Communicate with Your Interest Groups

The most subtle and precious treasure in my life is the web of conversation spun over the course of years with my family and friends.  So for the past several years I have meditated on ways to improve my methods of communication.

I find it much more effective and efficient to communicate with clusters rather than individuals.  A cluster is a connected group of acquaintance, usually where each member of the cluster knows everyone else in the cluster, like a household.

If I want to communicate with everyone in a cluster about a particular topic, it will take much more time and effort to write or speak with each member individually than it will with the group as a whole.

The determining factors for me as to whether I can communicate with the cluster as a whole is whether I expect everyone in the cluster to be interested in the topic, whether I trust everyone with topic, and whether I am willing to make myself vulnerable to everyone in the group with the topic.

Weighed against this is the possibility of dividing the cluster if I communicate with some members of the group and not others about the topic.  Generally speaking, no one likes to be left out of a conversation of a group of which they deem themselves a part.  And they will often resent it if they are.

So if I don’t consider everyone in the group to be at nearly the same level of interest, trust, and intimacy the preferable alternative is to write at a level that is commensurate with the lowest level overall.  But sometimes this simply isn’t possible; if I am trying to communicate with them on a sensitive topic, then I will likely feel compelled to communicate with each individually or none of them at all.

How do you deal with these issues?

My Quest for a Social Practice

It turns out there is little, if anything, more important to our happiness than our level of connectedness with others; both in terms of quantity and quality of our relationships.  Even so, I can’t say that I have a formal practice for broadening and deepening my network of social connections, nor do I know anyone who does.  If you have one, please share it with me.

For me, connectedness begins with interest in another person.  Some years ago I decided that if I met someone I had a good conversation with, that I would try to pursue that person in order to renew the conversation; or perhaps connect them with another person I think shares one or more of their interests.

After that initial interest, I need to be able to trust the person, and show myself to be trustworthy in turn.  Those who are unreliable, who don’t keep their commitments, or say things they don’t mean or believe don’t make very good friends.

If we share an interest, and build a solid foundation of trust, then perhaps the deepest level of connection comes from a willingness to be vulnerable with the other person.  Vulnerability implies revealing certain of those aspects of us that could cause great embarrassment or injury if the other person does not value and treat with some reverence those parts revealed.  Here are the greatest risks, and greatest rewards, of a relationship.

But perhaps the heart of a social practice is as simple and as complicated as staying in touch.  It takes time to stay in touch.  It takes some courage (we might be rebuffed).  And as our circle of acquaintance grows, it takes some creativity and diligence in order to keep those lines of communication open.  How do you stay in touch with 150 people?  Facebook right?

One thing I’ve noticed about my connections is that they tend to be clustered.  These clusters tend to exist at a certain level of intimacy across the whole cluster.  Hence I can send an email to everyone in that cluster at the level of trust and vulnerability of the cluster which everyone can feel safe responding to.  I think it’s hard to do that on a venue like facebook.  I still haven’t figured out how to use it.

The Talk Dancer

Aside

I have described conversations as one person in a group having an idea and everyone else in the group responding to that idea; then the next person in the group having an idea and everyone else in the group responding to that idea, and so on.

You may reply that conversations don’t actually occur in the way I’ve described.  For example, in a group of 12 people maybe one person has an idea, and only two have a response.  I would argue that everyone in the group has an idea, and everyone has a response.  But that some don’t give voice to either.

That brings me to an idea I’ve been wrestling with for years:  the talk dancer.

The talk dancer is someone who brings everyone in the group onto the conversational dance floor.  He is able to fill an uncomfortable silence with an interesting idea or question that provokes conversation without dominating it; he is able to make those present feel safe enough to participate, and draw ideas or responses from those who are reticent.

For a group to thrive it needs a talk dancer.

I think one of the problems with dividing a group is that if one half does not have a talk dancer, then chances are that the half without a talk dancer will wither and die.  And because talk dancers are such stimulating people to be around, everyone wants to be in the talk dancer’s group.

Moreover I think talk dancers are drawn to other talk dancers because they both share a love for good conversation.  If the group divides, the talk dancers will probably want to be in the same group.  So to add insult to injury, when the group divides one group will likely have all the talk dancers, while the other group has none.

I have not quite figured out how to deal with this dilemma.  I’ve thought about having a secret ballot, and have each person in the group nominate the other persons in the group they think are talk dancers, then have the two with the most votes separate to form new groups.  Or perhaps rank everyone in the group, and sort the odds into one group and the evens into another.  But I’ve never put these ideas to the test.

A Meditation on Election Day

How do you get politically involved?

Is it enough to vote?  Voter turnout in 2008 was 63% of the electorate.  I was among them, but it didn’t seem like much of an effort.

Is it enough to be an “informed” voter?  What does that mean exactly?  If you search the web, the idea and the benefits seems foggy even to political scientists.

Should we join a party?  The founding fathers wrote at length about the dangers of factions and party spirit, but then proceeded to found political parties of their own.

I confess I don’t like politics.  Folks seem more bent on winning an argument than they do listening to each other.  I don’t like all the angry emotions politics seem to generate.  I don’t like the way we tend to demonize the folks on the other side of an issue.  I don’t like the way parties seem more interested in staying in power than they do in solving the nation’s problems.  I don’t like the money that is allowed to sit in a dark corner, and speak as if it were the voice of the people.

What seemed to impress Tocqueville were our townships.  He wrote:

“The town or tithing, then, exists in all nations, whatever their laws and customs may be: it is man who makes monarchies and establishes republics, but the township seems to come directly from the hand of God… Yet municipal institutions constitute the strength of free nations. Town meetings are to liberty what primary schools are to science; they bring it within the people’s reach, they teach men how to use and how to enjoy it. A nation may establish a free government, but without municipal institutions it cannot have the spirit of liberty. Transient passions, the interests of an hour, or the chance of circumstances may create the external forms of independence, but the despotic tendency which has been driven into the interior of the social system will sooner or later reappear on the surface.”     

I think I’ll start attending city council meetings.  Maybe if I listen I’ll learn something about what it means to be a citizen.