Conversations

A futuring exercise is nothing more and nothing less than a guided conversation. With the guide being some facilitator who you have agreed to let steer you through a conversation. A strange process, when one thinks about it, when one could just have a conversation.

Conversations are unfortunately a lot less intuitive than one would hope for. They get lost in tangents, they get dominated by one person, they run in circles, they avoid difficult themes or get caught up in them. There are so many ways in which a conversation can get lost. One begins to have some sympathy for the aristocratic sentiment that a conversation is meant to be enjoyed and thus can never come down to any forms of discomfort. So there are many themes of which one does not speak. And thus one avoids speaking about, perhaps, that which really matters.

We spend a lot of time thinking about these processes and how we will guide and facilitate them. There is a process. A series of steps. There are dramatic moments, there are seeds that we plant early to harvest the ideas later on, we steer conversations with subtle and not so subtle prompts, we avoid social interactions that can disrupt, we encourage social interactions that can flower.

Sent on a tangent by a conversation around the developments of various sciences in the middle of the 20th century, we ended up speaking about cybernetics, that field of endeavour that seemed to start with thermostats and targeting mechanisms for artillery and ended up becoming computer science, management theories, the basis for many cognitive science approaches to consciousness and perhaps systems theory in general, and thus something as far from targeting systems as permaculture and regenerative agriculture.

The book that turned up was Gordon Pask, Philosopher Mechanic which, at least in terms of titles, is already a winner. The subtitle, An Introduction to the Cybernetician’s Cybernetician resonates well with the self-referential wonders that we expect from second order cybernetics. In the Chapter “And he was Magic” Ranulph Glanville discusses Pask’s ideas of conversations and interaction, and in particular the conversation as the most fundamentally coherent form of interaction. He lists a number of bullet points about the operational and the inspirational requirements of and for conversations. The operational requirements that Glanville lists are:

  • Willingness to take part.
  • Negotiable and usually shifting topic
  • Creation of differing understandings
  • Statement of understandings through acts of (re)presenting
  • Comparing understandings and understandings of understandings (etc, recursively)
  • Three simultaneous levels: topic, conversation and meta-conversation
  • Ability to switch levels
  • Beginnings and endings

It is interesting that the role of facilitation intervenes here on all three levels. The topics are constrained by the facilitation. Facilitation intervenes with starts and stops and conversational prompts. The meta-conversational aspects of arranging developments of the conversation is also part of the whole facilitation process: in some sense the participants in a futuring exercise can “let themselves go” to a certain extent, ignoring the metaconversational part, as we, the facilitators, take on this role.

There are also inspirational requirements for a conversation.

  • Recognition of differences in understanding and (re)presenting
  • Respect for difference and owner of differences
  • Willingness to listen and to hear
  • Willingness to make own understandings
  • Willingness to not force views
  • Open Mind: willingness to understand and negotiate
  • Opportunism and seeking “the good”
  • Willingness to learn, i.e. allowing change
  • Understanding that all participants own the conversation
  • Willingness to follow the conversation

It is almost as if the conversation is a meta-property of the participants, with its own dynamics that can be supported, liberated, controlled or even destroyed.

The overlap of these qualities with our often-used principles for workshops and futuring exercises is surprisingly large.

This overlap supports the idea that these exercises are conversations. Conversations require that we treat each other as equals, as we have seen when a participant in a futuring exercise has some implicit “power over” others, for instance being a teacher or a supervisor, then the conversation and the development of the process falters and can even halt completely.

Glanville notes that these collections of requirements fall into two general groups, roughly dealing with generosity and with openness. A conversation requires that we are generous with ourselves and that we are open to the generousness of others. He further extrapolates these to two collections of qualities:

  • Generosity, respect, honesty and drama;
  • Openness, imagination, opportunism and wit.

Glanville describes these as the defining characteristics of Gordon Pask, a thinker whom Glanville clearly admires. All in all, it makes one wish there was a chance to spend and evening in conversation with Pask. However we can hope to develop these characteristics in ourselves, in our conversations and in our interactions with others. We can design these characteristics into processes that we design. We can support them in social structures and situations.

For is not a life well led really, in several senses, a series of interesting conversations? There is reason to imagine so.


This reflection is part of our research within Curiouser and Curiouser, cried Alice: Rebuilding Janus from Cassandra and Pollyanna (CCA), an art-based research project of Design Investigations (ID2) at the University of Applied Arts Vienna and Time’s Up, supported by the Programme for Arts-based Research (PEEK) on the part of the Austrian Science Fund (FWF): AR561.

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