Last week, I had the privilege to keynote a conference in Daejeon, Korea, hosted by the Brain Science Research Center at KAIST (the MIT of Korea) and sponsored by several organizations based in the Pacific Rim, including the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, the Asian Office of Aerospace R and D, the Global Office of Naval Research, the National Science Foundation, and the Artificial Cognitive System Project of Korea. The topic of the conference was "Etiology and Impact of 'Digital Natives' on Cultures, Commerce, and Societies." My talk was on the science of attention and the way it pertains to kids today.
I've blogged about the conference and on Korea several times over the last week but today I want to mention a tactic for communication that I learned at this conference and that we should all be trying in all group situations. A word to academics: these military folks do it better than we do! The method was simple, a keynote, followed by questions, then a coffee break, then a "Cognitive Mixer" where we talked in small groups, then a return to the group as a whole to report on what we talked about in small groups, and then lunch or dinner, and then we began the process again. Simple enough.
What I had not experienced before was this particular method for dealing with contention. We were told that, if ever there was a public conversation that seemed too heated without being filled with illuminating insights, the moderator would call for an impromptu coffee break and ask us all to talk together about the issue at hand. Most important, those engaged in the heated discussion would talk together, not in front of the whole audience but face to face.
Magic! In a public debate, it is typical for participants to each hold ever more firmly to their own position, to not even hear the other person. However, if you take the same debaters and remove them from the public situation and allow them to sit and have coffee together and give them time to really discuss their ideas, with the idea that they will then come back and report, it does not necessarily minimize disagreement, but it emphatically minimizes the posturing. They discover, for example, that a key point in one person's disagreement might actually be a minor point for the other person. As they are fulminating to a crowd, that is not apparent to anyone, including to the debaters. Often positions become defended, entrenched and dogmatic, even when the opponent isn't really concerned with that particular position. So the public debate is doubly ineffective as real communication, missing as interaction and missing as marshalling of the evidence.
The point is that people perform themselves differently at opposite ends of a room, in front of an audience, than they do face-to-face. And they perform themselves differently once again when they are asked to talk something out and then perform the result of their discussion for the benefit of others. That last part puts them on the same team, explaining their differences, instead of as antagonists, battling them out for those in the grandstand, so to speak. It's a fascinating dynamic, the way we alter our patterns for our public and private exchanges. We do not think about it enough when we consider the ways we act together collectively, whether in face to face meetings such as this one or in our various and ever-changing roles interacting online.
This "time out to think" idea is one that I wish we could apply to every public gathering, whether it be a conference or a PTA meeting or a town council meeting or in a classroom or in a Senate debate on, let's say, health care reform. I urge you to try it at your next contentious meeting. Once again, the concept itself has to be introduced to the whole gathering. A moderator has to be willing to step in and call the coffee break. And the moderator has to be willing to take the contentious parties to a comfortable place to really talk through ideas so they can present, together, the substance of their private conversation later on to the group. It is conceivable that there will still be posturing and grandstanding, but I'm betting that, in many situations, this is an excellent method. We all need to be thinking about more civil ways that we can communicate and this one really worked for our meeting in South Korea. I bet it will work for you too. Try it! And let me know how it works.