Tag Archives: stature

Serious Conversations, 7

In these notes on serious conversations, I keep circling back, it seems, to two ideas: first, that what makes a conversation serious is not its subject matter or tone, but the stance of its participants toward each other; and, second, that the conversational stance requires that we confer a certain authority on our interlocutors, or (to put it another way) recognize that they have standing to address us.

While other kinds of authority — title, rank, role — are of secondary importance, and can sometimes even get in the way, this moral authority or standing is fundamental. It does not have to be earned, proven or ratified by reference to some person, written instrument or record of accomplishment outside the conversation or by institutional set up. It is constituted and realized in the relationship you and I have — or, if that is just too clunky, let’s say it is the relationship you and I have; and it is sufficient authority for a serious conversation because it makes us mutually accountable to each other.

Where this equal human stature (or dignity) is respected (and appreciated), it can be a source of power: not just the power of one over another, but the power to make claims or demands of each other, or to ask and answer, and this power of asking is essential if we are going to deliberate in earnest about our situation or collaborate on something new.

The conversational stance allows for genuine co-creation, because it’s not founded on subordination or one person ordering the other about. And the capacity for co-creation, the creative power that we share, only increases as we include more people in the circle of the conversation. (Of course there are limits: the research on group size and social complexity Dunbar summarizes suggests the circle probably should not widen beyond 150 people.)

I’ve tried to capture this thought in a simple rule: the power of asking will always be greater than the power of command.

That’s the basic position.

Another way to put the same thought might be in terms of the mechanics of ordering versus asking: whereas in the former we have one person directing the will of another, as we might address a short-order cook, in the latter we direct each other’s wills, so that we are, to stick with the metaphor, chefs in our own kitchen.

Of course the usual caveat applies about too many cooks spoiling the broth, I guess, but let’s also remember that people have different talents, training and competencies, and we can worry about how to order and organize ourselves once it comes to the actual cooking. Right now we’re just having a conversation.

Let’s also acknowledge, while we’re at it, that short-order cooks are models of industrial-era efficiency (but no longer efficient enough for the post-industrial fast food kitchen); gains in co-creativity can and probably will translate to losses in short-term efficiency.

Some concessions on one side or the other will probably have to be made, but too often the proponents of efficiency win without any argument, and people start giving orders or setting out plans for what’s to be done before the conversation even has a chance to get started. That’s when all the real power goes out of the room.

Serious Conversations, 6

It’s no surprise that the question periods at Davos turned out to be unproductive and dedicated mostly to preening, as Lucy Marcus reported in a blog post from the World Economic Forum last weekend. Where no practical decisions are going to be reached, and where real power is not up for grabs, we get jockeying for status.

The behavior is familiar to anyone who has spent much time at conferences, especially academic conferences, but it happens in meetings and at dinner parties, too. It’s a common social experience: conversations often function “as a kind of vocal lek,” as Robin Dunbar explains in Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language; they are like “the display areas where males gather to advertise their qualities as potential mates to the females.”


Black grouse lekking.

In the natural world, this self-advertising serves a crucial function, helping birds and beasts pair off; in our world, lekking might make someone more attractive or raise his stature in the crowd, but ultimately it undermines serious conversation.

Someone might make the case that we should indulge it anyway. After all, self-advertising and chest-puffing are ultimately harmless, and might amount to nothing more than a collective throat clearing: a way of establishing the space of conversation and identifying or qualifying its participants. But even if we concede that it accomplishes that much, lekking will always be of limited value for a couple of reasons: first, because it’s an exercise in establishing social rank, and in a group it’s always very easy to confuse social rank (or title or position) with authority; and, second, that kind of authority — who we are, what we know, what our role is — is the wrong kind of authority for a conversation.

(The exception might be a case where the conversation was a matter of getting expert advice on a topic; but even there, we would not want an expert simply to wear her laurels or point to rankings, but to address our particular situation.)

The authority we need for serious conversation is, instead, a great equalizer: every person already has it, and we recognize it in each other the moment we enter into a conversational stance, or commit in earnest to the joint activity of conversation. It is the moral authority we have to address each other, as mutually accountable persons, and to make demands of each other: or to ask, as I’ve been putting it.

If lekking or some other social performance served the purpose of brandishing and bolstering that asking authority, then it would be of great value. Sharing stories and other empathy-building rituals might help in this regard, as long as they themselves don’t become exercises in self-advertisement or the promotion of a person as a brand.

This isn’t just about sincerity or authenticity of address, though that’s part of the issue here. Lekking relegates the mutual authority of persons to the background, distracts us from it, or diminishes human stature. It says that recognizing each other as equal partners in the project of the conversation won’t suffice; it narrows and excites our attention. It’s a social impairment.