Pattern #29


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Generative Interactions

Credit: By courtesy of Kevin M Hoffman

The most important interactions in a wise democracy—especially conversatons—are those that generate more wholesome understanding, relationship, and/or possibility. So engage diverse people and perspectives in high quality social interactions—like DNA strands recombining in sexual reproduction—to produce novel outcomes that serve the well-being of everyone involved.

Related: 7 Checks on Extreme Inequality, 20 Diversity, 42 Partnership Culture, 44 Power of Listening, 45 Powerful Questions, 64 Using Diversity and Disturbance Creatively, 66 Well-Utilized Life Energy

Going deeper …

This is an edited version of the video on this page.

There are conversations and there are conversations. We see all kinds of small talk, gossip, fights and whatnot. There are discussions back and forth. Interestingly, the idea of “discussion” is related to “percussion”: the Latin root “cussion” implies “hitting”. So many discussions are like a ping pong game with people hitting ideas back and forth and using ideas to hit each other. Then there are dialogues which are more like a fluid flowing of ideas where people add to the evolving meaning and creatively expand and alter it.  All these kinds of conversation have important roles in a community or society.

The most important conversations in a wise democracy are those that generate more wholesome understanding, relationship and/or possibility. At the end of such a conversation you and I would understand each other better, or you and I or either of us would understand more about the situation that we were exploring – really understand it – and that understanding would help us in a wholesome way. In other words, such a conversation helps us engage in creative, productive, healthy ways with each other or with the topic.

If I end up thinking that you’re an asshole, that does not constitute a generative conversation. If I understand that your ways of behaving to me – the behaviors I don’t like – come from your past experience that is overwhelming to you, that evokes compassion in me.  I end up with a mixture of understanding and relationship that is more wholesome. I know how to relate to you in ways that are more life-serving than before we had the conversation, or than if I concluded that you’re an asshole.

So anything that heals or improves understanding or relationship or possibility, I consider to be generative.

If thanks to our conversation I conclude that it’s just not going to work, that our relationship or project is a disaster, that I don’t have any more energy to put into it, then that is not a very generative conversation. It may be true – it may involve a lot of understanding – but it has destroyed possibility. So we’re thinking here of conversations which are inspiring, which open up new paths, where you go, “Wow! We could do that! That is amazing! And that came out of talking together!” That kind of thing makes a generative conversation.

There are probably other factors that make a conversation more wholesome and generative. But understanding, relationship, and possibility cover such a vast amount of what I’ve seen in generative conversations, that I’ve chosen to specify them here.

And generative conversations almost always involve interacting diversity – interacting diverse people, interacting diverse perspectives, interacting diverse realities. In generative conversations such interaction produces really interesting new “Wow!”s. It’s like strands of DNA: Sexual reproduction totally transformed the evolutionary process because you didn’t have to wait for some cosmic radiation to hit the DNA and knock something out of place in order to get a different DNA that could then be tested out in the environment. All you needed was for half of that DNA to combine with half of this other DNA, and suddenly you got a whole new set of characteristics to go out into the world and get tested. So it speeds up and expands the evolutionary process immensely to have sexual reproduction that recombines different DNA strands.

In a similar way, if you have different perspectives, you can set them up to interact and generate novel perspectives, ones that none of the people who walked into this conversation have ever seen before. You end up with something new that can go out into the world and be tested. There is a collective learning that happens and speeds up if you know how to do that. It does require a certain quality of social engagement or social intercourse. The word intercourse is of course interesting here: it refers to interaction and describes the flow of things back and forth and between. If you do that with the right kind of quality, you will produce things that weren’t there before, that are novel emergent outcomes of all different kinds. That may have to do with relationship, with possibility, or with understanding.

What’s interesting is, such developments are appropriate to the perspectives that participated. If we get a bunch of people in Detroit together and they come up with new understandings about how to behave in their city and in between each other, that would work really well for Detroit.  But we can’t necessarily transpose that and stick it into Timbuktu or Moscow because the contexts are radically different.

So it is important to realize the limitations of the outcomes that come from generative conversations.  You need to pay attention to who you are having interact, how they are interacting, how you are framing it, why they are interacting, and so on. All those are important parts of process consciousness. Also there is a special power in such conversations. If you can bring together the appropriate diversity, if a solution needs to address X, Y, and Z factors, and you can bring together people who are familiar with those – who are immersed in X, Y, and Z dimensions of the problem or issue – then using generative conversations will generate breakthroughs for those people, for that situation.

So you have that consciousness that you are designing for local outcomes But it could also be for the whole planet: depending on who you include and how you include them, you are creating wisdom for that context. If you do it well this is newly useful.

What comes out of such conversation is new: that’s the generation, the generativity, the genesis, the generating – because new stuff is showing up. Because of how you designed it, who you have included, the information you provided, what comes out is newly useful and has been integrated into ways that are healthy for all involved and healthy for larger system that is at work here, healthy for the interconnectedness that is always bound into any given issue.

And you’re looking for that kind of powerful conversation that creates healthy wholesome emergent possibilities, relationships, understandings, and insights. That’s what’s behind the drive for generative conversations, and we want that kind of generative conversation happening in every part of the society, at every level of society, in all the sectors of society, in families and relationships, in communities and organizations, in the whole society as it decides how to interact with its resources, its destiny its challenges, and in the whole world.

Video Introduction (10 min)

Examples and Resources

I include World Café because of its interactivity, because it is creating conversations that matter, and because it uses high quality questions that stimulate people’s passions.

Open Space is generative by following people’s passions.

Circle process generates thoughtfulness to the extent people are speaking from their center, from the center of the group, into the center of the group. That dynamic is generative.

Fishbowl is generative having populations listen to each and take turns listening to each other.

Dynamic Facilitation is an evocative creative process that almost always creates something new out of a conflict situation.

Appreciative Inquiry is generative partly because it is focused on what you want, when things have worked, etc.  It is raising up past positive experiences and expectations into current reality and awareness.

Community Visioning involves us all looking for what is it that we all can be excited about for our community, what we can share and work towards.