This method aims to collaboratively, but silently, map the collective thinking (concepts, feelings, associations) of a group, focusing on a specific topic or issue.
Instead of deliberating complex questions through animated discussions (our default approach), silence enables a deeper state of reflection and prevents louder voices from dominating the conversation. This is especially useful in online meetings, where it can be challenging to have a plenary debate and hear all the voices in the room. This exercise can be a good way to crystallize core insights gained in the ‘Reflection’ phase of Theory U before moving to more active engagement in planning. Focusing on a specific issue or question, participants silently brainstorm ideas and keywords and then, remaining in silence, collectively cluster the contributions based on similarity - so called ‘Affinity clusters’. The process enacts a collaborative negotiation that surfaces and draws attention to points of alignment and differences of opinion within the group, enabling clearer understanding and sense of connection.
Finally, in pairs or trios (using break-out rooms), reflect on the experience of working in silence. Prompt with questions such as: “Were you surprised by anything”?”
An online whiteboard, such as Google Jamboard or Miro.
Participants might feel uncomfortable or frustrated about not being able to talk. Explain the reasoning in advance or let them know that such feelings are normal and that there will be space for discussion afterwards.
In addition, some participants might experience difficulties accessing or using the online tool. Choose for a tool that’s simple rather than complex (e.g. Google Jamboard) and make sure you give a short but clear explanation.
When working with large groups, consider breaking up into smaller groups in break-outs, using a separate whiteboard (or slide in Jamboard) for each break-out group. This avoids the online whiteboard from getting too crowded with post-its.
This exercise – in its original form – was shared with us by Marieke Ploeg (www.mariekeploeg.nl) at a facilitation training organized by Royal HaskoningDHV.
Concept mapping: Trochim 1989 “An introduction to concept mapping for planning and evaluation”.
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