Break down to break through
This song, Minnie the Moocher, by The Blues Brothers, came up on shuffle while I was at the gym. I was focusing on the song as I tried to take my mind off running and how heavy my legs felt. The song uses call and response, one of my favourite musical devices. At about 2 mins 24 the audience breaks down into laughter when the scat lyrics (or the vocal improvisations) become so long and non-sensical as to be nearly impossible to repeat.
I’ve seen the same sort of breakdown in improv games. The group will be playing a game when someone figuratively ‘drops the ball’. They make a mistake and everyone laughs. This is intriguing. This ‘breakdown’ seems to be a type of release. Afterwards, everyone seems more relaxed and the game or activity continues at a different level, with more commitment and vigour. It’s as if the breakdown, and the release in the form of laughter is a metaphorical doorway to another way of being, or a different relationship with the activity – and with each other.
Yet many of our conventional group activities, especially in meetings, are designed to avoid breakdown, presumably as this is seen as some sort of failure of the process or of the facilitator/leader. Certainly laughter is rarely present in these situations. In his book, Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together, Bill Isaacs, talks about the importance of instability or breakdown in group discussions as a condition for moving from polite discussion to dialogue where new thinking might emerge. Too often, when the breakdown happens – an argument, discomfort – the tendency is to return to the comfort and security of politeness. This might maintain something akin to civility yet rarely leads to a breakthrough in thinking or ideas. Our challenge as facilitators and leaders of these group discussions is to hold the group in their discomfort and move towards dialogue. Easy to write or talk about – much harder to do.
I’m wondering if it’s possible to turn such conversations into a game, where breakdown can be laughed at, shaken off and the conversation resumed at a different level?
One of the other barriers to this sort of generative thinking in groups is the expectation that an expert will provide the answers or tell people what to do. Relying on experts enables us to absolve ourselves of the responsibility for decision making. Experts have their place. Yet experts tend to spread existing knowledge – that’s what enables them to be called an expert. And if it’s existing knowledge you’re after, an expert is the best and quickest way to get it. If it’s new knowledge you’re after, this must be done by everybody as a community/group activity. And it takes time, energy, commitment, and good will.