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

References:
Kahane, A. (2008). The potential of talking and the challenge of listening. The Systems Thinker, 14. (Online): https://thesystemsthinker.com/the-potential-of-talking-and-the-challenge-of-listening/

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.

Language matters in transdisciplinarity

Community member post by Tilo Weber

tilo-weber
Tilo Weber (biography)

Why should transdisciplinarians, in particular, care about multilingualism and what can be done to embrace it?

From a linguist’s point of view, I suggest that, in a globalized world, a one language policy is not only problematic from the point of view of fair power relations and equal participation opportunities, but it also weakens science as a whole by excluding ideas, perspectives, and arguments from being voiced and heard.

When people communicate, more is at stake than mere exchange of information, coordination of activities, and joint problem solving. Continue reading

Synthesis of knowledge about participatory modeling: How a group’s perceptions changed over time

Community member post by Rebecca Jordan

Rebecca Jordan (biography)

How do a group’s perceptions change over time, when members across a range of institutions are brought together at regular intervals to synthesize ideas? Synthesis centers have been established to catalyze more effective cross-disciplinary research on complex problems, as described in the blog post ‘Synthesis centers as critical research infrastructure‘, by Andrew Campbell.

I co-led a group synthesizing ideas about participatory modeling as one of the activities at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC). We met in Annapolis, Maryland, USA, four times over three years for 3-4 days per meeting. Our task was to synthesize what is known about participatory modeling tools, processes, and outcomes, especially in environmental and natural resources management contexts. Continue reading

Negotiations and ‘normative’ or ‘ethical’ power

Community member post by Lena Partzsch

lena-partzsch
Lena Partzsch (biography)

What can we learn from international relations about how ‘normative’ or ‘ethical’ power can be used in successful negotiations, for example, for pathways to sustainability? Here I build on Ian Manners’ (2002) concept of “Normative Power Europe”. He argues that the European Union’s specific history “pre‐disposes it to act in a normative way” (Manners 2002: 242) based on norms such as democracy, rule of law, social justice and respect for human rights. I explore the broader ramifications of the normative power concept for empirical studies and for practical negotiation and collaboration more generally.

First, the concept of normative power implies that the spread of particular norms is perceived as a principal policy goal, whether that relates to foreign policy, environmental policy or other kinds of policy. Continue reading

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
Katrine Lindvig (biography)

line-hillersdal
Line Hillersdal (biography)

david-earle
David Earle (biography)

Continue reading

Undertaking bi-cultural research: key reflections from a Pākehā (non-Māori) New Zealander

Community member post by Maria Hepi

maria-hepi
Maria Hepi (biography)

What does it mean to be a bi-cultural researcher? The following eight key reflections are based on working bi-culturally in New Zealand.

I am a Pākehā (non-Māori) New Zealander and started learning Māori language and culture at university in 1995. Previously I had little to no contact with te reo Māori (the Māori language) or te ao Māori (the Māori world and culture). During my studies I became involved in kapa haka (the university Māori cultural club), and as such was exposed to a whole new world.

When I embarked on my journey into te ao Māori I naively thought I would be only learning about the Māori language and culture, however I also learnt what it meant to be Pākehā. I had been blind to my own culture as I had nothing to reflect it back to me. Continue reading