The power is in leaving a gap

So many things that I am working on at the moment lead me to the conclusion that there is power in the gaps. But I feel like for my much of my professional development I have been taught to fill in the gaps.

  • Gaps in specifications for work leave opportunities for misunderstanding and loopholes of which others can take advantage.
  • I am a professional, I am paid to know the answers.
  • The engineer’s inherited enlightenment philosophy says that all can be known or worked out – there shouldn’t be any gaps.
  • As a graduate engineer you are told there are gaps in your knowledge and your work as a professional is to fill those gaps.

But more and more I am finding the opportunity is in the gaps.

I agree with Nancy Kline when she says we do our best thinking in conversation. But this only works when we give the person we are talking to time to think (which is the title of her book). That involves leaving a gap. When a difficult question arises, not just filling it with your own thoughts and words, but holding the space. This gives the other person time to think through answers of their own.

In my creativity and climate emergency teaching I use catalytic style, a technique I learnt from Nick Zienau and Intelligent Action. It is a technique that requires the ‘consultant’ to hold back on jumping in with their own answers and instead to keep asking questions that keep the ‘client’ talking. And when a gap opens up, to just hold it and see what happens.

The above are both examples of gaps where you may the knowledge but you choose not to fill the gap with it to enable the other person to fill the space.

But there is another kind of gap. The one where neither you nor the person or people know what is going to happen. That is the space that I’m learning to explore as a clown. To go on stage and have no material and to commit yourself totally to the tension of the unknown and to see what you can create out of it together.

I believe a teacher can operate in a similar way to the clown as long as learning is formulated as joint experimentation. You walk into the space with the participants and ask what are you interested in today?

Maybe in the end all I will have are questions.

Maintaining the gap is hard. This is purely cultural. In the culture that I experience, it feels awkward to leave a gap, be it in a conversation, a workshop or even presentation. But when you do find the courage to create that space you will be amazed by what can come out of it. You will be humbled that emerges may be better than what you could have come up with yourself.

It makes me realise that as a leader of any kind (be it a team leader, a design leader, a workshop leader) the skill is not necessarily in knowing all but is in creating the space in which other people can speak and understanding can emerge. We do this by asking questions and leaving space for answers.

Had I continued on my original arc of graduate training I might have expected by the end of my career to be brim-full with knowledge and certainty, but realising the power of gaps and the responsibility to make space, maybe, in the end, all I will have are questions.

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1 Comment

  1. Anna Bardos

    This reminds me of another type of ‘gap’ that I believe useful to leave in design, between what the author (architect, etc) is putting out and what/how the reader (building user) is interpreting. If you ‘curate’ too closely and specifically the experience, it doesn’t leave a gap for others’ interpretation. Like the difference between play equipment which is a ‘one-liner’, or just random stuff that you can play with/on – and maybe what’s exciting is precisely that it isn’t ‘designated’ as play equipment at all.

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