Sunday, October 20, 2013

The New Vulcan Mind Meld

Listening Instead of Telling, Hans Heesterbeek’s excellent blog post, inspired me to write a long-planned essay on the importance and practice of listening. But then I came across the following letter from Mr. Spock, precipitated by a recent controversy in New York State. What you would add or change to Mr. Spock’s advice? Please comment below.

An open letter from Spock to State Education Department Commissioner John King

Stardate 2456583

Dear Commissioner King

Your recent experience at the public forum on New York State’s Common Core Standards, where you faced a barrage of shouted, angry criticism, is an example of righteous efforts – on both sides – escalating beyond what is good.

What was at the core of this unfortunate situation? I believe your eminent linguist, S. I. Hayakawa, was insightful when he said, “Underlying virtually all our attempts to bring agreement is the assumption that agreement is brought about by changing other people’s minds.” Instead, the basis for building effective solutions comes from understanding each other.

As a Vulcan, my long-instilled training and lifetime practice in logic divorced from emotion has enabled me to find the meaning in what people say without reacting to how they said it. It enables me to explore all aspects of a situation without the distorting bias of my own assumptions. While this method has served me well, there is none more fully effective for understanding others than the Vulcan Mind Meld. It enables me to enter the mind of another, to join our minds.

As you may know, even among Vulcans, this method requires great skill that comes from years of intentional training and practice. Nonetheless, I would like to recommend to you and your fellow humans a method of similar potential, accessible to all. Outlined below, I call it The New Vulcan Mind Meld.
  • Start by telling yourself you want to understand and learn from the other person. Make a conscious effort to understand, not just what they are saying, but where they are coming from, their understanding of the world, and how their ideas all come together to make sense for them. Not so you can find a flaw in their faith or reasoning, not so you can find a leverage point to change their thinking, but so you can understand and learn from them. You might try the Vulcan prescription, “My mind to your mind, my thoughts to your thoughts,” or perhaps the Spanish proverb, “Every head is a world.”

  • Even when you believe you understand someone or something, exercise some doubt. Consider that your understanding may still be incorrect or incomplete. This will enable you to keep an open mind and to continue to learn. If you really want to understand something, you can’t believe it. Invoke the Talmudic teaching, “Teach your tongue to say ‘I don’t know.’”

  • Enrich your understanding by learning from people with different backgrounds and perspectives. Singular points of view and simple explanations are easy to understand and the solutions they yield are easy to implement. But that doesn’t make them right or good. Learn and appreciate the complexity of your world. As it says in your Sayings of the Fathers, “Who is wise? One who learns from every person.”

  • Answering someone’s question assumes you understood it. It is not necessary or even useful that you answer every question. It is more important that you clarify and understand the question and why it makes a difference to the person who asked it. Find the commonalities, not just the differences. In my experience with humans, I have found too often that the few differences among you far overshadow the many things you have in common. (An example of this, which I’m told humans find humorous, is given by Emo Phillips.)

  • Find a teacher, a guide, a person who is expert in this method of communication. Because it is so different from your prevailing norms, it will help to have someone who can steward this method, especially when you are working in groups. This individual will not take a position, favor one party over another, or be concerned about the outcome. Rather, their role will be only to facilitate the process.
I suspect that adversarial, polarized, divisive, exclusionary, competitive ways of working have a tenacious hold on your species. Nonetheless, and all the more, you must try to work together. With the sad recognition that yours is not the only situation on earth that warrants this advice, please share this letter widely and develop its ideas more fully.

With sincere appreciation for the delights and difficulties of human communication,
Live long and prosper.


Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Meaning of Wilderness

The debate in New York's Adirondack Mountains region had become increasingly polarized; interpersonal and interorganizational relationships had deteriorated. The Public Conversations Project convened a group of about 20 environmentalists, developers, forest industry people, sportsmen, and others with diverse views. The aim of the dialogue was to have individuals, however polarized their viewpoints, come together for two days as people, rather than as parties or positions, and understand each other. People were to attend voluntarily as individuals, not as representatives of organizations or constituencies.

Given the potential volatility of the meeting they were asked to explicitly agree to a set of ground rules detailed in the invitational letter. One of the ground rules stated “… avoid making negative attributions not only about those in the room, but also those not present.” This was especially important in this case because some attendees at previous dialogues in this region had verbally attacked others.

Well into the meeting, the conversation turned to the topic of wilderness and its implications for the future of the region. Some participants expressed the view that wilderness areas did not contribute to the regional economy and were not valued by residents. Others felt that wilderness areas were essential to maintaining the environmental and economic character of the region. One individual, Jeff, asserted, “the people who support wilderness areas are outsiders, they don't live here; local residents who have to make their living here don't see any value in wilderness.” In response, Betty claimed, “I know hundreds of residents who support wilderness!” To which Jeff snapped, “I don't think you even have a hundred friends!"

As facilitator I interrupted abruptly and alerted the group to this violation of ground rules. I physically turned to John, who was sitting away from the fray and asked him, “what comes to mind when you think of wilderness?” He replied, “Pristine, untouched lands where one can observe nature on its own terms.” I asked if anyone had a different interpretation. From across the room another participant said, “I had in mind what it says in the Adirondack Park Agency law, that a wilderness area is a designated area in which motor vehicles are not permitted; there can be trails and lean-tos, just no motor vehicles.”

I turned back to Betty and asked her which definition she had in mind when she said she knew hundreds of residents who supported wilderness. “The definition in the law,” she replied. Then I asked Jeff, and he replied, “the pristine wilderness.” I followed up with him and asked, “do you think that residents support the designation of areas in which no motor vehicles are allowed?” “Yes,” he replied. I paused and then remarked, “So hurtful words were spoken because there were different meanings in use for the same term.” I paused for a long time, resisting the temptation to ask Jeff if he wanted to apologize, and hoping that he would, but none was forthcoming.

I felt good that I intervened immediately before there was any escalation in this potentially volatile situation. Also, I felt I had done an outstanding job in diagnosing a potential source of miscommunication, the meaning attached to the word wilderness, and I turned out to be correct. Nonetheless I felt that I failed to adequately address the basic violation of the ground rule, nor did I help the group deal with it emotionally. In a way, by dealing with the conflict substantively I undermined the ability of the group to deal with it interpersonally.

Professor Russell Martin drilled into me as an undergraduate, “meanings are in people not in words.” When there is conflict ascertain if it is genuine, or based on miscommunication. If the conflict involves the use of a particular word or phrase, define it; to avoid the misconceptions that are created when multiple meanings are inferred from the same word, stop using the word and instead use its longer definitions.

© 2000 Sandor Schuman. Permission is granted to use or adapt this story so long as the title above is used and attribution is given to the author. For suggestions on how to use stories like this in training workshops, see my post on Stop Action Storytelling.

The Unaccustomed Participant

I never knew who this guy was, but even before the meeting started he sought me out. Undoubtedly he had just arrived from the airport for this big meeting we were running for the Federal Emergency Management Agency on the Great Flood of '93, when the Mississippi overflowed its banks for months. He walked right up to me, a mass of curly black hair, green-canvas backpack slung over one shoulder. He extended his hand, not to shake mine, but to push a computer disk in my face. “This is my recommendation,” he said, “I need to print this out.”

I was taken aback. Perhaps he didn't understand how these meetings worked. I explained, “We're not ready for recommendations yet. We have 150 experts coming here from all over the country. This afternoon we'll start our bus tour, visiting various disaster sites to learn the specifics of this situation. Tomorrow we'll return here and split up into eight different work groups, each focusing on a different problem area. The day after we'll develop consensus recommendations. Recommendations before we even get started would be premature.” Frustrated, he turned away.

The participants toured agricultural lands that had been flooded, levies that had been breached, buildings whose ground floors were filled with mud left by receding waters, whole villages that had been submerged. They returned to the Hazard Mitigation Conference with a first-hand understanding of the disaster far deeper than one gained by reading the newspaper or watching television news reports. They set to work in their groups, following the detailed procedure we had laid out for analyzing the problems and developing recommendations. Each group had it own facilitator, and they came to me if they ran into any problems.

It wasn't long before one of the facilitators came to me during a coffee break. “There's one guy in my group who is a real pain,” she said. “He doesn't seem to understand the process; he's very impatient. Could you talk to him? He's that guy over there with the curly black hair and the backpack.”

I talked to him again. I assured him that he would be able to present his recommendation, but that he had to work with the rest of his group. The others were perhaps not as far along in their thinking as he was and he had to work with them. He appeared to calm down.

I heard from that facilitator many times during the conference, sharing with me her frustrations with this participant. Finally, she reported with some relief that the whole group was fed up with this guy's quirky and disruptive behavior, that he was a real – let me say – “unaccustomed participant,” and that they were just ignoring him.

Ultimately each group developed a series of recommendations, posted on the walls of its work area on flip chart paper. In the next stage, each group visited each of the other seven groups. They could comment on the other groups' recommendations and even add new ones if they thought a particular idea had been omitted. It was only at this stage that our “unaccustomed participant” – rejected by his own group, but persistent nonetheless – conformed to our procedure and wrote his recommendation on a sheet of flip chart paper and posted it on the wall with the others.

The final step involved the assessment of priorities. There were a couple of hundred recommendations, and we asked the participants to choose twenty that were most important. Each participant received twenty sticky dots – half-inch self-adhesive paper circles – and they could wander around the conference floor, visiting each group's recommendations, putting a sticky dot on each of the twenty recommendations that they felt were most important.

We counted up the sticky dots and arranged the recommendations in priority order. The participants came together in one large group and reviewed the results – the top recommendations plastered all over the front wall. There was general affirmation that these were the most important recommendations. Various individuals offered summary comments and closing insights. Then everyone went back to the airport, to their home base.

Afterwards, the troubled facilitator with the “unaccustomed participant” approached me. “Did you notice the recommendation at the top of the list, the one with the most votes?” “Yes,” I replied, “it's a great recommendation. It gets to the very heart of the problem; among all the recommendations it's the only one that presents a long-term strategy for the prevention of great floods like this one. That recommendation came from your group, didn't it?” “Yes, and no,” she replied. “That recommendation came from the man with the curly black hair and the backpack.”

© 2000 Sandor Schuman. Permission is granted to use this story so long as the title above is used and attribution is given to the author. For suggestions on how to use stories like this in training workshops, see my post on Stop Action Storytelling.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Interdisciplinary Network for Group Research (INGRoup)

The Interdisciplinary Network for Group Research (INGRoup) Conference will take place July 17-19, 2014 at the Renaissance Raleigh North Hills Hotel, Raleigh, NC, USA. Here is an excerpt from the call for papers:
Societies are dependent on the formation and utilization of groups and teams, making them relevant to countless aspects of life. Accordingly, scholars who study groups can be found across a wide array of disciplines (e.g., anthropology, communication, education, engineering, history, information systems, medicine, nursing, organizational behavior, philosophy, psychology, political science, public health, sociology). The Interdisciplinary Network for Group Research (INGRoup) was created to provide a context for scholars to:
  • Promote communication about groups and te ams research across fields and nations
  • Advance understanding about group dynamics through research
  • Advance theory and methods for understanding groups and teams
  • Promote interdisciplinary research
The 9th Annual INGRoup Conference will be held so scholars across disciplines can come together, share information, and learn from one another. The conference program will include paper, poster, symposia, and panel sessions, a keynote address, and a business meeting open to all members so the future of INGRoup can be collectively planned and shaped.
The 2014 INGRoup Call for Papers can be found here.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

International Facilitation Week

International Facilitation Week is October 21-27, 2013. Sponsored by the International Association of Facilitators (IAF), it “celebrates the power of facilitation and facilitators to help people in businesses, government and local communities work together more effectively.” More information and resources for International Facilitation Week can be found here.

As part of the event, IAF has a special membership offer for those who join the Association before October 27, 2013. I am a recipient of IAF’s Lifetime Membership Award, and heartily recommend IAF membership and participation in its professional development conferences and resources.