I believe you'll find this read worth the time, even though the post is a bit longer than my usual. Floyd and I share our practices of muting, some of the advantages and disadvantages of muting, and an alternative to muting that emphasizes learning and not embarrassment. So, grab a favorite beverage and settle in for the story.
Floyd: Hey, Chris, Happy summer…
I thought I would take this time to delve in deeper to some things I had been thinking about, and see if I can't get some thoughts from more experienced folks I trust and respect. In an attempt to really get in deep, I am approaching each topic individually. If you are up to it, I would love to get your input.
So, this first topic is something I may have presented to you before. That is this thought of muting people who speak the most or the loudest in a community. Often when I see this it is with hopes that the people who don't speak up as much will have their voices heard by folks that talk a lot, and the ones who talk a lot will develop skills in listening and communicating in new ways. Do you have thoughts on this topic, or ways you have used it as a tool? How does it fit into the ideas presented in the stages of group development? What other questions am I not considering about this?
Chris: Hi Floyd, I do hope all is well!!
Okay, I'm going to take some time to extend this conversation you started about "muting people who speak the most or the loudest in a community."
First, I want to agree with one of your assertions. I too believe, in most cases, people are muted by the facilitator (where would the group be if they muted the talk-to-muchers?), with the "hope that the people who don't speak up as much will have their voices heard by folks that don't talk a lot." (I will get back to the second assertion you made with this first one.)
So, we both agree that the hope is others will speak up. Now, as we ultimately find out, muting someone (or more than someone), does not guarantee others will speak up. (We could start with the whole extrovert/introvert dynamics here as just one reason why.) So, as an educative practice, it's not the best tool to use to get others to speak up more. However, when you are a new facilitator (educator), it is a tool. And, you never know. I'm sure there are success stories after implementing the basic mute. To this day, I still threaten to mute when it seems like a "heads up" might nudge the group (or particular person) into a way of behaving. I will say something like this: "You know Steve, I noticing the muting bees have started circling you. They are attracted to a lot of sentences strung together by one person. If you happened to get stung by one of these bees I'll let you know. If it happens your vocal cords will swell up for a certain amount of time. I would hate for this to happen - just wanted you to know." Most of the time this light-hearted information gets the point across in that moment.
This is where I position myself with the basic traditional mute tool.
Let's go to the second assertion you mentioned, "...and the ones who talk a lot will develop skills in listening and communicating in new ways." Here's my "reaction" to this. If someone is talking so much that you must mute them so that others in the group can get some space to talk, it is "inconceivable" (to quote my favorite movie) that this person will make the leap to changing his/her behavior to be a better listener or communicator. It is more likely, when muted (if they stay muted) that they are simply formulating and rehearsing what they will say when they are un-muted.
Now, my "response" to this assertion. If a facilitator uses the muting tool, on purpose, to encourage better listening and better communication behaviors it would be educationally prudent to frontload the expectation. Here's what I would say: "If I end up muting you during the activity, meaning you cannot talk, it does not mean you did anything wrong. It simply means I would like you to turn on your listening behaviors and soak up the information that fills the room while you're muted. Combine the information you hear with the information you have in your head about the situation. Blend this up and see what you get. When you are ready to jump in and verbally share with the group again, go right ahead."
I see this way of muting as specifically "inviting" someone to experience a particular behavior - listening - at a specific time. Also, when I use this tool I don't use it only with the over-talkers. I use it with different people over a progression of activities. Then, we have another talking point to bring up during the processing experience. "What was it like for you going into listening mode after I muted you? Was there any benefit to you or the group when you went into listening mode?
Why do I mute in this way? When I share my process and say you have done nothing wrong, it (tends) to reduce the defensiveness from the participant. They are not embarrassed after being muted (in most cases!) it is simply a part of the experience. The group knows someone in the group is practicing a particular behavior and are often very supportive. By inviting the muted participant to verbally reengage when ready, I relieve myself of being the referee. As an educator, I want to encourage a certain behavior and then let the "student" practice and return to "normal" (for them) when they are so compelled. It's a more open way of learning something at one's own pace. One little step at a time.
Floyd: Thanks for getting back to me Chris. I'm excited to dig deeper into this topic!
First, to answer some of your questions, I am a long-time user (abuser) of the mute tool. a few years ago, however, I was placed in a position in a group where I was the only one not muted. This was a facilitator training at a course in the Midwest I had no experience with, but training as a contractor. The lead facilitator knew I had a lot of facilitation experience. The rest of the community I was working with knew each other (worked together in a residential treatment facility), but were unaware of my experience. As the day progressed, I realized that the lead was using a lot of "one right answer" methods and activities but, instead of encouraging an answer collaboratively devised by the community, he kept looking for me to "speak up" and solve the challenge. Finally as the group was working to come up with an answer for an activity, he muted everyone except me and expected that I would then bring the group to a good answer. This on the spot feeling has since then challenged my philosophy on its use.
Currently I use muting in a general way. I offer it as the consequence for stepping in the muting river, or as the theme of one of the islands on a triangle tension traverse, or use a half blind half mute twist to a challenge adding some unique dynamics. I have, however, stopped using muting on the loud ones. My hope with discontinuing the practice is that I can come up with something that offers groups some tools when they leave. I have come close to something I like, but it certainly needs to be refined. That is, I use an activity as a sort of pathways or grid. We get to the initiative and I will introduce safety concerns that must be addressed during the challenge, but it is up to the group to figure out how to complete the challenge, and by the end know all or as many of the rules of the activity as they can figure out.
As they experiment with things I will let them know when they have done something outside of the rules of play. So far I have had some good success with this and have noticed that the loud people might start out speaking loudly, but when the rules are nothing like they expected, they have to rely on listening to other people for ideas to experiment with, and as the community starts running out of solutions they then find themselves asking the quiet ones to speak up. As an introvert myself, I’ve noticed this invitation from my peers is often what motivates us [me] to share ideas. These ideas might still not be the solution, but everyone sharing and being heard, and everyone experimenting with ideas always gets people further. Again, needs to be refined, but something I am using in place of the mute.
Much more to the point, I stopped using the mute because I feel communities are performing at a level they reached through the storming and norming in their community environment in one way or another. When I mute a person I feel like your description is exactly what happens. That person is not likely to spend time listening (if they stay muted at all), but instead, will be trying to figure out what to say when they get a chance, or how to communicate their idea above all else happening in the group anyway. When they go back to their community environment, the loud ones will continue to be loud and heard, the ones with perceived power will continue to have the perceived power, and the quiet ones will continue to keep their ideas to themselves.
This takes me back to my years working with kids. we would take kids out of the pool to teach them lessons about behaving in the pool. In my experience, I have not seen either strategy work. It is not my responsibility as an educator to remove the challenges or to remove members from the challenge while I'm working with communities. My responsibility is to help the community identify problem areas occurring in their community, and then work with them to come up with actionable solutions they can use back in their own environment.
I agree with you that this can be a tool for new educators to use. My hope for these types of tools for facilitators is just as everything with facilitation; That they will be considered often, and from other points of view. (Today I may not like using the mute, but in conversations with others I am shown that it is a very good tool, and know why and how to use it).
I used to work with a fellow that would challenge me daily to know why I did what I did, how it affected the group, if the group walked away with the outcomes they were looking for and then some, and to find new ways to interact with groups and initiatives. This has been paramount to my growth as a facilitator. While I know this is the environment with many experiential programs, I know, and have worked in those situations, where those early tools just become the rule, and no one really knows why.
I like your ideas about offering muting and listening as tools to the group. I want to write "LISTEN" on a polyspot, and frontload it at the beginning of the day: "If anyone is feeling like they are talking too much, or have been unable to hear the rest of the community, you are welcome to stand on this listening spot for as long as it takes to reach the goal you are looking for. If as a member of this community you need to support someone else by encouraging them to use the listening spot for some reason, please feel free to offer this resource."
Likewise, if someone is feeling like they aren't being heard, or feel like someone's idea isn't being heard, this spot can be used here as well. The person can use this spot as a way of getting the attention of the group to share their ideas. While in the experience you can then process through why a community would need such a resource, and what this resource could look like back in the community environment. Man, I really like this! I can see so many opportunities for communities to take advantage of this.
I fear I have grown long winded here, and running all these sentences together may be causing the muting bees to get to buzzing.
Thanks again for your time!
What are your thoughts around muting participants? Leave us a comment below - carry on the conversation.
All the best,
Chris Cavert, Ed.D.