Thursday, March 10, 2016

A Connection Language: Dialogue, Methods, Collaboration

A few of you might remember that when I posted my observations from the NCDD conference in October 2014, I mentioned the idea of a "connection language" to interpolate between different dialogue methods.

I've been playing with that idea ever since. I've told about a dozen people about it and gathered feedback. Based on that, I've been working up an elevator pitch to work towards an eventual real project. (Okay, an elevator in a really tall building.) I've been passing this pitch document around in email, but the other day I thought: the blog is hungry, so why not feed it this thing? So here it is. See what you think.

The need

These are some things I’ve noticed over the past several years, as a person who has been developing and promoting a dialogue-based method (participatory narrative inquiry).

People who are interested in dialogue can turn to a large number of useful methods, in the dozens (or hundreds, depending on how you divide them up).

Several excellent lists and frameworks have been built to help people make sense of all these methods. These include the NCDD’s Engagement Streams Framework,, The Change Handbook, Liberating Structures, the Group Works Deck, Tom Atlee's Multi-Process Public Participation Programs, and others. People use these lists and value them.

The number of dialogue methods keeps growing.

I have noticed from conversations with people that:
  • People seem to “shop” for dialogue methods, choose a small number, pay attention to them, and ignore all others.
  • People sometimes act tribally about the methods they have chosen, promoting them as best, acting as if people who also use those methods are on their “team.”
  • When I tell people about the method I work on/with (participatory narrative inquiry, or PNI), I find that there is a U-shaped reaction based on how much experience people have in dialogic practice.
    • People who are unaware of dialogue want to hear about PNI (and PNI only).
    • People who have some (but not that much) experience with dialogue don’t want to hear about yet another method, say they’ve already heard of Appreciative Inquiry (or some other story-based method), and get too busy to talk to me.
    • People with lots of experience want to know how PNI relates to other methods. They want to learn about it so they can consider incorporating some of its ideas into their practice.
  • When people ask me about PNI, they are often surprised when I point them to literature in overlapping fields like participatory theatre and narrative therapy. They find it unique and novel.
My guess is that all of these things relate to Dunbar’s number, that is, the number of relationships people can keep track of. We can be aware of 100-150 methods (our village), but we can be familiar with only about 10-15 (our family). These behaviors – the ignoring, the tribalism, the U-shaped curve of attention, the surprise – all have to do with cognitive limits.

The sociologist Harrison White posits three “species” of interaction among people: selection (choosing among options), mobilization (gaining influence), and commitment (getting things done). When I look at how people use dialogue methods, I see a lot of selection (shopping) and mobilization (tribalism) going on, but very little commitment (making things happen).

I think the world of dialogue needs more commitment interaction.

My concern is that we may be reaching a point where the very instruments we use to bridge differences have developed differences that need to be bridged.

Many dialogue methods are more complementary and synergistic than people (especially newcomers to dialogue) realize.

The most experienced practitioners of dialogue don’t shop for methods, and they don’t promote methods. They grow their own solutions, unique to each need, based on what they learn from all over. Harrison White would say that they work entirely at the commitment level.

In my experience, dialogue is more effective when people know why they are using what they are using, learn from many sources, and can craft unique solutions for unique needs. I would like to see more people doing this.

It should be possible to help more people get to the point of understanding how to grow their own solutions.

I’m surprised how hard it is to find out how different methods are related. The people who developed the methods usually know about relationships among methods, but there is little for the practitioner to find on the subject.

Maybe better information on how dialogue methods are and can be related would help people move beyond the current state of affairs. Maybe it would help people make more informed choices, do less “campaigning” for their favorite methods, listen to people who use different methods more carefully, and create better solutions for their needs.

Based on all of this, I’ve been pondering this question: how can we, as developers of dialogue methods, help people use the synergies they need to make our methods work for them?

I think it’s time to take the next step beyond lists to a networked model that helps people find “yes and” synergies among relevant methods. 

Here’s how I think we could do that. (I don’t know who “we” are at this point. It could be anybody.)

The idea

Christopher Alexander is rightly revered for his idea of a pattern language, a structured way to talk about patterns in – anything.
"... the elements of this language are entities called patterns. Each pattern describes a problem which occurs over and over again in our environment, and then describes the core of the solution to that problem, in such a way that you can use this solution a million times over, without ever doing it the same way twice."
You could say that dialogue methods are like patterns, because they present solutions for common problems. In fact, the Group Works Deck treats them exactly as such. [Edit: This isn't exactly correct. Tree Bressen, one of the originators of the Group Works Deck, says that it represents "underlying patterns and similarities" that make up dialogue methods (not the methods themselves).]

I think we could take the idea of a pattern language and apply it to relationships between methods. I’ve been calling this idea a connection language.

By creating a web of pairwise connection patterns, we could build a learning network people could “walk around on” to better understand how dialogue methods are related and to find the best combinations of solutions for their needs. Because a connection language would create explicit relationships between methods, people would be able to move beyond shopping and tribalism. They would be able to move into a more effective, committed use of the available methods for their unique needs.

The basic idea of the connection language is simple. In Alexander’s terms, a connection language ought to ask, “What problems can these methods address, and what solutions can they provide, together?” The answer to that question is a connection pattern. Through a dialogic process, two or more people who represent paired methods work together to describe how the two methods are similar, different, and complementary, and how the methods can be (and have been) used together. A collection of these connection patterns creates a connection language.

Alexander and his co-authors called their book A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction. As I see it, dialogue is the town we are building together; our methods are the buildings; and collaboration is how we are building them (and how we are connecting them). (I had "approaches" in the place of "methods," but methods seem more like buildings. "Approach" is too nebulous a word. But it could be the right word anyway.)

The process

The process of connection pattern creation, to be carried out by two people or groups who volunteer to represent each method, might have a structure something like this.
  1. Reflect. The two people/groups send each other a few brief but essential documents to review. Each person reads and highlights words, phrases, and sentences that stand out as resonating (yes we do that too), contrasting (that’s different), or just interesting (you do that?).
  2. Share. The two people/groups have a physical or online meeting to talk about the words and phrases they highlighted in each other's documents. They use these markings as a means to explore how the two methods are similar, different, complementary, and synergistic.
  3. Build. As the people emerge from their discussion, they create a first draft of a connection pattern (see below for its structure).
  4. Refine. As they improve the pattern, the people open it up to others, to add more detail and to test its utility.
The pattern

A connection pattern might have a structure something like this.
  • Introduction. The pattern starts with a brief introduction to each method that explains its purpose (why it exists), its origin and context of development (where it came from), its core concepts (the ideas it relies on), its practical uses (what it's good for), and its limitations (what it's not meant to do). Note that this part of the pattern only has to be written once for each method. However, the parallel structure keeps methods from veering off into their own ways of describing themselves, and it helps people compare methods on equal terms.
  • Table. Next there is a table that links the two methods together. This is the crux of the pattern. The columns have the titles "Similar" and "Contrasting". The rows cover goals, history, concepts, and techniques. In the cells are brief summaries of ways in which the two methods are similar and different/complementary in each area. (See the example table below.)
  • Dictionary. The major terms unique to each method are defined in language that makes sense to people who know only about the other method.
  • Diagram. An optional diagram shows how the two methods are related visually. The exact form of this diagram emerges out of the discussion between the two people/groups representing the methods.
  • Case studies. These are real or imagined stories about the two methods being used together. Ideas are suggested and experiments are described where the methods are used in various ways (e.g., sequentially, with ideas from one influencing the other, with phases interleaved together, etc).
The language

I envision the connection language being built on a web site, with a semantic wiki (a wiki with forms) providing structure. I would also like to see opportunities for practitioners to have conversations and ask questions about using dialogue methods together.

The obvious difficulty in building such a site is that if there are 100 methods there would be 5000 pairs of methods. My feeling is that the people who choose to represent a method (its developers, people who use it a lot, people who champion it) would take on the responsibility of choosing some number of connections they think are the most useful. Some combinations would “cry out” to be examined more than others, and I expect that eventually a critical mass would emerge.

Along with lists of links on each page, I envision a visual navigation system that looks something like, where clicking on the lines between methods leads to viewing the relevant connection patterns. We might even be able to annotate the visual diagram with summaries like “whole system in the room” (similarity) or “big versus small groups” (difference) or “gather stories first, then brainstorm lists” (complementarities).

My original idea for making the connection language happen was to gather a task force of people who think this is a good idea, and get each of them to contribute a small amount of time and money to get the site going. (It would cost a little to host the site.) However, I’ve been thinking lately that the idea might be better supported by some collective entity that is already helping people with dialogue. The project would reach more people that way, and it might gather more contributors than I can gather on my own.

If anybody has ideas about how such a project could come to pass, please let me know. I don’t have any need to “own” the idea, and even though I’d like to get some credit, I’m happy to share the idea and project with anybody who thinks it’s worth pursuing.

An example

To test some of the ideas I describe above, I worked with Stephen Sillett of Aiding Dramatic Change in Development to create a first-draft table for a connection pattern between Participatory Narrative Inquiry and Socio-Drama Topography. SDT is a large-group facilitation process that draws on participatory theatre, sensemaking, and narrative to create "deep, open, and strategically relevant conversations." SDT is "designed to reduce barriers to participation faced by marginalized communities, including those relating to varying levels of literacy."

I include this table (with permission) as an illustration of the kind of resource that might come out of the connection language process.

Interaction among levels. Both methods create interactions between micro, meso, and macro levels.

Bottom-up. Both methods attempt to drop down below the meso layer and include participants at the micro level.

Pre-decision. Both methods focus on exploration, listening, and sharing in advance of decision making, not on decision making itself.
Reality vs imagination. SDT, on a spectrum from representations of reality to aesthetic resonance (imagination), lies more in aesthetic/performative and less in reality. PNI starts in reality and moves partly into imagination (but not that far).

Scope. SDT focuses on building strategic capacity. SDT is a large group process that makes sense in relation to a defined theme/context in which it is strategically deployed. The journey within the workshop has been designed upfront to get the most out of the 3 days (people are being asked to make a big commitment of time). In contrast, PNI is not focused on capacity; it is focused on helping people make better decisions (large or small). Though PNI projects can be large and can build capacity, PNI more typically “scales down” to fit into the available opportunities for story work, which range in time and mode of interaction.

Depth. If completely extractive work (e.g., survey-based research) is on one end of a spectrum (call it 1) and fully immersive experiences are at the other end (call it 10), SDT has its center at about 7, and PNI has its center at about 5. PNI attempts to create a bridge between shallow and deep exploration by ranging across the spectrum within one project (from shallow, wide story collection to deep, local sensemaking). SDT bridges a similar gap by gradually drawing (the same) people closer to a deeper experience.
Participation. Both SDT and PNI have sought since their beginnings to enable participants to be the drivers of sensemaking and meaning making.
Context of development. PNI arose in corporations centered on decision making. This is one reason it works with minimal participation, grudging permission to include everyone, and short time frames.  SDT arose in opening up youth to participate in forum theatre in communities. This is one reason it builds on creativity and passion in its participants.

Parent fields. SDT is arts-based; PNI is research-based.
Ground truth. Both methods focus on depth of insight, ground truth, and personal experiences.

Play. Both methods use the power of play, “the partial suspension of the rules of the real,” to help people create positive change.

Adaptation. Both SDT and PNI are processes whose design is adapted to particular themes and contexts.

Performance. SDT has a strong performative component. PNI can include performative elements, and has some weaker manifestations of performance (e.g., during sensemaking), but performance is not the core of PNI.

Geography. Having a common geographical area is central to SDT. It is not important to PNI.

Dialogue. Both processes are dialogical; but SDT is intentionally dialogical (using aspects of Bohm dialogue), while PNI relies on the innately dialogical social structures of story sharing.

Cycles. In SDT, much attention is paid to cycles during which the project is tested and matures. In PNI there is less attention to longer-term cycles. PNI projects do sometimes feed in to later projects, but there is less of a long-term expectation of continuity.

Participation. PNI runs on "micro-participation," emphasizing breadth over depth (at least at first, during story collection). SDT runs on "macro-participation," emphasizing depth over breadth. PNI “makes do” with whatever participation/permission it can gather; SDT gathers the participation/permission it needs.

Locality. SDT is "hyperlocal." PNI can be hyperlocal, but it can also be broad and shallow.
Landscapes. Both SDT and PNI include the group creation of a physical map or landscape.  (But see the “Landscapes” difference.)
Numbers of people. SDT works in large groups of 20 or more, attempting to get “the whole system in the room.” PNI works with varied levels of participation and group sizes; typically many people tell stories (possibly hundreds), but fewer work with stories in groups (anywhere from several to 50). In PNI the stories represent the people who are not present (sometimes because they are not willing or able to be present, sometimes because others don’t want them to be present).

Non-verbal communication. SDT has strong elements of non-verbal communication. PNI does include a little non-verbal communication during sensemaking (the creation of physical artifacts), but this is not a core of the practice.

Landscapes. In SDT, creating a landscape is at the core of the method. In PNI, creating a landscape is one of several possible sensemaking exercises. In SDT the landscape is gegraphical and conceptual combined. In PNI the landscape is not usually geographical.

Space. SDT, because it makes use of physical space in its processes, places great emphasis on the physical space in which engagement occurs. PNI needs space for its activities, but has lesser requirements for the quality of the space (because it is not used in the same way).

Training. SDT, because it is a large-group process that typically takes on large, long-term projects, has greater training needs than PNI. To address these needs, SDT seeks to train up local staff for greater sustainability. PNI tends to start with small projects and grow in ambition over time as practitioners become more skilled. On large, ambitious PNI projects, helpers may be trained, but this is not common.


The connection language idea is still in its infancy. I’m eager to connect with people who want to make it happen. I’m open to many ideas about how it should develop and where it should end up. I think it’s an idea the world needs. What do you think?