Optimal Conversation and Group Mitosis

How can we optimize the conversational experience of a group, and once the group gets too large, divide the group in such a way that the conversational quality of the two groups is maintained?

The quality of a conversation is directly proportional to the number of ideas presented and understood therein.

Ideas increase with both the number and diversity of participants.

Understanding requires dialectical inquiry, which in turn requires bandwidth.

I define bandwidth to be the number of minutes in one hour each person has to communicate her ideas to the others in the group in such a manner that each person has an equal opportunity to speak.  For example, a conversation between two people shares one channel of communication and each has thirty minutes of bandwidth.  A conversation between eight people shares 28 channels of communication and each person has about one minute of bandwidth.

When the group forms, members are familiarized with the ideas of talk dancing, bandwidth, and with the Occupy Wall Street Hand Signals.  The group is responsible for the conversational flow, and those who do not respect the bandwidth of others should expect to be called to order by the “wrap it up” hand signal from others in the group.

My own experience suggests the optimal group size to be about 8 people.  Eight people can have a lot of ideas.  More than 8 people in a group imply less than a minute of bandwidth for each person.  It’s hard to express an interesting idea in less than a minute.  By the time you get to twelve in a group there is less than thirty seconds of bandwidth available.

I would suggest that a group divide in two when it reaches about ten people, and certainly no more than twelve.  Let the group elect a ballot counter.  Then each person write down their own name together with four (if there are 10 in the group) or five (if twelve) others they would like in their group.  Then divide the groups so that everyone has at least one person they wanted in their group besides themselves.

If there are persons with less than five votes then there are those with more than five.  Pair off the ones with the most votes with those with the least.

The Talk Dancer


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.

Building Social Capital – a Thought Experiment

I am particularly interested in finding a way for kids to discover for themselves the joy of learning.  I think for me the joy of learning began with a book I enjoyed reading, and then finding another one like it; and then another, and another.  I wonder whether I could help a child do the same.

Suppose I work with a school to find three children interested in reading a book with me, or maybe let them read three different books.  Maybe we meet once a week to talk about the book(s), with me guiding them in a conversation, asking them questions and so on.

I could ask them what they can glean from the title of the book, ask them to state what the book is about in one or two sentences, what are the important ideas are, what they’ve learned from the characters, and so on.

Suppose I teach them what it means to be a talk dancer, and get them to practice talk dancing in our group.

After we read a couple books I ask them whether any of their friends might like to join us.  If we get say eight kids reading together, and there are two kids I think might be reasonably accomplished talk dancers, I split them up so that there is at least one talk dancer in each group.

Now instead of leading the groups directly myself, I encourage them to lead themselves knowing that each group has a talk dancer.  I linger outside the groups, listening to their conversation, encouraging them, and maybe interject a question if their conversation appears to languish.

If we can repeat this process over and over again, perhaps even inviting people outside the school to attend, such as kids from other schools, parents and grandparents, etc, what would be the resulting social capital?

With each division, the number of persons involved would roughly double.  They would be forming bonds, building trust, and discover how much can be learned and enjoyed from discussing books with other persons.  And every group that started from the root group would be connected to all the other groups; that is, at least one person from each group would know someone that could link them to all the other groups.  In just 6 such iterations, there would be over 100 persons involved.  That’s a lot of social capital.