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What Politicians Can Learn about Silence from Emma Gonzalez

Before anyone gets the wrong idea, I’m not advocating any less talk from the survivors of Marjory Stoneman, or the thousands of other youth who are raising their voices in response to the terror unleased there in February. I would, however, like to hear a little less talk from our politicians for a while, and see them engaged in more meaningful listening. As the kids have said, it’s time for the adults to listen to them.

The events of this past weekend, and indeed over the past month, demonstrate that millions of people around the world have been moved to action through the example of the #NeverAgainMSD movement. From the first speech Emma Gonzalez gave just one day after the shooting that took 17 lives at Marjory Stoneman to her stunning display of silence in front of the entire world just over a month later, she has proven herself versatile in the art of communication. It something our friends on the Hill could use a little schooling in, but it may be a little too late for most facing this year’s contentious mid-term elections.

Recognizing the many strengths of silence

“A moment of silence,” as most of the headlines referred to it, would have been less remarkable. And the six minutes and 30 seconds of the entire duration of the speech may have been less sustainable.

But those four minutes during which Emma Gonzalez stood silent, tears running down her cheeks, represent so much more than the many, many poignant words that were spoken, shouted, or sung at yesterday’s hundreds of rallies for their respective Marches to Save Our Lives events across the country and across the globe.

Gonzalez clarified her intent in a tweet later that evening:

We should be grateful for the lesson of those minutes, of being exposed to that very harsh reality, the something that most of us cannot even imagine, but which, unfortunately, many of Saturday's speakers could. That is the silence that is forced upon us by others at the barrel of a gun. It may be the silence forced on us in the face of hopelessness and despair. It is the silence that the #MeToo movement has sought to overcome as well, and it is a silence we are grateful is being shattered.

There are some different lessons that have come out of this movement, and in particular from yesterday’s four minutes of silence. We can all learn from them, but especially the pols:

  • Silence is often more powerful than . . . noise.

  • It requires a great deal of self-control to harness this powerful tool in front of a live audience of 8000,000, and when you succeed, their respect for you only grows.

  • The ability, with few exceptions, of the audience of largely under 20-somethings, to maintain that silence along with Gonzalez should remove any remaining doubt that these young people are fully committed to the cause they have so quickly accepted as their own.

Not many people can pull off four minutes of silence.

Flipping it

The #NeverAgain movement is rewriting the adult-child paradigm particularly as pertains to political action. It is in that spirit that the concept of flipping roles seems to apply in this arena as well, especially when you think about the value of speaking and silence.

While there is some debate over who flipped what first (in terms of learning), today’s incarnation of the flipped classroom was based on a model in which instead of lecturing during class, teachers provided recordings of their lectures (or PowerPoint slides, readings, exercises, etc.) and spent time in class responding to specific questions that result from students having listened to the lectures at home.

It changed to role of “sage on the stage” to a more active one, a more spontaneous one. You had to be responsive, light on your feet. Some teachers were uncomfortable with it, but others relished the challenge. It depended on your subject matter, experience, and personality.

Think of it this way: Instead of walking up to the front of the classroom and switching on the "on" swtich to start your lesson, you had to perhaps start in the middle, or wherever the students led you.

From their first town hall event, these kids have been flipping it, taking our politicians off their stage, taking them “off book,” asking the uncomfortable questions, and oftentimes exposing a weakness, an inability to stray from the script.

It may be the only time someone like Marco Rubio actually does not talk. Or, as we have seen, he stays on book to detrimental effect. He's responding to the wrong question because he's either not listening or doesn't like the question.

Blending it

Again, this is really advice for the politicians. I think our youth leaders are very good at the art of public speaking and debate.

So, if you're thinking of taking the four-minute silence verbatim, you might want to reconsider.

You can’t really depend on four-minute silences as a regular part of your strategy; it’s just not always appropriate. But you can provide brief silences while others talk and demand it of others in conversation, discussion, and debate. There is often such a compulsion to fill up “air space” that people can’t seem to “take a moment.” Try taking a moment to stop talking during your next meeting. See what happens.

In the world of politics, leadership have been spinning things for so long, especially using “hopes and prayers” to delay serious debate over gun control issues, that they seem to be on autopilot. They don’t take the time to think before they speak. They can’t even stay silent for themselves.

The kids are demanding they be listened to and that they get responses to their specific questions. Talk about paradigm shifts!

Perhaps they could even coach folks like Marco Rubio in active listening techniques to get more benefit out of listening. Here’s a few good techniques that not only help you stay conscious during a conversation, but which also give provide good fodder for a more thoughtful response:

  • Nonverbal queues such as nodding, eye contact, and moving forward

  • Paraphrasing to demonstrate understanding

  • Brief verbal cues, such as “I see,” “I know,” “Sure,”

  • Or perhaps even actually responding to the actual question . . .

In blended learning, online learning is often combined with classroom sessions to address different needs. Similarly, silence and noise have difference purposes. What differs is that for a discussion to be successful, you always need the blend. We seem to have forgotten that.

The Right Dosage

Politicians are uncomfortable with more than “a moment of silence.” They are either orating, presenting a canned agenda, defending an agenda, or attacking someone else’s.

While the papers have their top ten lists from Saturday's D.C. rally, it's neither fair nor necessary to single anyone out. All of these kids showed not only tremendous courage in speaking in front of crowds of thousands, in sharing such deeply horrifying stories; but they also worked the crowd, used their support as needed, waited for silence before moving on with their prepared comments.

A lot of politicians really don’t know how to use silence for impact. One wonders if they will start now that the kids have done so well with it.

There’s a lot for the pols to think about. Take a minute. Take a breath. Just be quite for a second.

Links 4 Further Thought


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As of January 2024, Rewriting Paradigms is back and I'm writing about today's  issues, those that most test us and our humanity.

Designs2Learn blogs were originally published on a separate site devoted solely to educational issues. 

With the release of the Rewriting Paradigms site, we' ported them over to their new home.

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