Saturday, February 16, 2008

Email & queuing, versus chat & discussion

I was at a recent meeting of experienced community organizers, where no one was in a particularly good mood. An event had been postponed, and there was some disagreement about how this happened. The facilitator kept discussion in a queue -- people motioned to speak, and then were placed on the waiting list. This is common "government committee" protocol in the US.

But, unfortunately, people took a turn, made a little speech, and then the next person made a little speech ... and the divisions among opinions were growing ever wider. There were many reasons for this, but one of the major forces was the fact that we weren't having a discussion. No one was really talking with another person ... everyone was talking at the group, instead.

Without open discussion, without the opportunity to agree with small points that someone makes leading up to a conclusion, there is no easy synthesis. If everyone makes speeches, and there's no other discussion, everything seems controversial, because there'll be a tremendous effort to resolve even small divergences in opinion. There's no opportunity to talk about what everyone agrees with, and the whole picture, the gestalt, becomes lost.

Email is much the same way -- quite infamous for causing argument between people who would never fight in person. Email provides no micro-communication, no room for those small gestures that ensure good faith and mutual understanding. Without these small favors, there's no foundation on which to interpret an email in a positive light.

In the same way, IM (or "chat") rarely blows up the way e-mail does. The communications are so small, as small as a smiley, or an ellipsis, that the conversation almost always corrects itself, if both parties are honestly trying to be reasonable ...

Really, it's the shortness of the communication cycle, that makes chat work better than email. And it's lack of short communication, that makes the normal speech-driven political meeting into something quite aggressive. The real work of synthesis gets done in micro-conversations, in hallways and aisles and conference rooms, not at the lectern.

We may need both ... the queue is a nice way to make sure everyone gets heard. But it's a slow, painful, contentious approach to actually solving problems. For resolution and synthesis, fair discussion beats rules-of-order, any day. We should be used to regularly switching back-and-forth, and have mechanisms in meetings to facilitate this.

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