaining impartial to the discussions and supporting participants to contribute. Also I don’t think consideration had been made to non-verbal contributions, a (probably unconscious) assumption was made that those involved would be happy and comfortable contributing verbally. Which is interesting of itself given that there were people from ‘the arts’ involved in delivering the session - I am left wondering why the session wasn’t planned in more creative way and why it didn’t invite participants to contribute in creative ways. To be fair, the session was billed as a seminar, and the emphasis is on discussions, so this is merely something I’m left pondering, not a criticism.
So for about 3 hours I listened and listened, tried to gauge when there might be opportunities in the discussion to add something which I had to contribute. I couldn’t quite feel them, so I listened some more. One of the group members said something to me when we reconvened after lunch along the lines of “you haven’t said much” and made reference to the fact that I’d “taken lots of notes”.

Well, that’s what it may have looked like while I was tapping away at my keypad...

Listening, and talking elsewhere

I’ve looked back at my ‘notes’ from the session, which consist of about 800 words:

  • Over a quarter were repetition of questions and useful information from the presentation slides, which I took note of because it didn’t look likely that we would be told where to refer to the presentation online, and nor did it look as though other visual aids would be used, such as the questions on flipchart to refer to later. (My memory isn't good enough to recall content of even a few slides.) 
  • Another quarter of what I ‘noted’ was some fundamental questions I had about the research and wanted to ask, my reflections on things people had said and talked about out, connections to things which I might talk about and share, and an action for myself 
  • Just under a third were notes from the discussion - quotes of things people said which struck me and felt useful to reflect on.
  • The remainder didn’t get written until the very end of the workshop, when we were asked to feedback two issues or opportunities arising from what we’d heard about/discussed. Thankfully for me I was near the end of the rotation, so had time to consider and prepare  what I wanted to contribute, and I typed it up to help me talk coherently, as by that point in the session I had said so little that I had lost confidence in my ability to contribute.
That’s just my ‘notes’. I no doubt gave the impression of writing much more, but what I was doing was talking online and finding relevant information to absorb in other ways than just listening.

Here’s what I also did during the main part of the workshop discussion:

Image credit: danielmoyle flickr
I sent tweets about the workshop, which involved
  • Searching for, reading and filtering 3 sites about Laurence Payot‘s project Coincidence, searching for his twitter handle and eventually finding a video from the project to share on twitter
  • Searching for and reading some of Black Country Touring’s website, finding their twitter handle and tweeting about them, including a page about The Corner Shop project
  • Considering which of my twitter followers might be interested in the discussion and mentioning 4 of them, inviting them to join in - and replying to tweets they sent (mostly about having fun in the snow!)
  • Tweeting thoughts I had during the discussion
  • Searching for and reading about the Love Stirchley project and tweeting a link about it, including a mention of someone I thought would like it (he did!) - and @GKBhambra retweeted it
  • Tweeting about what I heard said about setting up an Urban Resource Network in Stirchley and replying to a response I got about that on twitter
  • Taking a picture of an image I liked in the Love Stirchley leaflet we were given, sharing it on Instagram and twitter
  • Searching for, reading about and tweeting about Small Change
Oh, and I also
  • Put the Love Stirchley Festival in my calendar
  • Emailed myself links to the Coincidence project and the Small Change Forum to remind myself to read more
  • Looked up definitions of things like representation to help me think through what the research was about and what I might usefully contribute to discussions from some of my work 


I was also taking part in a few side discussions on twitter which had nothing to do with the workshop (with apologies to those running the workshop, but I didn’t feel 100% engaged in the conversation). They involved banter about yarn bombing, events cancelled due to the snow, and @weeklyblogclub.

Time to talk

I used the lunch break as my main opportunity to ask the questions I wanted to of some of the people in the workshop - such as questions about the research focus and whether Small Change uses Theory of Change. I reckon I probably learned more by having those discussions on a one-to-one basis than if I’d have asked them in the whole group discussion, as the respondents were free from the need to take in to consideration other people’s positions, or the need to give background to those who may be less familiar with the subject area.

Being quietly useful (I hope)

So although I hadn’t said much in the main discussion, I was working hard to share the interesting things I was hearing about with other people outside the room, and also finding non-verbal ways to take in information and answer some of the numerous questions I had without taking up time in the discussion by searching for and reading information online. Of course online sharing works really when people involved in delivering activities join in and make content available online before and after events. It's great that I could find links to the projects that we heard about, but information about the research itself (and the slides from the session) aren't available for open sharing yet (I've asked). If I hear more I'll shout about it on twitter!

So I've realised that you’ll rarely find me in any discussion in a group bigger than about 6 people without at least my phone in use - tweeting offers me a route to expression which isn’t often offered unless an activity is very well facilitated and involves access to lots of pens and paper for writing and drawing. Being online also means I can check things out in the moment, so enhances my learning and acquisition of knowledge during a discussion. 

I wonder if other people have these sorts of feelings and do these sorts of things? 

Below is a video of Bjork's song, It's Oh So Quiet - just because I like this song and writing this post made me think of it.


  1. Thanks for sharing this post, I am certainly going to be looking up the Susan Cains book. I too struggle a bit in groups of that size, someone once told me to at least try and say something in those size groups within the first 15 minutes - even if all I said was 'yes I agree' or 'That's right' - at least I've said something, leave it any longer and it gets harder to say something at all. It works for me.

  2. Interesting post Lorna.

    "[...] a route to expression which isn’t often offered unless an activity is very well facilitated and involves access to lots of pens and paper for writing and drawing [...]"

    Yes, I certainly do have similar feelings and do those sorts of things. I have similar reactions to discussions in medium-sized or larger groups, especially those discussing abstract ideas. Personally, I form ideas (and reactions to or development of other people's ideas) most easily by drawing blobs of ideas and then figuring out the connections or paths through them to an objective. Typically, I need to do this to get ideas and opinions clear in my own mind. I definitely struggle to do this verbally, particularly at the speed it takes to respond confidently in a verbal discussion.

    I loved Cain's book (my review is at ) and appreciated the tactics she describes in using pseudo-extrovert traits for short periods, as long as you have your own "restorative niche" to recharge afterwards. Ideally, everyone could participate in discussions like the one you attended though, what I took from Cain's book and based on my own experience, the default study or work environment just isn't designed for that.