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Notes on Practical Communications Theory

Originally contributed to the NCDD Event Blog in 2008 by David Messerschmidt…

What follows are David Messerschmidt’s notes from the workshop on “Practical Communications Theory” at the 2008 NCDD Conference in Austin.  The session was co-facilitated by Barnett Pearce, Professor at Fielding Graduate University; Kimberly Pearce, Professor at De Anza College and co-founder of The Public Dialogue Consortium and Pearce Associates; and Linda Blong, Program Co-Leader of the Dialogue, Deliberation and Public Engagement Certificate Program at Fielding Graduate University.

Two days shrinks to two hours.

Pay attention to “tension,” as part of a complex system.  The focus is looking through the lens of communication.

Coordinated Management of Meaning (CMM) – is the theoretical model underpinning the discussion.

The Big Idea/s

Barnett Pearce –  “How do you handle the tensions in your practice?”   Start with the beginning of the sentence–How do you?

(With a pause to reorganize a full and growing group in the room)

Coordinated Management of Meaning (CMM) Barnett has a two part cartoon — The Police officer offering directions (we see the map in his head) and the pedestrian listening to the directions (we see the map in his head). The two maps are not the same. “Communication, according to Barnett, ” is a way of doing things.” There are deeper possibilities beyond the confusion about “getting directions.”

What are other ways of seeing communication. According to Barnett, they are two goals.

  1. Making meaning. (The story is created)
  2. Coordinating actions.  (We are mutual actors )

What is left out of the picture?

Connection. What the person does next. The meaning making comes from the exchange.

Next example–a graphic published in 1898. A duck. A rabbit.

Heuristic–look at it this way.

Making the social world.

Doing a script. Two participants read a script with eight pieces of dialogue.

What is getting made as they read.  They are not talking about “Sarah Palin.” They are talking about each other.

Barnett: “We never do one thing at a time.”  We’re living context and relationship all the time.

Question from a participant – Who/what do the two members of the conversation fear?

We can see the communication and choose to change it. We recognize that the world can have many different meanings.

Two CMM – heuristics.

Kim Pearce picks up. One of the primary things we are trying to make in our work–making good things happen. Figure out ways forward.

The Daisy model- a way to thing about a complex situation.

Three people coordinating the workshop they would give.

  • People who want tools
  • People who want conceptual ideas
  • People with a research interest.

Linda Blong, in her recently completed Ph.D dissertation, looked at National Issues Forums over two years and the role of the moderator.

Context — Starts later than expected, there are interruptions.

The petals of the flower are all elements of concern to one or more of the people in a conversation/project planning mode.

Question: This is the starting point for the conversation.

Comment from group–It allowed all of you to be much more fully present in the process for planning.

Comment – “When we are communications, we are trying to get some place”

Kim – This is about a way of having a conversation, because it mattered. It can honor difference in starting perspective.

Linda – Asking questions in other parts of the world where having an answers and being nice are the priorty–not the accuracy or quality of the information in the response.

Suddenly we’re talking “flour” and ingredients rather then “Flower” with petals which map/highlight possible concerns. The visual is about putting thinking in the foreground.

Barnett – How will we design this meeting. It is a reminder, a heuristic for continuing work.

“We are trying to make communication visible.”

Kim – The practical – we could start with a “beginning icebreaker.”  Perhaps we list “hopes.

From audience – mind mapping.

Barnett–Every action is an action in multible conversations.

From the audience member:  “How do we communicate when some in the audience are not skilled communicators.”

Linda – Focused on moderator — turn by turn. The question – “What were the moderators making.”

What are we doing is answered — we are creating an episode.  “We are trying to make certain kinds of episodes.” The moderator is wrestling the tension.

What epsiode work is the moderator doing to facilitate deliberation.”

The big pitcture finding, There is a moderators’ dilemma.

Literally the moderator is trying to create what the moderator gets in the way of.

Moderator, group turn; Moderator, group turn.

“One of the things I was interested in doing is using CMM to provide a vocabulary for talking about what is happening. ”

Participant comment – “In the practical word. How is this applied.”

Linda – “These were experienced moderators. They were able to move the conversation to a deliberation.”

Question – How do we come back to this.

Barnett response – “I’ve dealt with city people (electeds) who want to come to a decision”  (paraphased) with as low an investment of thinking time as possible.  That’s an invitation to come come back to this issue, year, after year, after year, after year.  Because we don’t go deeper.

Linda: “Meeting skills sets do multible things. We want to be certain to look at the tensions”

Question: : “Have you looked at it in the conversation cafe model?”

Linda responded say no, but you could, and you should. It would be valuable.

Comment: All these chairs are petals.

Comment: “You are talking about wholeness in you whole ability to show up.” After a long thread…about listing to two tuning forks, and focusing on the individual sound of each.

Comment: In dealing with large public process, there is a need for process and product. This is a public process development process. ”

Comment that referenced John Gastil distinguishing dialogue and deliberation–the first focuses on understanding; and the ladder is makind a shared decision.

We’ve gone into a series of comments, actually dialogue. It is compelling, but challenging to capture at this point. I want to draw lessons now.

The Daisy Model — is a useful map, a started map for a conversation.

The Serpentine Model – The patterns that are back and forth, action and reaction, mapped so it can by understood. And acted on.

Barnett — We’re always dealing with tension. There isn’t a five step plan. There are tools to help us deal with it.

Kim – You can design the event differently. We can be mindful.

In designing dialogue and deliberation events, we need to address the “tensions” that are part of any project. Coordinated Managed of Meaning (CMM) offers a framework for thinking through design.

What I haven’t synthesized yet is  event design rooted in the model represented by Fred Friendly Seminars. Friendly, former president of CBS News, left the network to teach at Columbia University. While there, he developed seminars to explore may public issues.  His design required “tension.” He described his goal: “…to make the agony of decision-making so intense you can escape only by thinking.”

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  1. Ian Blei says:

    Although the daisy model has the advantage of a "hub" connecting the petal/concerns, it is still basically a "list" with a hub of organizational heading or unifying theme.

    Before content can really be effectively "slogged through," I think the initial model needs to be one of process. By working with a model of the process of communicating, we eliminate an incredible amount of time working through the content to tease the process out of that content.

    When I know that you organize data through a lens of "rightness" or "safety/security," or "identity in the world," I can hear your content without trying to make it fit my organizational formulative process, and it can co-exist next to my content without friction or contradiction.

    Once a process of communication is in place like this, we are free to dialogue without power struggles, tugs of war, judgments, etc. It becomes effective and efficient together.

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