A dose of silence can improve interdisciplinary cooperation

It’s a given nowadays that scientists are expected to work as part of a team, not only within their own department, but also with other departments and different disciplines.

Open and transparent communication is one way to promote constructive cooperation, but according to new TU Delft research into interdisciplinary teamwork, sometimes what isn’t said is often as important as what is said.

‘Silence within Interdisciplinary Cooperation’ was the theme of a scientific symposium held Wednesday, December 9, 2015 during which various speakers underlined the importance of the art of dialogue, learning to listen and recognising and using silence to ensure effective cooperation within and between universities and other organisations.

As part of his PhD research, Nick Verouden of the Faculty of Applied Science’s Department of Science Communication studied everyday interdisciplinary cooperation in practice, observing conversations between scientists and other stakeholders and following them up with his own interviews. Verouden’s results show that in interdisciplinary discussions, silence plays an important role in collaborative interaction, depending on, for example, the context, the people involved and the desired outcomes. “People have various reasons for keeping quiet,” said Verouden. “They might think they don’t have the right information, or that what they have to say isn’t relevant to the main issue.” Sometimes people think it’s strategic not to mention certain things, preferring to keep quiet rather than blaming others. And then there are intercultural silences, most obvious between people from different countries.

One of the strengths of silence, says Verouden, is that it allows room for manoeuvre, keeping things open strategically so that all parties can move in their own direction within the joint framework of the project. “By not criticizing each other’s perspectives, by temporarily leaving internal tensions or frictions off the meeting table, the various partners can move towards shared goals and conversations are kept positive.”

Although silence can be helpful to academic interdisciplinary teamwork, giving time to reflect on complex issues for instance, it can also lead to problems warns Verouden: “If things aren’t discussed, partners lose trust and partners start to fill in the gaps themselves leading to misunderstandings and uncertainties. Then it becomes the elephant in the room: the thing that no-one’s talking about that gets in the way of further conversation.”

Therefore it’s vitally important, argues Verouden, to reflect on the significance of silence: “Those who have learnt the codes of silence can anticipate, reflect, react and learn to listen to what’s not being said; and they are the ones who can understand the true meaning of the conversation.”

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