Archive for collaboration

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.