The group conversation
The students of our Full-time School live together in our school building in Drachten for a year. That is wonderful, because it creates friendships for life. At the same time, it is quite a challenge to relate to each other as a group when you have to cook, clean, do odd jobs and relax together. This often goes well, but sometimes it causes tensions and conflicts that need to be expressed. An important skill you develop during the year is how to argue well by talking through disputes. As a school team we can guide such charged group discussions and that provides important insights.
In the group you deal with students who express their strong opinions in detail and therefore speak a lot. If you let that take its course, the ‘group conversation’ consists of a dialogue between a number of roosters. You can hardly hear most of the group.
In such a situation we sometimes use the power of clothespins. Everyone receives three clothespins before the group discussion. A clothespin gives you the right to speak. This means that you can speak three times during the conversation. When you run out of clothespins, you have used up your right to speak. It is very interesting to observe the group conversation as a discussion leader. Among other things, I noticed the following:
- The ‘cocks’ usually lose their clothespins within five minutes. Some of these fast consumers try to speak without using a pincher, but this is severely cut off by the moderator. Sometimes someone gets his neighbor to give him a peg. The person who gives up a valuable peg to his neighbor will at some point enjoy the conversation and then be disappointed that he has given away the right to speak to someone else.
- A number of students realize that they need to think carefully before they speak. A clothespin is expensive at that time. You have to ask yourself when you are going to say something, what the quality of what you are going to say is and whether it would not be better to listen to others first.
- At the end of the conversation, there are also students who still have all the pegs in their possession. They have chosen not to exercise their right to speak. The belief that what they have to say does not matter or that no one will listen prevents them from making their input felt.
The speaking of the church
Now it is not the case that these young people are an exception in the way they deal with speaking and remaining silent. I don’t think it is so crazy to introduce such training in churches.
I speak to pastors who have become numb and burned out by the persistent, intense and often hurtful flow of words from some people in their congregation.
Shame rises to my cheeks when I see statements on social media from people who appear to be my spiritual brothers and sisters.
It saddens me when I notice that the voices of those in need are no longer heard inside and outside the church because they are drowned out by others who are more assertive.
The Bible says in Ecclesiastes 3:7b that there is a time for silence and a time for speaking. The importance of speaking is recognized by many people, but choosing to remain silent (where you could have spoken) can sometimes be much more powerful, because you offer space to others. In my opinion, the determining factor in the wise use of speech or silence is not debate strategy or cleverness, but self-control.
The most important conclusion during the debriefing of the exercise with the clothes pegs is often that the group comes into its own much more as a result of that exercise. That classmates, who normally stay in the background, often have very good input. The nicest comment came from a student who often does a lot of talking. He said: “In the future, I can best use my input during a group discussion by asking questions to the group, because this way I can bring out the wisdom of the group.”
How healing and enriching it would be if we chose to park our beliefs and question each other in order to really listen. I believe we can learn that as a church. Words have power, but luckily so do clothespins!