It’s a bright Saturday and I’ve overslept and missed my class but I was due to participate in a Dialogue in the Dark workshop held at the Asian Institute of Management and I wasn’t about to miss it for the world.
I met Andreas Heinecke during my non-profit days. The group had invited him to use our space to promote his social initiative, Dialogue in the Dark. Not long after, AIM invited him to come and hold a week of workshops on their campus.
What is Dialogue in the Dark? It is an activity in which seeing people are led through a completely blacked out environment by blind guides. Through this exercise they learn to understand the perspectives of people who cannot see.
The set-up is meant to be ordinary. It could be a party. It’s a shopping trip. It’s sitting in a plane. Or a boat. Or a bar. Except you cannot see. You won’t know what is coming next.
Having had terrible vision since the first grade, going blind is a fear of mine. I am also a little bit scared of the dark to the point that I occasionally need a night light.
The session begins with an introduction with Heinecke who speaks briefly about social innovation. He speaks about how understanding perspectives is important in so many aspects of life. He introduces his initiative and his team, who ready the group to enter the darkroom.
When you enter the room, you are plunged into darkness. It is complete—nothing that even reflects light. It’s nerve-wracking and my anxiety is levels are definitely going up, so I grab my sister’s hand. It was so dark that one person had to leave completely.
The activity begins with an introduction. Each person has to introduce themselves and describe what darkness means to them. Just from listening that a few don’t speak up.
Once the workshop gets going, my anxiety starts to go away. First, we have to find chairs in the dark. Some people were given canes but there was not enough for everyone. After some fumbling, chairs are found and once things are settled, we are seated at a table for 11. The first task is to arrange ourselves in alphabetical order which bodes discussion.
The second task is harder. We are each given a piece of a puzzle to put together. When everyone describes their piece, everyone has a wooden half circle. At first, we think it might form a circular target kind of shape but despite everyone’s contribution it does not. It’s supposed to be a rainbow.
The third task is to write a poem but passing around a piece of paper and writing one word down. After that, a member of the group is asked to recite the poem, so listening is very important. The first person chooses the word “mountain” so we continue on with the nature theme.
This is the moment when I start to feel calm and really start to enjoy it. A person without sight will never really be able to see what a tree looks like but they would be able to live the experience of nature through their other senses.
The final task is to have a tea party. The guide puts cutlery and snacks on the table. We are to pour (hot!) coffee or water, locate teabags, mix sugar and cream, and pass the bread.
The workshop ends with an intuition exercise. We take turns counting from 1 to 30, by sampling gauging the moment when we feel it is time to speak. After a few false starts, we make it to twenty.
It’s shocking on the senses to return to the light, although once we got busy with activities, my anxiety went down. I want to share a few insights I gained through the experience.
- Blind people deal not so much with the anxiety of not knowing where everything is but deal more with the inevitability of surprise. We live in a stimulating world and they rely on all their other senses to experience it in their way. But they cannot see if something reads hot or sharp, or how loud the volume is turned up or what everyone is laughing it. They can only experience it with their other senses. Communication and listening become very important.
- Leadership is hard. Dialogue in the Dark is also an exercise about uncertainty. And if you are a person with many more responsibilities but also the same level of uncertainty as everyone else is experiencing, having to perform admirably is really tough. Creating outcomes that will benefit everyone even a little and making sure everyone is satisfied with the result when even you have no idea what to expect, is a hard thing to achieve.
- I was able to confront my fear of the dark a little bit. It’s been a couple of weeks and although it took me a while at first to go to sleep (throwing me completely out of whack), I was able to do it without a nightlight (and without imagining monsters under my bed or in the corner of my ceiling!!).
I am grateful to have experienced Dialogue in the Dark and hope to visit other more permanent exhibitions in other countries. I also hope that Andreas Heinecke and his team manage to put up a longer running experience here in the Philippines. For more information, visit their website.