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Philosophy Cafe - Cafe Philosophique Message Board › Meeting dynamics, 2012

Meeting dynamics, 2012

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Oakland, CA
Post #: 27
Another great meetup Jeff, thanks. This one focused a bit more on the personal experience angle than the deep philosophy angle, but I found it very revealing and insightful nonetheless. The idea of coming up with a quation mid-way through seems workable; it would be more of a summation of what we all see as the core of the paradox or confusion we are working with and then we can be more deliberate in the second half.

Anyways, I liked what we settled on: How does one learn something that can't be taught (not by example)?

I think that got at a lot of what was really interesting to the group and i've been thinking about it in my own life since then-

Jeff G
Oakland, CA
Post #: 27
We had 10 people attend the April 24 meeting on Empathy: about a third first-timers and a third veterans. Only one-third overlap from the other meeting on Deep Understanding. Arrival times were staggered, so we didn't get underway until at least 7:15.

As usual we had a round of introductions which were to include some opening thoughts or relevant experiences. We got some of both. People seemed to respond to what was said by those who spoke before them, by contrasting or amplifying their points. The example of the homeless peddler got the first of many mentions.

Then we took a short break to write questions on index cards and pass them around so that people could check the ones they would like the group to consider. Unlike last time, many people authored questions. Then we talked about all the options on the table briefly, though since people had already voted, we focused on those that had received a significant tally. It might be better not ask for votes until after we discussed the options, though it seems cumbersome to pass them around twice. I believe my original inclination was to have groups form to craft "sales pitches" for their refined ideas, but that is even more process.

The "lather" phase completed, the winning question was "Does empathy necessarily involve another's suffering or discomfort?" We did a round of answers, which did take a while since at least 9 of us had something to say. (It's kind of a long time to remain silent if you want to talk!) We stayed on the subject, though some treated it as a question of terminology. (It's possible that this was correlated with opening remarks being a theory versus an experience.) I was pleased by being able to put forward an idea that occurred to me early in the round and be able to wait my turn rather than interject. I also had a suspicion that I probably talked too much at previous meetings, since I am prone to interject! Now we had "rinsed."

Returning to lathering over the remaining options, people did refer to them but no one (besides myself) was very keen on picking another round-robin question. I noticed that people did like to "grill" or "follow up" immediately when something grabbed their attention, preferring to address their question to the last speaker. I guess it is to be expected that people prefer this one-on-one interaction to making a more public speech, which may seem like "work." The downsides are that participation is more uneven and that it can be unclear what the exact subject is.

The dialog did not peter out, however, and it stayed interesting throughout. Everyone seemed to be following, though I didn't feel any consensus was reached or attempted. Some of personal testimonials were followed up on. If there was a theme to this part, it was to continue to debate whether empathy for something other than pain made any sense...which indicates that the "rinse" hadn't been enough! Of course it never was intended to be complete, it was only to allow us to regroup and attack the theme from another angle.

As we neared the end of our time, I did pick the other top vote-getter and invited people to answer or join up with their introductory remarks. Only a few did, which was fine: I just needed a determination of what to post to the discussion section. It does seem that including more than one round-robin question is too much, though I did like picking it earlier.

So we were "done" at 9:10 or so. But we (all but two who had left earlier) continued talking for another 35 minutes, beginning with a tangential topic but eventually touching on the theme again.

Jeff G
Oakland, CA
Post #: 29
Quite unusually, I was all by my lonesome at 7:00 p.m. As a lot of regulars had RSVPed I did not despair. Adding four more veterans and one new face who displayed a veteran's confidence made a quorum, so we launched at 7:25. After the meeting, we resolved to move the regular starting time back, at least for the summer months.

The main process experiment this time was to start with an playful geared to loosen us up. It was supposed to be a glib chain of inferences, with each person contributing a single "deduction." It turned out to be sort of a one-minute speeches, but because each person (as instructed) responded (well, mostly) to the person immediately before him, it seemed to have the desired effect: everyone felt listened to, and everyone had to talk, even if they didn't have a "pat" answer. It may not have been necessary for an experienced group like this to warm up, but it was a nice trial run for the concept, and we did have an unusually fluid AND coherent meeting. By "fluid" I mean that we kept moving through a lot of topics (vs. meetings where we beat one horse to death)–this may have been due to our having surveyed the landscape of ideas rapidly in the exercise. By "coherent" I mean that people's contributions, whether offered in agreement or contrast, seemed to "fit" the discussion (in contrast to some meetings where people seem to be talking past one another)–the "chain" idea of the exercise was intended to promote such continuity. One might figure that fluidity and coherence might work against each other, but what happened was that we kept returning to certain ideas–we let the horse get up, before we flogged it again:-)

The next phase was the only other process architecture for this meeting, comprising our usual "how does this theme affect you?" story-telling, with the embellishment of trying to draw out a question after each story. As often happens, people were a bit shy with this, so I suppose it's time for me to accept that, while some great meetings seemed to have been powered by someone really "owning" a problem and everyone pitching in to help "solve" or alleviate it, that does not seem to be a dynamic that can be achieved by giving a blueprint. Yet...because the opening exercise began with a sentence from a book on the topic of play, some of the extemporaneous links in the "chain", it became apparent to me, at least, what some people's "personal stake" in the theme was. Although I myself gave a commonplace story, I also made it known that I was under the influence of the Walter Kerr book I'd recently finished, so I had an agenda to see if those ideas would stick (especially 50 years later.)

I stuck with my promise to let the meeting ride after this point, and it worked out well, because we had at least three or four distinct "grounding" points, which is the function of a story anyway. The relative unconcern for agreement on a definition of play demonstrated for me the coherence of the discussion (requiring definitions being a pet peeve of mine). By not excluding consideration of some examples as "not play" we were able to look at the relationship of work and play in a more nuanced way. I did write more specific topics on index cards, but their only function was as occasional touchstones, a way to reference prior discussion.

Another interesting "re-entrant" phenomenon was the incorporation of prior meeting themes. Willpower factored into the neurophysiology of work; and the "game" design of the Privacy meeting turned out to be an exhibit in the tricky relationship between work and play.

I ended the meeting at the two-hour mark, 9:25 p.m., so as not to make it awkward for anyone to get up to leave. I did not try to establish a question for the discussion board; instead, this time I will post a reminder of the topics we touched on, and anyone who wants to can write their own question and answer.
Oakland, CA
Post #: 29
This one was fun. Just brief ideas:
1. Inference game is worth trying again with a bit clearer explanation that we should take the previous statement as a truth and make an inference (even if you don't believe it!).
2. Play has so many meanings that we would introduce a new field and then struggle to find some commonality or larger truth. There were insights, but a tighter initial concept might have benefits too.
3. Yes, interesting tie-ins to "learning" and "willpower" meetups.

Suggestions for future topics:
- contentment (satisfaction)
- control
- empathy (sympathy)

thanks Jeff (and others)
Jeff G
Oakland, CA
Post #: 36
forgot to post this before, sorry

1. Yes, the warm-up game would have benefited from an example; the improv tradition seems to eschew giving models, but I think it would have helped people let down their guard (and there were comments about the potential for inadvertent revelations). While the "thematic" version we did was good for the reasons given above, we should have a done a neutral version first, as it would have gotten people reacting quickly and confidently.

2. My perspective was that we did agree on what "play" was, in substance, and that we were trying to shed light on it by looking at other activities that shared the same label. That was a separate dynamic from trying to separate "true play" from "false play."

You bring up a crucial issue, though: certainly, you've heard of the phrase "herding cats." I've tried many methods of getting us to orient toward an initial concept: that's what a "story" provides, much more grounded than any "definition." This time, the intent was to have the group discuss each story and extract the initial concept in the form of a philosophical question. Any ideas on how to accomplish that, with a light touch?

3. Good catch–I neglected to mention that the Know-How theme was brought in when we considered the relationship to playing music and theatrical roles.

The test of a theme is what interesting stories it suggests: what are the dilemmas we face that cause us to reflect on it? All good, though control is entangled in almost any theme, if you scratch the surface (as is lying). My recent brush with jury duty gave me some good stories for the cafe:-)
Jeff G
Oakland, CA
Post #: 37
I got there a half hour ahead of the scheduled start time, and the first people were already filtering in. I had 4 signs printed, so I scattered them over most of the tables in our usual area. We started at 7:20 with 12 people, and 3-4 more people arrived at various points.

It was fairly quiet at the start, so I conducted the warm-up exercises with the whole group, since it was the first time we'd done them. I prefaced them with what they were supposed to accomplish, though the explanation took almost as much time as the exercises, so hopefully soon enough people will be used to them that I won't feel I need to rationalize them. I was pleasantly surprised at how easily they went–I've seen more resistance to the word-at-a-time game in groups of improv acting students. The "top 10 list" exercise also went smoothly, though it seemed not so easy to think up topics on the spot. By this time we'd had several laughs already, and I was emboldened to introduce a more discourse-oriented exercise of my own invention, which also went quite well and was rather humorous.

Like last meeting, it would be hard to draw a causal connection between the warm-up and the tenor of the main conversation, but we did seem to be listening to one another and trying to build off one another's concerns. I think it's never a bad thing to share a laugh with strangers. It also provided a couple of touchstones that I referred to during the discussion itself, used to emphasize a procedural point.

By 7:40 we split into 2 subgroups of 6. I asked Max to lead the other subgroup, which had somewhat more familiar faces in it. In my subgroup, we started by writing questions on index cards, which we looked at before deciding to do a round of introductions and reading our own question(s) aloud. We didn't vote on one, but I sort of chose one to start, and we eventually touched on all of the questions. And it wasn't always the person who wrote the question who introduced it in the discussion–leaving the cards on the table seemed to serve to keep concerns from being ignored. I never felt the need to reach out and get anybody involved in the discussion, everyone was enthused, considerate, and "tracking" the ideas well.

Perhaps more interesting was how we invented increasingly focused questions as we talked. My original intent had been to shuffle the groups at the half-way point, but we stayed very involved (and I could hear the other group was quite animated), so I didn't want to throw a wrench into things. Our group seemed to prefer the personal perspective on marriage–how to make it work for the couple–which was what I'd been hoping for, and we mostly considered "society" in its role in making marriage workable and desirable. Instead of spiraling outward, it seemed to me that we kept trying to tighten our focus, to find what marriage per se contributed to happiness. We kept returning to the scenario of the couple who cohabits and then marries. Though it was a serious discussion, we had several good laughs–the kind of laugh one has when faced with a truth. But we didn't try to codify our results at all.

WIth about 20 minutes to go, we considered joining the groups back together to share what we'd talked about, but by then it was quite noisy in the cafe. So we used part of the original plan: half of the other group traded places with our group, and we shared what we had talked about. I really liked how this turned out: nobody had to speak "for" anybody else (at least no one who was then present), and people were able to respond. My fear of shuffling the groups was that we'd have to build a new consensus (of terms, anyway), but instead it was like we picked up where the original group left off. In particular, we learned a valuable statistic on our cohabitation-to-marriage scenario. My suspicion is that the fact that a large part of the group stayed together helped foster an integrative mentality, as opposed to a reinitialization of the discussion.

Later I learned that one person in the other group had been advocating a direction that seemed more like the one we took; it also seemed possible that one in my subgroup might have been more interested in the other discussion. If only there had been a way to communicate to the other group what we were focused on, maybe we could have done a "trade." Especially taking into consideration that changing even half of the membership of a group seemed to preserve continuity (while enhancing diversity), we might find some way to cross-fertilize continuously. On the other hand, I would not want people to be distracted by "what is going on over there." Perhaps if the entire group had written its questions, we could have grouped them before splitting, but I am skeptical of how efficiently that could be accomplished.

Anyway, this was the first meeting we ever had to contend with a group this large, so our first attempt at "scaling" was rather successful, I thought. In fact, the minor shuffling had side benefits of giving people a change of pace and an opportunity to exit gracefully if needed.

Though we were still going strong, I did officially end the meeting at 9:30. Several people stayed for 20 minutes or so, and last of us left about 11:00.

Oakland, CA
Post #: 30
I'm not going to go into quite as much detail, but here's my summary for what it's worth!

Intro Games: These worked surprisingly well as long as people were helped along if they were stuck. As the group gets used to this, we should be able to get through them more quickly and gain more from them. If nothing else, there were some pretty funny responses. Additionally, they made it very clear that we would not be able to have one conversation with such a large group!

Split Groups: Groups of 6-8 seem to be the best, as there is enough diversity of opinion, but not too much cross talk. After an hour or an hour an a half I was rather curious about the other group, so I'm glad we were able to swap, even for a moment.

My Group: I tried to give our conversation some structure with a few tricks. First we went around and let everyone have a few sentences about what marriage meant to them--this is a great way to make sure we address the whole range of what people want to discuss. Then we went through the basic points of the Stanford Philosophy review of marriage that a member had posted and that I had read through. Our conversation ranged through legal, social, interpersonal, definitional, sociological, and other angles. I was happy to let the topic expand and then try to bring the pieces back together in search of some essence.

One member did not seem to think our approach was "philosophical enough." Although I did not agree with him, we tried to address his concern and consider marriage in the way he desired (seemingly "why people stay together" and "what is love" (not the song)).

All in all, for the size of group it worked surprisingly well. The biggest problem was the noise of the venue, although I don't have a solution to that! Looking forward to the next one; remember my suggestions wink Ownership and Control, and Love
Jeff G
Oakland, CA
Post #: 42
I arrived just five minutes early and was first, but we had six people very quickly, though almost no familiar faces. So we got to know each other for about 10 minutes before tackling "Identity."

We did the same warm-up activities as last time, but the minor tweaks were revealing. Instead of "once upon a time..." we started with "Every single day I..." which I think was a misstep, because people felt they were supposed to say something about themselves, which was not intended. For "Top 10" I should have come up with some sample titles, as choosing a good phrasing makes it smoother. I made a fix to the "everybody knows..." (inference chain) game that worked very well. In fact, it worked so well I got caught in my own trap: we proceeded to a point where I experienced a lot of resistance, but of course the design of the game is to encourage acceptance. So it's pretty clear that the playing field is quite level for everybody!

After 15 minutes of warm-up, we started the discussion by saying what brought us to the group and what interested us about the identity theme, during which three more people arrived. This process was a bit more meandering than usual, though we had many newbies and this was not the easiest topic to frame. One aspect I liked (besides the usual benefit of everyone getting a chance to put forward an idea), was that we did do some back-and-forth to better understand where each person was coming from. I jotted down keywords for each person, but we did not formulate explicit questions. While I'm not fixated on having specific questions, I think it is a good practice to get people thinking to actually write down a question. I expect it would have streamlined the idea-gathering phase both in duration (felt like 30-40 minutes) and focus. Also, I don't know why I didn't review the announcement that I made for the meeting, which had several examples of topic questions. Written down, they could stimulate the participants' own questions.

The rest of the time we pursued various themes, not rigorously but staying fairly close to the topic. I found myself shepherding the discussion more than usual. It appeared that people had (mostly) come without an agenda, and the best meetings have agendas (that are pursued tactfully), so I emphasized the common threads I noted in people's original stories. When a new idea came up, I prompted individuals as to whether it clarified those stories, which is a little much to do on-the-spot, but it did serve to maintain focus. I think abstract, logical, or deeply critical thinking is primarily a solo activity, and people were happy just to exposed to new takes on the theme, with no expectation of a solution presenting itself. I was tickled that many of the cultural references made seemed to resonate with others, which is a neat way keep an idea in mind longer.

Another reason I had to play arbiter more than usual was that one person did in fact have an agenda, by which I mean an intention to tell the rest of us "how things really are" rather than to participate in the discussion as a peer. It did not seem coincidental that this person was not present for the warm-up, which in my view validates that procedure:-) This inference is supported by the fact that once the "offended" person left, the "offender's" behavior softened. It was the first time I've had to deal with this situation, I'm sure I'll get better or swifter at it, if it recurs. I was quite impressed with how the rest of group took it in stride. In fact, after the meeting officially ended, we spent another 10 minutes confronting the "agenda" itself in a congenial way.

Jeff G
Oakland, CA
Post #: 50
The newbies arrived even earlier than I did, so I started to think we might have a mob. I put off starting the meeting until the last minute (7:30 p.m.) because I was wolfing down my dinner and much-needed coffee, and because there was a lot social conversation happening. We had twelve people initially, with one dropout early on; women were rather underrepresented this time. About half of us had never attended a meeting, but only one was in the "follow-up visit" phase.

Last time we had a large group, I couldn't remember exactly who attended, so this time we did a lightning round of introductions. I should have written down the names and handles, though, as I couldn't pin it down when I got home. I suppose I could take attendance electronically on the spot. (I like to have an honest count, as we're not about creating the impression of popularity.) One person who didn't RSVP was there because someone told him about it. Interestingly, he turned out to play a large role (from my point of view).

We spent only 15 minutes on the warm-ups, and I felt it wasn't enough because we we still proceeding haltingly, but there is only so much time. I did come prepared with Top 10 ideas and narrative starters, so those went okay. Like last time, it did seem to me that how each person responded to the exercises predicted how they would later respond to the discussion itself. During the inference chain, I kept offering the advice to let yourself react to what was said before you, before looking at the prompt cards, but clearly I was fighting a losing battle against instinct. For next time, I'll be looking for a way to establish a tempo at the outset; also I think I will resume giving a brief speech to establish and reinforce the purpose of the warm-ups.

Then we split into two groups, of five and six, which turned out to be a good call because even though the cafe was pretty quiet it was difficult to hear across two tables. Perhaps more important, the shuffling of groups that we did after about an hour turned out to be a fortuitous circumstance in generating a new idea that I could take home as a souvenir. The only instruction I gave the other subgroup was to be sure to write their questions down on index cards, because it would involve people concretely, encourage articulation, and make it easier for me to create the Last Word thread. I did recap the questions contained in the meeting announcement as well.

In my subgroup, we spent 35 minutes having brief discussions of each person's question. As always I stressed how productive it would be to base this on a real-life concern, but my suspicion was that this time it would not be easy. I was right. I went first, presumably as a model, but I must confess I was rather inarticulate. I'm pretty sure it was tiredness and the caffeine rush that clouded my thoughts, which gives me a clue, perhaps, as to why it is a lot to ask people who've just finished a long day at the office to be effective public speakers. Yet the others pitched in to try to make sense of my ramblings, perhaps because I seemed so unsure, so hooray for collaboration! That response turned out to be the model for the others' topic introductions, which meant everyone had their own idea discussed for at least 5 minutes. As in other meetings, the topics and ensuing probes exhibited a subtlety that I do not take for granted, especially when we have a potentially rosy theme like Contentment. We did not experience any lulls (one might even term our exchanges "heated"), though perhaps a couple of us (myself included) assumed the privilege of "first response" too frequently; but no one seemed shut out. Having decided in advance to take a stronger role in guiding the discussion, I was trying to relate the questions to one another as we went, finally mapping out a path for a second time through.

But we did not finish that trajectory before the other group asked if it was time to shuffle, and coincidentally, we had just entered a thicket of philosophical we shuffled. As in the "Marriage" discussion, we traded accounts of what we had already covered, and it turned out that the members added to our subgroup had felt thwarted in discussing exactly what I had been trying to draw us toward, so it got us moving again quickly on the (my) desired trajectory. I must stress, though, at this point I had no preconception of what might be generated, only of the order in which to consider the topic suggestions. In an effort to "say yes" to everybody's topic question, I made myself tentatively adopt what I knew would be an unpopular position–the original contributor of that idea seemed to hold it strongly, though he made little attempt to convince us. Somehow it clicked for me, probably due to some reading I had done in following up to our January meeting and reinforced by the meeting of another group a few days ago. Obviously by this time I was acting not as an impartial moderator, but as a participant highly charged by a found agenda. Whether it was the unpopularity of the choice, or the mere fact of having made a choice, I did get resistance, which I was able to overcome (to my satisfaction, and which gave me satisfaction.)

We had just 5 minutes to wrap up with the entire group, during which I offered an impression of the controversial synthesis that had occurred, which spurred some comments that I took to be sympathetic. I called attention to the Your Last Word boards, where I would be attempting a more careful formulation of said controversial notion. The discussion ended, but people took their time leaving (a good sign), with a couple of us talking until I had to catch my bus at 10 p.m.

Oakland, CA
Post #: 32
Just to give you my angle about the other half or the group and the structure. All in all, this was a great group of people and we were able to get some really open and cutting angles on the question.

Warm Up Exercises: I don't think they need to be longer, just better explanation perhaps (clear "rules"). The game with the cards, doesn't need the cards, or instead you could make bullet points of each of the interjectory statements and print them clearly on one sheet in the middle for all to see so that they would be ready and keep the flow. Top ten list is a great one and I like that it is focused around the topic each time to at least lay out the field of what should be part of the conversation.

Our Group: We started by writing our questions and then spent a good deal of time discussing each in-turn until we truly understood what they were getting at. I tried (as is my nature) to suss out the core issues that were shared and to pare the concept down to its most elementary form. We never focused on one particular question, but meandered through different things, always finding connections to the original questions that got us going. After an hour and half or so of great excited conversation we were petering out and I asked to reconvene.

The Swap: It was interesting to get a few new members from the other side and then trying to merge two conversations into one. There is a bit of backtracking, but definitely some surprises.

The Merger: Wished there was more time to have the whole group together. With a single round table (or 3 small rounds in a triangle) we might be able to pull that off for up to about 12 people.

thanks again Jeff. Look forward to the next one!
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