Effective collaborators: Skills and dispositions (Respect)

Respect—Effective participants in a collaboration (or workshop, groups process, etc.) draw on the skill or disposition to:

  • listen attentively to others as commonalities and differences are brought to light
  • take an interest in points of view and work and life experiences that are distant from our own.
  • suspend judgment and listen empathetically.
  • have repeated exchanges that are meaningful and generative with participants who differ from us (which is enhanced by small size and mixed composition of the collaboration).
  • notice the experience of being listened to.
  • hear ourselves better as a result of being heard.
  • bring to the surface and into play knowledge we already have about the topic of any meeting or session.
  • recognize that there is insight in every response—there are no wrong answers.
  • recognize that each participant, regardless of background or previous experience has something valuable to contribute to the process and outcomes—we need everyone’s insight for the wisest result.
  • develop relationships that will enable us to keep getting help and support when the collaboration is over.
  • find opportunities to affirm what is working well.

In all these ways, Respect is not simply stated as a ground rule, but is enacted.

[See Introduction to this series of posts.]

Journeying to develop critical thinking: Coda

The tension between facilitating and being more directive is evident not only in my teaching, but in the writing of the essay from which this series of posts has been drawn (see first post). I have tried to evoke a continuing pedagogical journey that “involves risk, opens up questions, creates more experiences than can be integrated at first sight, requires support, and yields personal change.” I decided to tease out multiple strands, rather than hold onto one thread, hoping that each reader will find at least a few of the strands helpful to pull on during their own journeys (see also Taylor 2001c). I have exposed tensions—while not the path of maximum comfort, this is one way to model a process of keeping tensions active and productive. These various attempts to keep matters open, even ambiguous, led me to choose the epigraph about dialogue “that neither party could have imagined before starting.” Yet, as author, I have spoken first and set many terms of any discussion that ensues. Rather than play down this tension, let me present a summary of this essay’s themes in both a didactic and a dialogic spirit. The themes to follow, I would propose, need to be addressed in order to provide space and support for others in their critical thinking journeys. At the same time, I hope readers draw me into discussion that leads to new ways of addressing and conceptualizing the challenges I have been opening up.

The central challenge addressed in the essay is that of helping people make knowledge and practice from insights and experience that they are not prepared, at first, to acknowledge. Some related challenges for the teacher/facilitator are to:

a. Help students to generate questions about issues they were not aware they faced.

b. Acknowledge and mobilize the diversity inherent in any group, including the diversity of mental, emotional, situational, and relational factors that people identify as making re-seeing possible.

c. Help students clear mental space so that thoughts about an issue in question can emerge that had been below the surface of their attention

d. Teach students to listen well. (Listening well seemed to help students tease out alternative views. Without alternatives in mind scrutiny of one’s own evidence, assumptions and logic, or of those of others is difficult to motivate or carry out; see also point i, below. Being listened to, in turn, seems to help students access their intelligence—to bring to the surface, reevaluate, and articulate things they already know in some sense.)

e. Support students on their journeys into unfamiliar or unknown areas. (Support is needed because these journeys involve risk, open up questions, create more experiences than can be integrated at first sight, and yield personal change.)

f. Encourage students to initiative in and through relationships, which can be thought of in terms of themes that are in some tension with each other: “negotiate power/standards,” “horizontal community,” “develop autonomy,” “acknowledge afftect,” “be here now,” and “explore diference.”

g. Address fear felt by students and by oneself as their teacher.

h. Have confidence and patience that students will become more invested in the process and the outcomes when insights emerge from themselves.

i. Raise alternatives. (Critical thinking depends on inquiry being informed by a strong sense of how things could be otherwise. People understand things better when they have placed established facts, theories, and practices in tension with alternatives.)

j. Introduce and motivate opening up heuristics, that is, propositions that are simple to convey, but always point to the greater complexity of particular cases and to further work needed to study those cases.

k. Be patient and persistent about students taking up the alternatives, opening up heuristics, and other tools and applying them to open up questions in other areas. (Experiment and experience are needed for students to build up a set of tools that work for them.)

l. Take seriously the creativity and capacity-building that seems to follow from well-facilitated participation, while still allowing space for researchers to insert the “translocal,” that is, their analysis of changes that arise beyond the local region or at a larger scale than the local.

Teaching dialogue process on the spot: A shared meaning that emerges from a group through listening, inquiry and reflection

Participants can learn about the dialogue process on the spot, with no prior preparation or introductory lecture, by following this script (which borrows from a script by Allyn Bradford (2001); see also Isaacs, W. 1999. Dialogue. NY: Currency, and a more detailed script.)  Best to allow 75 minutes for the script, check-in, and a dialogue process experience that indicates the potential of the practice.


Dialogue Process Session on facilitator fills in topic

Phase A Pass this sheet around, each person reading one paragraph of guidelines from Allyn Bradford and Peter Taylor

The Dialogue Process is an opportunity to listen—not only to the thinking of others, but also to our own thoughts and feelings that had been below the surface of our attention.

When a group does this together over a period of time, “meaning” emerges and evolves collectively through mutual understanding and acceptance of diverse points of view. In this short session, however, we cannot expect this to be the dominant experience.

The Dialogue Process works well when participants tolerate paradox and opposing views, suspend judgment and listen empathetically, and try to make their entire thought process visible, including tacit assumptions. Instead of imposing our views on others, we invite others to add new dimensions to what we are thinking, and strive to find ways to make un(der)expressed voices articulate.

In this spirit, balance advocacy—making a statement—with inquiry—seeking clarifications and understanding. In advocating do not impose your opinion, rather simply offer it as such. In inquiry seek clarification and a deeper level of understanding, not the exposure of weakness.

The Dialogue Process requires structured turn-taking. The overriding idea is to keep focused on listening well. If you’re thinking about whether you’ll get to talk next, you won’t listen well. Ditto, if you’re holding on tight to what you want to say.

Take a numbered card when you feel that you’d like a turn, but keep listening. When your turn comes, show your card, and pause. See if you have something to follow what’s being said, even if it’s not the thought you had wanted to say. You can pass.

There’s no need for questions to be answered right away. If the question relates directly to someone, they can pick it up when they next take a turn. This differs from usual conversations, but think of questions as inquiries that you’re putting into a shared space.

Try to make turn-taking administer itself so the facilitator can listen well and participate undistracted. When you finish speaking (or if you decide to pass), put your card on the stack of used cards so the person with the next card knows that they can begin. The facilitator’s role becomes simply to gently remind people to follow the guidelines.

Phase B. Check-in
Go around the circle with each person saying one thought that’s at the front for you before we go into the session proper. This need not be about the topic of the session.

Stop passing the sheet around at this point, and take turns in checking-in.

* * * * *

Facilitator reminds participants of the topic, then we move to
Phase C. Turn-taking dialogue about the topic for the time available minus 5+ minutes.

* * * * *

We keep the last 5+ minutes for

Phase D. Check-out
Go around the circle with each person saying one thought that you’re taking away to chew on after this session.

Developing Critical Thinking is Like a Journey

One course I taught for the first time soon after I joined the UMass Graduate Program in Critical and Creative Thinking was “Critical Thinking.” Mid-way through the first semester, when the topic was revising lesson plans, we revisited a demonstration I had done in the first class. The details are not important here, except to say that some students had interpreted the demonstration as a science lesson while the science aspect seemed unimportant to me. Discussion of the discrepancy led me to articulate my primary goal, namely, the students would puzzle over the general conundrum of how questions that retrospectively seem obvious ever occurred to them and to consider their susceptibility to recurrent reconceptualizations. Read more of this post


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