Skilful conversations for integration

Community member post by Rebecca Freeth and Liz Clarke

Rebecca Freeth (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.

Liz Clarke (biography)

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): 10.1177/0725513608099121

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.

Assessing research contribution claims: The “what else test”

Community member post by Jess Dart

Jess Dart (biography)

In situations where multiple factors, in addition to your research, are likely to have caused an observed policy or practice change, how can you measure your contribution? How can you be sure that the changes would not have happened anyway?

In making contribution claims there are three levels of rigour, each requiring more evaluation expertise and resourcing. These are summarised in the table below. The focus in this blog post is on the basic or minimum level of evaluation and specifically on the “what else test.” Continue reading

Disciplinary diversity widget: how does your team measure up?

Community member post by Brooke Struck

Brooke Struck (biography)

Would it be useful to have a tool to quickly measure the disciplinary diversity of your team? At Science-Metrix we’ve created a widget for just such a purpose. In this post, I’ll explain what the disciplinarity widget does, how to use it, how to interpret the measurements and how we are refining the tool.

How is disciplinary diversity measured?

For several years, Science-Metrix has maintained a classification of research into a three-level taxonomy, arranging research into domains, fields and subfields. We have also developed several approaches to assess the conceptual proximity of these subfields to each other, based on how often material from these subfields is used in combination.

With the taxonomy in hand, and a proximity matrix relating the subfields to each other, we can calculate disciplinary mix using a three-dimensional approach. Continue reading

Five principles of holistic science communication

Community member post by Suzi Spitzer

Suzi Spitzer (biography)

How can we effectively engage in the practice and art of science communication to increase both public understanding and public impact of our science? Here I present five principles based on what I learned at the Science of Science Communication III Sackler Colloquium at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, DC in November 2017.

1. Assemble a diverse and interdisciplinary team

  1. Scientists should recognize that while they may be an expert on a particular facet of a complex problem, they may not be qualified to serve as an expert on all aspects of the problem. Therefore, scientists and communicators should collaborate to form interdisciplinary scientific teams to best address complex issues.
  2. Science is like any other good or service—it must be strategically communicated if we want members of the public to accept, use, or support it in their daily lives. Thus, research scientists need to partner with content creators and practitioners in order to effectively share and “sell” scientific results.
  3. Collaboration often improves decision making and problem solving processes. People have diverse cognitive models that affect the way each of us sees the world and how we understand or resolve problems. Adequate “thought world diversity” can help teams create and communicate science that is more creative, representative of a wider population, and more broadly applicable.

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CoNavigator: Hands-on interdisciplinary problem solving

Community member post by Katrine Lindvig, Line Hillersdal and David Earle

How can we resolve the stark disparity between theoretical knowledge about interdisciplinary approaches and practical applications? How can we get from written guidelines to actual practices, especially taking into account the contextual nature of knowledge production; not least when the collaborating partners come from different disciplinary fields with diverse expectations and concerns?

For the past few years, we have been developing ways in which academic theory and physical interactions can be combined. The result is CoNavigator – a hands-on, 3-dimensional and gamified tool which can be used:

  • for learning purposes in educational settings
  • as a fast-tracking tool for interdisciplinary problem solving.

CoNavigator is a tool which allows groups to collaborate on a 3-dimensional visualisation of the interdisciplinary topography of a given field or theme. It addresses the contextual and local circumstances and the unique combinations of members in collaborative teams. CoNavigator is therefore short for both Context Navigation and Collaboration Navigation. The process of applying the tool takes around 3 hours.

Using CoNavigator

CoNavigator is composed of writable tiles and cubes to enable rapid, collaborative visualisation, as shown in the first figure below. The tactile nature of the tool is designed to encourage collaboration and negotiation over a series of defined steps.

Making the Tacit Visible and Tangible

Each participant makes a personal tool swatch. By explaining their skills to a person with a completely different background, the participant is forced to re-evaluate, re-formulate, and translate skills in a way that increases their own disciplinary awareness. Each competency that is identified is written onto a separate tool swatch.

Katrine Lindvig (biography)

Line Hillersdal (biography)

David Earle (biography)

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Ten steps to make your research more relevant

Community member post by Christian Pohl, Pius Krütli and Michael Stauffacher

Interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research often aims at broader impact in society. But, how can you make such impact happen?

A researcher might face a number of questions (s)he was not necessarily trained to address, such as:

  • How can I be sure that my research question will provide knowledge relevant for society?
  • Who in this fuzzy thing called society are my primary target audiences anyway?
  • Are some of them more important for my project than others?

Over the last several years, we developed 10 steps to provide a structured way of thinking through how to improve the societal relevance of a research project, as summarised in the table below.

When working with researchers to plan their impact, we usually go through the 10 steps in a workshop format, as follows:

  • Before each step we provide a brief account of the underlying theory and clarify why the step matters.
  • Then we ask the researchers to complete a concrete task, reflecting on their own project
  • Researchers usually also discuss their reflections with each other and learn about different approaches to address societal relevance.
  • They also discuss the tasks with us, but we are not necessarily the ones who know the right answers.

The ten steps work best in a context where a research project leader, for example, provides detailed project knowledge and the whole group is interested in discussing the societal impact of research.

In our experience, the ten steps trigger reflection on one’s own research and allow for fruitful coproduction of knowledge in the project team on how to improve the societal relevance of projects.

What techniques have you used to plan, and reflect on, making your research socially relevant?

Christian Pohl (biography)

Pius Krütli (biography)

Michael Stauffacher (biography)

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