by Anna Stonehocker, AP'17

Relearning ‘how to talk’ was an important part of my experience at Arete. I remember well the first night we gathered together to begin the long process of self-governance. We had been introduced to the few parameters we would work within: the structure of the three pillars, the prohibition of alcohol and drugs, a limited budget, and isolation. Up to us was everything else, from the organization of our labor and allocation of our budget, to the definition of an isolation policy and our expectations of one another. Underneath these practicalities was the less tangible reality we would create. How would it be to live together?

We sat, 18 of us, around a rough circle in Elizabeth Hall, faced with a sense of responsibility and uncertainty. Where to start?

First silence. Then many voices. I think some of us felt that we should have something to say if we were to consider ourselves constructive members of the group. Others settled into a posture of thoughtful listening or distanced observation.

Very early on we recognized that, before we could do anything, we needed to know how to speak to one another when making decisions. Do we need ground rules? A facilitator? Hand signals?

The conversation about conversation was taken up from different angles and eventually formalized in a list of points. We established a system of sorts, which would be revisited and re-conceived as we went on, much more of a project than product. Having talked about talking, we talked about decisions, and came to the resolve of using consensus.

By the end of the summer we realized how much more was necessary than establishing a list of speaking rules. This work was messier, more personal, unpredictable, and pervasive. It affected us not only in self-governance, but in our daily life. In labour, the classroom, or the beds of our bunks, the work of forging a common language involved understanding that others’ ways of expressing themselves had value.

Whether it was a difference of culture or personality, there seemed to be a divide between those who savoured the idea of a “silent breakfast” and those who loved to fill the air with laughter and conversation. Some who didn’t quite know how to start the conversation and others who needed to fill the pauses. There was a time when some of us brought up a concern for the social dynamic in the group, feeling that those who were louder took up too much space, crowding out the quieter voices of the cohort.

Initially, I found myself on the side of critiquing louder voices. But I began to realize it wasn’t so simple. It wasn’t the loud vs. the quiet; it was all the experiences, habits, and personalities which lead each person to talk the way they did. Being loud didn’t always mean being confident, nor did quietness indicate that someone was being pushed aside. The only way forward was not to shut some people up, but to learn better how to get on the same wavelength. I remember a quieter member of the group insightfully saying in a meeting, “we need to meet in the middle”: she would make an effort to speak out a little more in turn for receiving some space to do so.

While strengthening our communication as a cohort, this process brought me to reencounter talking in my own life. I developed a new ease with silence. Sometimes I was content to let others carry the conversation, either because I didn’t have something to add, or I sincerely trusted them to bring us to good conclusions. This practice of listening helped me discern when something really needed to be said.

While withholding created more space in conversation, I also began to see cases where speaking out was necessary. We had noticed at times a dynamic in the group of avoiding conflict, and I saw how equally limiting it was to always hold back. This is a skill I have yet to learn artfully in my everyday life, but thinking back to the environment of Arete helps me see the kindness that direct honesty can stem from. Whether it was calling out someone about missing a labor shift, or expressing when we felt uncomfortable in the classroom, these conversations often lead to growth and more genuine relationships.

Sometimes meetings would run us headfirst into conflict, whether we articulated ourselves on rational or emotional grounds. Many of us experienced instances where we bit our tongues and others when we said more than we should.

But had you stepped in from nowhere to one of our final meetings, you would be hard-pressed to say how long we’d known one another, how much practice we’d had operating a project together. Often I could understand before someone had finished speaking what they were trying to say. I could feel immediately what would cause frustration and what would ease it. There was an intricate invisible network of understanding that helped us gauge where to push a point and where to hold back, where to insist and where to meet in the middle. We certainly did not learn how to create consensus everywhere, or make all conversations smooth. But we learned how to better understand one another.

Anna Stonehocker is from Edmonton, Alberta, and was part of the 2017 Blue Ridge cohort. She just finished her second year at Sciences Po in a dual degree with University of British Columbia, studying geography and philosophy.