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Silence: Learning from Indigenous Cultures to Lean our Conversations

We talk a lot in the Western world, but is it really necessary? What can we learn from Indigenous and non-western cultures about the value of silence?

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A friend of mine from Uganda said that as a child, he wasn’t allowed to talk. In his culture, children and subordinates spoke only when asked a question. Silence was valued and was considered a sign of respect. When I asked him, how that felt, he said that it just became a habit. He could just sit back and listen. “Did you ever notice that people who talk a lot tend to repeat themselves?”, he said.

Lean, or more specifically the Shingo Guiding Principles, emphasizes respect for every individual and leading with humility.

So, what does silence have to do with Lean? Is chatter just another waste or is there more than that? Can silence add value and flow to conversations? Lean, or more specifically the Shingo Guiding Principles, emphasizes respect for every individual and leading with humility. To realize these principles, listening and the accompanying silent reflection are all important.

So, how do other non-western or indigenous cultures use silence to make their conversations count?

Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are comfortable with and value long silences. These silences are used to listen, show respect or acknowledge consensus.

For Australia’s indigenous people, being respectful means giving people adequate time to process information.

Algonquin Chief Katherine Cannon, North Hastings, Ontario, links silence to respect and openness to learning. She says, “If you are silent, you are open to receive the messages that tie you to the land and to the people and to what’s going on around you. If you are the type of person that is talking all of the time, you are not learning anything.”

Pauses are designed to keep things calm and ordered.

Dwight Powless, a Canadian Mohawk with ties to the Anishinaabe traditions, speaks slowly and uses pauses to make every word count. He too has told me about the need to listen and to take the time to respect others’ points of view in formal meetings. “Have you ever noticed that in western meetings, people rush to interpret or tear apart what the speaker has said?”, he asks. “In our culture”, he says, “each speaker takes the time to speak his or her truth or state his or her position. Once all have had a chance to speak, it is time to come together and move toward consensus.”

In Asian and Nordic cultures, listening cultures, humility and respect are an integral part of conversations. When someone pauses, before speaking, it means that he or she is taking the time to consider your words carefully before responding. At the same time, pauses are seen as a means to maintain the flow of conversations. Pauses are designed to keep things calm and ordered.

So, is all of this compatible with Lean?  Absolutely! Silence in an integral part of the Lean experience. How can you listen and observe, if you are always talking?

Take time to listen and observe.

“Remember that your goal is to listen, to hear, and to understand, and to take that feedback, reflect on it, and determine if there are reasonable things you can do to improve on what the customer values.” Patrick Downey, Forever Kaizen

Take time to listen and observe. You may be surprised by what you see and learn from others.

Photos by Virginia Stanley, Canterbury Arts Program, Canterbury High School, Ottawa.
Audio synthesis courtesy of ©

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