Work was done but I feel no inclination to write about it. Instead, I’ll explore a different topic.
In the past few months I’ve been attending a MeetUp group called Madrid TED Talks Discussion Group. I’m not a fan of the TED Talks format, but the participants are a diverse crowd, and I often find myself thinking oh, I’d never seen that angle if it weren’t for this group, because we tend to hang out with people who share our own opinions.
Some months ago I read Eckermann’s Conversations with Goethe and one habit of Goethe stroke me as an intellectual exercise I had to put in practice: in a discussion, don’t reveal your position. Simply help the other person elaborate his train of thought. You gain more by exploring a different perspective rather than by asserting your opinion.
Multiple times I attended the event with the intent of not expressing my opinion, but inevitably I’d be drawn unto revealing it by my own folly, often within a couple of minutes. It would be easier for me to commit to remain silent rather than help another person develop his or her train of thought.
I observed this same phenomena when I attended an improv course: one of the basic rules is called Yes and…, and this implies never shutting down a proposal made by another participant. Suppose the teacher instructs you pretend you’re sweeping the floor. Another participant will come in to the scene and propose a situation. You have no idea what will be proposed, so you rehearse a couple of scenarios in your mind: you’re a janitor at an office, you’re a monk at a monastery, you’re a city worker sweeping the sidewalk. When the other participant comes in and says “Mom! I can’t find my shoes! Help me find them!” and your first impulse is to respond “Child, leave me alone, I’m a monk on duty”. But this causes a standstill on the scene and it’s really awkward for both the participants and the public. So the “Yes and…” directive comes in and you can respond with something like “yes and today is your first day at school, you can’t go to school barefoot!” and the scene unfolds naturally from here.
In a group discussion its part of the game to provide some resistance to other people’s assertions. You’re not meant to shut them down by “winning” the discussion, it’s more or less a friendly sparring situation which, when done correctly, is both an entertaining spectacle and can reveal concealed truth. Often times this requires a good arbitrer because it’s almost impossible to keep the meta-discussion in sight as you’re speaking. People can go into long diatribes, inadvertently shut down other participants before exploring their point of view in fairness (my problem), or constantly go off tangents which require getting the discussion back on track.
The most enjoyable events of this kind are not when I’ve felt I’ve asserted my opinion effectively, it’s when I’ve discovered points of view which I hadn’t considered before. If the discussion topic were an object, I would have observed only one face of it, and someone turned the object a little bit, putting more of the topic into view. With enough perspectives we can confidently say that we’ve gained a full view of it.
I begun by writing that my intention was to not express my position, but as I finish this text, I understand that my own perspective is another face of the topic. It’s worth sharing what I see, but my main challenge is to understand what other people are seeing. I’ll try to put it into practice at the next event.