Are conversations emergent? Are ALL conversations emergent?

Discussion at the 1st International Workshop on Complexity and Real World Applications, Botleigh Grange Hotel, Southampton, 21-23 July 2010

Present:  Mark McKergow, Ed Olsen, Eileen Conn, Stefanos Michiotis, Martin Reynolds and others

Mark McKergow convened this discussion to explore the broad question of ‘are conversations emergent?’.  During the workshop we had been shown several conversational tools which claimed (no doubt correctly) to ‘tap into complexity’ or work with it in some way.  Mark wanted to explore whether a special kind of conversation was required to do this, or whether ordinary everyday conversations were emergent, and therefore embraced complexity too.

Mark started by outlining George Rzevski’s seven criteria for complexity.  Conversations seemed to match these criteria:

Interaction of agents – clearly present in a conversation, by definition (taking a person as an ‘agent’)

  • Autonomy of the agents (but not too much) – each party has some freedom of choice in the next conversational turn, within the structure of grammar in use
  • Emergence – which we are discussing here
  • Far from equilibrium – this is an interesting point – what would an equilibrium conversation look like?  Perhaps stuck in a rut?
  • Non-linearity – conversations have a non-linear aspect to them, they do not always evolve steadily
  • Self-organisation – a conversation self-organises, within a grammatical structure (which might be seen as providing the container for emergence)
  • Co-evolution – the conversation (and the participants) co-evolve as the conversation progresses – each turn depending on the turns preceding it and therefore the context at the time

Stefanos wondered if there might be some stereotypical conversations which did not really emerge – they were always the same, up to a point.  Meaning emerged when conversations took a different turn.  Some conversations were very boring.  Mark wondered about rituals – where words are used to reaffirm some kind of meaning or community rather than create new meanings.

Ed brought Hamlet’s famous soliloquy into our discussion, and wondered whether a monologue might be emergent.  Does Hamlet, at the start of his speech, know where he is going to end up?  No.

Eileen took this on to internal ‘dialogues’ – might these too be emergent.  We generally thought that they were.  Mark drew a diagram to show his view of how a conversation emerges.  This is a very simple conversation between two people.

  • Turn 1 (Hello Eileen!) – has lots of possible grammatical responses, from which the other participant picks one.
  •  Turn 2 (Good afternoon Mark, how are you?) – which has lots of possible responses from which the first participant picks one
  •  Turn 3 (Fine thanks.  Have you seen Ed lately?) – which has lots of possible responses, etc etc

Notice that each turn is taken in the context of the previous turns, so a whole set of possible futures is present at each step, some of which are cut off by the choice of the next turn.  However, new possibilities also enter at each turn.

We also discussed what happens when one talks uninterrupted to a live listener, and the difference that the presence of the listener makes.  ‘Conversation’, we decided, includes all the non-verbal gestures, nodding, etc.  Martin mentioned the work of Chris Argyris on ‘defensive routines’ and how management teams could use these as a way of suppressing emergence by going into familiar ground which kept certain topics undiscussable.

Conclusions:  We decided that conversations which generate new meaning are certainly emergent.  These can be very everyday conversations – indeed, the potential for emergence is always present, even if not realised.  To quote from Ralph Stacey (2007):

the thematic patterning of conversation is iterated over time as both repetition and potential transformation at the same time.  However, this potential need not always be realized.  …Change can only emerge in fluid forms of conversation.  However, it is important to understand that fluid conversation is not some pure form of polar opposition to repetition. (Stacey 2007, pp 283-284)

This being the case, it is not necessary to use such special methods as Open Space, ‘deep’ discussion, etc to work with complexity (though such methods may be useful).

Conversations as complex, not just metaphorically but actually

This way of looking at conversations – and hence organisations – seems to me to go beyond the metaphorical, and starts to treat conversations as complex in their own right.  This seems to be a distinct way of viewing complexity in organisations and people, alongside the use of complexity in computational tools (a la Rzevski) and complexity as a metaphor to help understand why things are the way they are (as many of the facilitative methods discussed in the workshop showed).


2 responses

  1. Very interesting. The idea of looking at internal ‘dialogues’ within the framework of complexity and emergence got me thinking. In conflict situations these internal ‘dialogues’ are almost by default negative and often/most times worst case scenarios. What would emerge if we could turn this around in terms of possibilities and solutions? How would that impact on our ‘reality’? This goes wider than the scope of the workshop – I think. It presents though some interesting possibilities for creating a positive future when dialogues can become actions.

  2. Hi Stanus, interesting points. I do think that dialogues ARE actions, although they are not often perceived as such. I wonder if most internal dialogues are negative, this is why we need so much to have the external interactional positive ones too?

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