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.