Saturday, August 29, 2009

Discourse and dissipative systems

In 1984 Prigogne and Stengers showed that complex systems like hurricanes and ecologies depend for their survival/stability on the flow or dissipation of energy or matter through the system.

It's not immediately obvious, but human social networks are dissipative systems. They depend for their vitality on the richness of the conversations that flow through them, not just verbal conversations but motor activity as well.

Conversations take on many forms ranging from physical interactions such as gestures which are partners in speech and the special cases of bodily communication such as fisticuffs, lovemaking, war, theatre or dance. A social group with no conversation or interaction is by definition no social group at all.

A recent study of student discourse in secondary school classrooms using a team learning system showed the richness of the discourse depends on the kinds of questions teachers ask and in what order.

Closed questions, and questions about stuff beyond our expertise can be conversation killers. All you get is Yes, No, Maybe, Blue or Dunno. Yet sometimes Yes can be a response to an invitation for more interaction. To go somewhere nice for dinner, play baseball or playfully roll in the hay.

Open ended questions kick start your personal Google into action, performing far better than any search engine. Our frontal lobes orchestrate multiple searches in rapid succession. So when we think motor cars we might recall brands (Ford, Toyota BMW etc.), parts of a car (engine, door, wheels, etc.), types (utes, pick-ups, station waggons, 4-wheel drives etc.) or people we know who drive cars (the person who nearly ran into you last week, taxi, truck and bus drivers).

Conversation becomes exciting when collectively we create new combinations of ideas that solve human problems and which foster more human interactivity, which is the discourse equivalent of great sex.

Here's a directed graphs analysis of a rich question where the participants in a conversation stimulate so many "remindings"/"rememberings" in the minds of others, that the system undergoes a structural change....from a group to a team. The blue dots are ideas, the red dots are people who generated no ideas and the black dots are people who generated ideas. The direction of the arrows shows whose "rememberings" were influenced by others.

When we become a top performing team teams/effective groups, it's a shift from chaotic connections to a higher level of organization. Through a process of forming, storming, norming, performing and when it's all over, adjourning.

Everyone is listened to. Leadership is distributed. And we become very creative. Which is what happens to great football and basketball teams, families where the children thrive as well as the best orchestras and the most renowned theater troupes.

So here's a workshop that helps your collective frontal lobes go "gangbusters" and quickly share vital information about each other. Interview each other in pairs, then record and introduce each other for each question:

1. Expectations: What outcomes do you expect from this session? New learning, new perspectives, commitments or relationships.
2. Work: What is your current work? The skills you have, the organization you work for, your learning, travel, highlights.
3. Leisure: What are your interests? Hobbies, sports, games, entertainments, pastimes, leisure, pleasures, community activities)
4. Beliefs: Describe your opinions, beliefs, heroes, archetypes, and political aspirations.
5. Values: What is important to you? What are your personal ideals? What motivates you?
6. Family and Home: What is your situation? Single/married, children, where you live, lifestyle, growing up, early memories.
7. Dislikes: What makes you unhappy, angry or concerned? What you would like to change about the world, your job or your life?
8. Likes: What do you like about your job, family, employer or the world?

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