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Why We Suck at Conversation

In his post, “Principles for engaging human systems for wellbeing and innovation in a connected world,” Jeremy Scrivens shared what he has learned from Margaret Wheatley, including her 10 Principles for Healthy Communities.

Principle #3 struck me, “Conversation is the way human beings have always thought together.” It makes sense. We’ve been talking to each other for 1.75 million years, give or take. So why do we suck at it?

A couple of years ago, Steve Judd put me onto a paper that highlighted how bad we are at conversation, why we’re so bad, and what we can do about it.

Ed Gallagher is a professor in English at Lehigh University. A dozen or so years ago, he hoped that online discussion boards would solve his students’ inability to talk to each other. He found that the technology alone did not magically make his students competent social communicators, but he did find a way to teach them conversation.

Gallagher’s paper, “Teaching Students to Talk to Each Other: Improving the Discussion Board,” is full of great insights about conversation.

Gallagher explains why we suck at conversation: “our culture almost exclusively values, practices and rewards closure and competition and winning, precisely what should be suspended in discussion.” Just today, in the midst of a rich conversation with a colleague, I apologized for being unproductive. I felt if I wasn’t clearly moving us toward the stated goal of the meeting, then I wasn’t adding value. We want to achieve closure, to produce a result, to check the unchecked box. Deep conversation may not generate checked boxes, but it does foster creativity, collaboration and innovation.

Gallagher combated the values of the predominant culture by growing a new culture built around the idea that “Conversation makes us colleagues. Community is job one.” How would such a vision change your organization? What would happen if our relationships to each other were more important than the unfinished project of the unfiled report? Jeremy Scrivens shared that Margaret Wheatley led him to the insight that how we relate to each other is actually the most important thing, “It was Meg who opened my eyes to see enterprises – not as hierarchical constructs or work processes with people as operators of these processes – but as living human systems in relationship with each other.”

“The art of writing on the discussion board is to keep the conversation going,” Gallagher wrote. He used the metaphor of an noncompetitive racquetball game to explain this to his students.

Instead of a typical racquetball game where each participant is trying to win, Gallagher asked his students to imagine a game where each participant’s only goal was to extend the rally as long as possible. In the discussion board, students were encouraged to avoid behaviors that would end the “rally.” Comments like “Great point!” might be validating but they don’t extend the conversation. Neither do replies explaining how the previous post was completely wrong. The point is not to hit the unreachable shot in the corner, but hit a shot that stretches your opponent but allows the rally to continue.

Gallagher offers some strategies for giving discussions “legs:”agreeing (The improv tenant “Yes, and” should be kept in mind. The point is not just to agree but to agree and add on), questioning, enhancing, answering, building, disagreeing, weaving, re-directing and re-thinking.

So let’s stop sucking at conversation. Let’s use some of the strategies Gallagher suggests. Let’s start avoiding, rather than seeking closure. Instead of focusing on our ideas winning, let’s try to extend the rally. If, as Margaret Wheatley said, “…very great change starts from very small conversations, held among people who care,” our future depends on it.

Metamorphosis

Image: Arthur Blythe at a Concert at the North Sea Jazz Festival 1989 with “The Leaders” by Alephalpha (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Arthur Blythe died this spring.

He was a saxophonist who easily jumped between more traditional jazz and the avant-garde. His recording Lenox Avenue Breakdown is considered a near classic, but he was no superstar. He was best as part of the collective.

I was introduced to jazz through the neo-classicism of Wynton Marsalis, so when I stumbled into the stacks of LPs at my college radio station, I gravitated towards the classics of swing and bebop. That changed in 1990 when I heard Metamorphosis.

Arthur Blythe released the world music-inspired album as part of the World Saxophone Quartet, It was a critical disappointment, but it opened my ears to a style of music grounded in collective improvisation. It was music not exactly with no rules, but with new rules. A year later, Don Cherry released Multikulti which eventually led me back to his work with new jazz progenitor Ornette Coleman, and my worldview officially changed.

Like so many American boys, I had been steeped in the culture of the hero, the exceptional individual, the lone genius. Despite it’s roots as an ensemble music, jazz had not challenged that view. It’s supreme soloists and tortured geniuses have largely overshadowed the story of jazz as the most collaborative of musical genres. The story of jazz is based in the belief that the community is more important than the individual, even the individual genius.

Metamorphosis revealed that to me. Along with Milman Parry’s  oral-formulaic composition theory of epic poetry, it planted the seed in my mind that would grow into my interest in human networks, cooperation and collaboration.

The music of Arthur Blythe, Don Cherry, and Ornette Coleman is the music of flocking birds. In Emergent Strategy, Adrienne Maree Brown writes, “There is an art to flocking: staying separate enough not to crowd each other, aligned enough to maintain a shared direction, and cohesive enough to always move toward each other.”

I’m not sure there is a better description of collective jazz improvisation or of collective action networks.

Standing Still

At the National eXtension Conference in 2004, Harold Jarche introduced me to the “triangles” exercise (sidebar: Here’s a panel session I moderated at that conference with Harold, Dave Gray, Jane Hart and Beth Kanter).

Here’s how it works. You take a room full of people (having more than 20 or so makes it more effective) and tell them to arrange themselves in equilateral triangles with a person at each point. Here’s the catch. They need to do it without speaking. Each person silently picks out 2 other people to make a triangle with, but those people don’t know they’ve been chosen. They are trying to make a triangle, likely with 2 other people they’ve selected. So as each person moves another person must adjust to that movement to keep an equal distance between them and a third person. Once they have formed their triangle, they stop.

It sounds complex, and it is. The main takeaway is that a group of people, with positive intent, can accomplish just as much or more through silent cooperation than by putting someone in charge. At a workshop in Nebraska, Harold, Karen Jeannette, Steve Judd and I, conducted the “triangles” exercise by putting one person in charge of arranging everyone into equilateral triangles, then having them do it again silently without anyone in charge. We did it at the end if day 1 of a 2-day workshop, and we didn’t explain why we had them do the exercise until the next morning. People were confused and some were a little pissed, which made me nervous, but Harold thought the uncertainty was great.

Last week, Karen Jeannette and I did the “triangles” exercise with the participants in our pre-conference workshop, “Working out loud: opening doors to personal and community change.” at the NACDEP/CDS Conference. As we prepared for the workshop, we talked about some of the other lessons of the “triangles” exercise.

  • Alignment: To make the “triangles” exercise work, everyone has to understand the task. If someone doesn’t hear all the instructions or doesn’t understand them, the exercise will fail. This is a powerful lesson for those of us seeking to collaborate with others. We need to have a shared understanding of what we are trying to accomplish, what problem we are trying to solve. We also need to have agreed upon rules. I was recently collaborating with 3 other people on the script for an ignite talk. We agreed on the content, but we had a really hard time deciding the best process. Should we write the script and worry about the timing of the delivery later or should we try write 15-seconds of text for each slide or should we try do both at the same time? We were aligned on the problem we were trying to solve, but we had not aligned on the rules and process for solving it. In the end, we just appointed one person to write the script.
  • Positive Intent: I’ve heard Harold Jarche point out during the “triangles” exercise that it works because everyone enters into it with positive intent. Any individual participant could blow the whole thing up by staying in constant, random motion, causing anyone who is trying to align with them to stay in motion, which in turn causes anyone trying to align with that person to keep moving and so on. Collaboration only works if everyone comes to the table with positive intent, and it helps if everyone can also assume positive intent from others.
  • Standing Still: As mentioned above, if someone just keeps moving, it’s difficult to align with them. In the “triangles” exercise, when you move slowly or stand still it allows others to adjust their positions and align with you. If we want people, especially those we don’t already know, to connect with us, we need to stand still. If you’re quickly moving from project to project, chasing the next item on your to-do list and putting out fires, how can people see where you are and connect with you ? We need to stand still to allow people to align with us. Standing still means declaring your intent and sharing who you are, what you’re working on and what you care about. Standing still allows others to adjust their position to yours and look for opportunities for connection and collaboration.

Like almost everyone I’ve ever met, I have a to-do list that never seems to be completed, and crises to address and avert, but I’m working on finding more time and ways to stand still.I’m trying to stand still by writing this blog. I also include personal “mission statements” in my Twitter bio and LinkedIn summary. I hope you can see me and, if you want to, adjust your position, connect with me and explore making meaning together.

Bumping the Lamp

When I discovered kaptainkristian’s YouTube channel earlier this year, I veraciously tore through every video he had posted. His pop culture video essays appeal to my cultural sensibilities. Bugs Bunny re-runs are soundly in my wheelhouse. “Batman:The Animated Series” echoed through my early 90’s college years, and my kids have introduced me to Toonami, Pokemon and Gorillaz.

But there was something more in kaptainkristian’s skillful editing, meticulous production and heartfelt writing, something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Early on I jotted down what I thought it was, “there’s an art to curation. It comes from a genuine love of the material and the craft of curation, as well as a meaningful relationship with the audience.” What kaptainkristian does is not really curation, however. It’s more like passionate, thoughtful celebration, and that passion sets the work apart.

It was one of kaptainkristian’s video essays that got me closer to why they were having such an impact on me.

In the video “Who Framed Roger Rabbit? – The 3 Rules of Living Animation,” kaptainkristian talks about “bumping the lamp.” There’s a scene in the film where Eddie, a real-life character played by Bob Hoskins, is trying to remove the handcuffs that are binding him to the animated rabbit, Roger. As kaptainkristian points out, the scene would have been fine without any lighting changes. Hell, in 1988, having a real character interact with an animated character as seamlessly as they do in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” was a pretty brilliant achievement on its own.  But the filmmakers didn’t stop there.

For no particular reason during the scene, Eddie bumps the hanging lamp. For the rest of the scene light and shadow are thrown everywhere. It’s doesn’t serve the plot. It’s not even good for a laugh. All it does is make the filmmakers’ jobs harder. Try to imagine how hard it was to put a real character and animated character in the same scene, to light them evenly, to make them interact believably. Bumping the lamp made all those things much harder than they already were and created a lot of extra work for the animators, but it also made the scene iconic.

“Bumping the lamp” is going the extra mile. It’s challenging yourself, pushing your limits, and showing your passion for and dedication to your work.

That’s what kaptainkristian does in all of his videos. He could deliver his essays over the video clips and still images common to many pop culture video essays and listicles. Instead he puts in the time and work necessary to challenge himself, push his limits and show his passion for his subjects. The results are incredible moments of insight and brilliance.

It’s that brilliance that I find lacking in my own work. I’ve spent most of my career in the non-profit and public sectors, but still most of my work has been ruled by the quest for efficiency, ROI and satisficing. In short, I’ve mostly tried to avoid bumping the lamp.

Early in my career, I worked at a public radio station on a college campus. I would sometimes spend more hours picking the music for a show than I spent actually broadcasting. I would see if I could construct a 3-hour music shift around a single narrative theme or if I could create a show stringing together biographical connections between each artist. Sometimes the results were disastrous, but sometimes I found moments of brilliance.

I’m much older now, and my time, focus and energy seem to be in shorter supply. I have an organization, a supervisor and colleagues whom I’m responsible to. I have every reason to chase efficiency as hard as I ever have. So….

Fuck it. I’m bumping the lamp.

Showing Our Impact: A WDinExt Podcast

Cooperative Extension is making a difference, but does it show?

I talked with Dena Wise from The University of Tennessee Extension about that very question. Dena authored the Journal of Extension commentary, “Evaluating Extension Impact on a Nationwide Level: Focus on Programs or Concepts?

4-H LIFE: A WDinExt Podcast

I’m embarrassed to admit I had thought little about the needs of children with an incarcerated parent. I had never thought about Cooperative Extension’s ability to help those kids until I found out about the 4-H LIFE program.

My colleagues in the eXtension Educational Technology Network brainstormed a list of potential guests for the podcast, and Lynna Lawson’s name was on it. Lynna helps lead 4-H LIFE, a program for children of offenders and their families, in Missouri. After an emotional and eye-opening review of the work 4-H LIFE is doing, I couldn’t wait to talk with her.

Here’s our conversation.

Effective Community-Engaged Outreach: A WDinExt Podcast

Sara Axtell and Kari Smalkoski are two of the authors of the Journal of Extension article, “One Size Does Not Fit All: Effective Community-Engaged Outreach Practices with Immigrant Communities.” When I first read the article, I immediately connected it to my interest in collective action networks. Community-engaged outreach practices prioritize relationship building, reciprocity and two-way sharing of knowledge. All of those priorities have a place in a networked approach to problem solving as well.

Cooperative Extension needs to do a better job of engaging the public, not just as audience members, but as co-learners and co-creators. As Sara said in the podcast, we need to think about where the ideas for our programs come from, what issues we are trying to address and about “partnering with communities and engaging with communities way before a program starts.” Sara continued, we need to “remember that communities have their own priorities that might be different than our priorities.” When we create programs first, without including the community in that creation, it’s difficult to think of the community as anything other than audience, a group to be talked at and marketed to.

Photo credit: courtesy Ramsey County Minnesota on Flickr, https://flic.kr/p/9wsiYi 

Focus on What We Share, Not Our Differences

This Labor Day weekend, I read Sebastian Junger’s new book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging.

The book’s central idea is that we have lost our tribal connection, our opportunity (willingness?) to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of others, and that loss has negative psychological impacts. The idea and Junger’s argument in support of it are fascinating. I highly recommend the book.

One point that stuck with me is that our veneration of veterans and active service members might be hindering their reintegration into society. Junger writes about how “shared public meaning” of a war helps reduce the alienation soldiers feel when they return home by providing a context for their sacrifice that is acknowledged by most of the public. He goes on to say that the constant thanking of veterans and service members and the recognition they receive at large sporting events does not develop “shared public meaning,” but may further alienate those who served.

Junger writes, “These token acts only deepen the chasm between the military and civilian population by highlighting the fact that some people serve their country but the vast majority don’t.”

Junger also points out that the American public is disconnected not only from the military but also from other jobs that directly support our culture of consumption, including farming.

Farming is like any other job only you punch in at age 5 and never punch out.

Do messages like this help connect people with farming or further widen the disconnect?

As I read that, I was reminded of Facebook posts that read, “Farming is like any other job, only you punch in at age 5 and never punch out,” or “During harvest farmers give up meals at their table, so we can have meals at ours.” Given Junger’s argument, do posts messages like those above help connect the public to agriculture or further widen the gap?

I think it’s the latter. If we want to reconnect consumers and producers, service members and those they protected, or those who have become alienated in our communities, we need to focus on what we share, not on our differences.