Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Talking Across a Gap -- A Guest Post from Gillian Thomas

After a career leading museum projects in the UK and US, with early experience in France, and advising in a wide range of countries across the world, Gillian Thomas is now an international consultant on cultural projects for trusts, foundations, and governments. She enjoys helping people identify what they really want to do and then overcoming any obstacles to doing it – from vision to reality.

Gillian has kindly shared her timely essay below with ExhibiTricks readers. Enjoy!

Talking Across a Gap

We talk a lot about people having a voice, not having a voice, not having a seat at the table – but the question is more about who is listening and is this reciprocal? All too often we are putting out opinions, asking for feedback but maybe not really wanting it and rarely really wanting to change what we think or do as a result. This does tend to make feedback more angry and loud, in an attempt to really be heard. 
Whether we are talking about age gaps or about different societal groups, especially if feeling unheard, unappreciated, we are much more prone to shout our position than to hear and think about the position of others. Perhaps we need to relearn how to talk to one another which means listening and trying to understand.

This summer has been a time for change as COVID restrictions were lifted somewhat yet still impact everything we do. An influx of visitors, after not having seen anyone for a while, made me value the conversation and also realize this requires an effort. Age range was one aspect of our guests, from 10 to 85, with some limited diversity. Food is another: while sharing a meal, it is much more difficult to have a full-blown argument with shouting and much easier to listen to something you don’t agree with if you have something delicious to chew. With several people around a table, you also have time to think, listen to more than one viewpoint. Ah, you may say, that’s because you weren’t the one doing the cooking – but I was. However, this gave me an added pleasure of seeing people enjoying the food and also the chance to walk away for a moment, if I needed a breather. 
Learning how to talk without offending each other yet being able to express one’s views, as opposed to just keeping quiet, can be a challenge. This is, I think, a skill we could learn – but it requires patience on both sides. I’ve got it wrong lots of times, saying something, making assumptions – some I realized and some probably not, so I would like to be better able to understand those I don’t currently either understand or agree with. Why? Our society needs solidarity, we need to work together for the common good and to get the commitment necessary to solve the major challenges we face. If we waste energy shouting at each other, we don’t make progress. 

So conversations across the gaps need to be encouraged and here are a few guidelines for a starter:

•  Get a mixture, not just one person that is different in some way
•  Small group, 6-10, around a table with food
•  No topic is needed, these emerge, but if stuck, what the future offers gets most people going
•  Accept this doesn’t have to go anywhere, it’s just a chance to get to understand others better and to sometimes challenge’s one’s own positions and attitudes.

This may seem like a very anodyne way forward – but I’ve learned a lot, and enjoyed it. 

Food always helps and if someone gets very argumentative, you can always ask them to help you in the kitchen.

Thanks, Gillian, for sharing some excellent food for thought!  

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Paul Orselli writes the posts on ExhibiTricks. Paul likes to combine interesting people, ideas, and materials to make exhibits (and entire museums!) with his company POW! (Paul Orselli Workshop, Inc.) Let's work on a project together!

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