Skilful conversations for integration

By Rebecca Freeth and Liz Clarke

1. Rebecca Freeth (biography)
2. Liz Clarke (biography)

Interdisciplinary collaboration to tackle complex problems is challenging! In particular, interdisciplinary communication can be very difficult – how do we bridge the gulf of mutual incomprehension when we are working with people who think and talk so very differently from us? What skills are required when mutual incomprehension escalates into conflict, or thwarts decision making on important issues?

It is often at this point that collaborations lose momentum. In the absence of constructive or productive exchange, working relationships stagnate and people retreat to the places where they feel safest: their own disciplines, their offices, or the colleagues who are on their ‘side’. As a consequence, prospects for meaningful collaboration and integration dwindle.

One of the difficulties of interdisciplinary collaboration is being able to express the brilliant ideas swimming around in our own heads so that they can (a) be understood by others and (b) contribute to mutual insights and integration.

The table below outlines four ways of engaging in constructive communication. Each kind of exchange has its role to play, but the full spectrum is necessary for meaningful collaboration and integration. In other words, skilful conversation spans a range from serial monologue to generative dialogue.

While all four approaches have their place and function, reflective and generative dialogue represent constructive approaches when incomprehension escalates into conflict or hardens into paralysis. Reflective dialogue involves curiosity about others’ perspectives, with an interest in understanding what makes them different from one’s own.

The fourth option, generative dialogue, is sometimes possible. In generative dialogue, members of a research team stay engaged with high levels of tension and hence open up windows onto new insights, revealing sources of incomprehension and holding potential for deep collective coherence and transformational learning.

Spectrum of four ways to engage in interdisciplinary conversations (Freeth, Clarke and Fam, forthcoming, adapted from: Scharmer (2008); Kahane (2008); Ashhurst (pers. Comm.))

Each way of engaging requires particular skills and experience, including the capacity to express ideas clearly, to listen in a way that seeks to understand the ideas of others, as well as the capacity (and stomach) to maintain engagement even when the dialogue becomes confusing or frustrating. It also requires being comfortable with what we don’t know. As nuclear physicist Ernest Rutherford is reported to have said: “I’m fascinated by my own ignorance; what does it look like to you?”

In our experience, these skills are best acquired in practice. It can be worth starting with a facilitator, or someone who has significant experience of sustained conversation in groups and who can point out when it would be useful to slow down and seek more clarity, or when to stop trying so hard and do something else for a while. But we all bring useful life experience to such conversations and it is worth also valuing the combination of skills, or what Rhoten et al., (2009) call “collaborative dispositions”, whether it is playfulness, conscientiousness, care, introspection or extroversion.

What has your experience been in reaching common ground across different disciplines? How have you built your skills for conversation? What strategies have you used when collaborators lack one or more of the necessary skills?

To find out more:
Freeth, R., Clarke, E. A. and Fam, D. (In press). Engaging creatively with tension in collaborative research: Harnessing the ‘I’ and ‘we’ through dialogue. In: Brown V, Harris, J. and Waltner-Toews, D. (eds), Independent thinking in an uncertain world. Routledge: London, United Kingdom

Kahane, A. (2008). The potential of talking and the challenge of listening. The Systems Thinker, 14. (Online):

Rhoten, D., O’Connor, E. and Hackett, E. J. (2009). The act of collaborative creation and the art of integrative creativity: Originality, disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity. Thesis Eleven, 96, 1: 83–108. (Online) (DOI):

Scharmer, C. O. (2008). Uncovering the blind spot of leadership. Leader to Leader, 47: 52–59. (Online – DOI): 10.1002/ltl.269

Biography: Rebecca Freeth is completing her PhD at Leuphana University in Lüneburg, Germany where she is studying the interdisciplinary team of which she is also a member. Rebecca researches, writes about and facilitates collaboration. She does this with an eye on sustainability; supporting communities that will sustain even though they are wildly diverse, supporting collective decisions that will sustain because they take seriously the concerns of the outnumbered, and supporting social ecological systems that will sustain because everyone’s knowledge counts. Always a nomad, Rebecca moves between the worlds of practice, teaching and academia, and between Germany and South Africa.

Biography: Liz Clarke is a transdisciplinary social-ecological systems researcher at Leuphana University in Lüneburg, Germany, far from her home turf in Australia. She works on knowledge coproduction in the Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation project, focusing on RETHINKing (sustainability-related knowledge creation) as a deep leverage point. With her family background in farming and her previous career in international agricultural research she is passionate about working in rural Southern Transylvania in Romania and Oldenburg in Germany.

16 thoughts on “Skilful conversations for integration”

  1. Great to read this piece again. The spectrum reminds us that multiple forms of communication are involved, and it is not a strict stage model since some may be revisited. I’m reminded of the authors’ important insight in Freeth, Clarke, and Fam that working at an interface is not a strictly linear progress. It was based on a transdisciplinary sustainability team at a German university but is of general relevance, especially the realization that tensions resurface at later stages of a project. Participants do not surrender individual agency, either, even when subordinating specialist views to common goals in a project. Julie Thompson Klein

  2. Thank you Rebecca and Liz. As I read, I was reminded of a publication a month or so ago in the Association for Interdisciplinary Studies journal ISSUES IN INTERDISCIPLINARY STUDIES from authors in the UK and Australia.

    Katerina Litsou; Alan McKee; Paul Byron; Roger Ingham
    “Productive Disagreement During Research In Interdisciplinary Teams: Notes From a Case Study Investigating Pornography and Healthy Sexual Development” —

  3. Thanks for another gem Rebecca and Liz!
    I have forwarded this on to my colleagues in our ‘Tsitsa Project’ where more careful and mindful conversations are needed to deepen and strengthen our collaboration.
    Much appreciated!
    Please send me the final chapter when it is ready. Thank you.
    Jessica Cockburn

    • Hi Charles, what a great parallel and a good example from the music world. I have taken the liberty here is quoting the last couple of sentences from the blogpost.

      “So, within the above kind of situation it is important to co-create a new way of communicating: one that not only enables clarity and understanding but also releases creativity and innovation. To begin this process we need to go back to our default speech setting: the speech setting that everyone understands and that focuses upon and describes, in very simple every-day terms, what we see, hear and do.

      “When we do this our speech will gradually reboot into a language that fits our collaborative context, enhances mutual understanding and integrates and exploits to mutual advantage partners’ diverse knowledge, skills, expertise and experience.”

      thank you for sharing!, Liz

  4. Great Blog,
    These kinds of skill sets are critically important in trying to make sense of interactive collaborative partnerships where subject matter experts in each discipline may think their well thought-out perspective on any particular topic area should be easily understood by the entire group. I think we have to go beyond reflective and generative dialogues to include conveying unintended subtle body gestures/messages that can either be construed as helpful or hurtful to the conversation/cause in the long run. Building upon “trust and respect” is crucially important for the long term viability, sustainable and vibrant multi- and trans-disciplinary collaborations. While we talk about the genetic health literacy, citizen scientists, community engaged/participatory research, basic, clinical and translational aspects of addressing any biomedical research arena problem, the solutions need to be sought out from all perspectives, persuasions and view points that are palatable, understood by everyone, realistically manageable and achievable within a specified period of time.

    • Hello Anil, I completely agree. The ability to engage with diversity is crucial for the kind of transformational change we all talk about. And that is really difficult. The potential for misunderstanding or misreading subtle verbal and non-verbal messages is very real, and I can’t emphasis enough the importance of active listening in a reflective or generative dialogue. Trust and respect are really important for diverse groups to experience what Christopher Alexander calls “comfort, safety and a good view”, but we tend to forget about forgiveness and tolerance.

  5. Great blog…it helps me gain perspective on why transformation is so difficult for so many…so few have the skill to both converse and act with generative dialogue capacity.

    • Thanks Steve. And yes, we place so little emphasis on these skills in science (and elsewhere!) Transformation can only really be triggered when we are prepared to make space for different views and approaches, and take the time to understand alternative points of view.

  6. Your table is so helpful! I wonder if these could reflect stages or steps in the transdisciplinary process? Either way, it seems that I personally have gone through the progression! One strategy that has been helpful is building a model or visual representation where many of the words/semantics are removed. I see it as building a shared analogy. It think this helps in problem contexts where goals may be shared! Thanks so much!

  7. Love this quote: “I’m fascinated by my own ignorance; what does it look like to you?”. Thanks for this helpful and insightful blog post!

  8. I wish I could be more encouraging, but I’ve hammered this for years. It’s not the inability to communicate. Academics, particularly university faculty, are totally equipped to communicate with colleagues, or to use the popular sports vernacular, “team mates.” The problem is having the will. And this is not a total indictment of faculty by any means.

    Remember that the corporatized university, which almost all universities are, is all about efficiency, the ‘endowment’ or senior administrators’ exorbitant salaries, and selling the ‘brand.’ It’s a trickle down effect. Now that the corporatized university has the millions, and in some cases billions, of dollars at their disposal with government backing (intrusion) via astronomical grants, the same from corporations, they can afford to fire tenured/ordinary professors at a whim if they dare to speak the truth.

    When I speak of ‘having the will,’ that is linked to the possible consequences of disciplinarians merging with inter/trans disciplinarians. But an important factor is the causality. A ‘faculty member’ may agree and be willing to partner with inter/trans disciplinarians, but there may be a consequence in doing so. Universities are adding, by various names, Interdisciplinary Studies (IDS) Departments, and as, or if, students and grants gravitate towards these departments, there is less need for the disciplinarian [not to mention less of the budget] thereby negating the need and curtail employment. So to an extent, they will to participate may exist, but practicality or professional survival may retard the will.

    In addition, it’s a power issue, not unlike Foucault, Chomsky and other philosophers through history have written about.

    The power issue is that in a Neoliberal environment, the individual (faculty member) only has value if they have market value. The number of student admission or grants a faculty member accounts for is their market value. If this diminishes due to an increase in IDS or any other factor for that matter, the hoped for advancement etc. are at risk. So what would a rational, risk averse person do to diminish risk?

    The second piece of the power issue is that the university understands where the money comes from, and that is where the absolute control or power comes in. The administration understands all too well that corporate and government grants and endowments dry up unless the programs that feed corporate America’s [or whatever country the university is located in] needs and government interests are met. The vast sums of money coming in make it possible to summarily dismiss faculty regardless of their stand.

    I really hope you or someone either finds an answer that works, or a movement is started to remove the Neoliberal charlatans from university administration. Until then, I suppose the best we can hope for is some of us to continue tilting at windmills.

    • Thanks for this comment Larry. I think there are many many reasons why interdisciplinary collaboration is difficult. Inadequate professional and career incentives are definitely on that list. So are structural and institutional obstacles. Power flows are right up near the top of my list.

      And in my experience, a fundamental difficulty is that researchers and scientists – however skilled we are in our own areas of expertise – are not well equipped with the interpersonal skills needed for meaningful collaboration. These kinds of skills are still not considered important enough to teach in many undergraduate and graduate programmes. So it’s possible to end up with a group of super smart people who can work brilliantly on their own but really struggle to work productively with others, especially when the going gets tough. These skills are learnable, such as the ones in the table in our blog post.

      I am particularly interested in how to foster the kinds of orientations, knowledge and skills that will strengthen collaboration between academics. While we’re in collaborative teams, we have a golden opportunity to deepen these skills in situ, learning especially from experiences where we wished we’d been more skilful. There’s a bunch more I could say, but I’ll leave it there for now and see what others have to say on this.


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