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Volume 9, Issue 39;   September 30, 2009: Tangled Thread Troubles
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Tangled Thread Troubles

by

Even when we use a facilitator to manage a discussion, managing a queue for contributors can sometimes lead to problems. Here's a little catalog of those difficulties.

In group discussions, we sometimes use facilitators to manage the flow of contributions. One technique employs a queue. During the discussion, usually while one participant is speaking, another might catch the attention of the facilitator to request a spot in the queue. In person, this can be done with a raised hand or a facial expression. In teleconferences, it might occur through a "hand-raise" channel or through texting.

A single-strand knot

A single-strand knot. This particular knot cannot be un-knotted without cutting the string and rejoining it. In this respect, it is similar to the kind of tangles that occur in multi-threaded discussions. But it differs from them in at least two ways. First, multi-threaded discussions consist of more than one strand. Second, since some contributions to multi-threaded discussions belong to more than one thread, the threads of discussions are sometimes joined to each other at one or more points. Untangling a discussion is thus a much more complex problem than unknotting strings. Image by Robert G. Scharein courtesy U.S. National Science Foundation.

Queues work well for smaller groups discussing non-controversial topics. But when the energy level rises, or the headcount passes a dozen or so, disorder sometimes appears in the form of thread tangling.

A "thread" in a discussion is a collection of related contributions. In most discussions, although all contributions are related, some contributions are more closely connected than others. For instance, one thread might consist of several contributions rebutting one assertion, while another thread might offer support for an altogether different assertion.

Sometimes individual threads get fragmented, or tangled, because of the uncoordinated order of arrival in the queue. This thread tangling can lead to feelings of frustration, for several reasons.

Pseudo-plopping
"Plopping" is the systematic but polite ignoring of the contributions of one or more individuals. Their contributions, whatever they are, go "plop." Consequently, the people who are ignored can feel so alienated and bitter that they cease contributing.
Pseudo-plopping is what happens when a discussion's threads become so tangled that contributions seem to be ignored because they are forgotten or mislaid in the mess. The result is frustration, and possibly some of the same feelings as occur in plopping.
Information overload
People have a limited ability to remember chunks of information [1]. The number of distinct chunks seems to be People lose track of the
conversation, or forget
some of what they
wanted to say
seven plus or minus two. Under stress, when angry, or amid interruptions or distractions, the limit is probably lower.
Trouble occurs when the limit is less than the number of contributions intervening between the time when a participant first enters the queue and when that participant finally speaks. People lose track of the conversation, or forget some of what they wanted to say. Some feel frustrated; some feel inadequate. They experience stress.
Defocusing
When three or more threads are active, the difficulty of keeping them all in focus overwhelms most people. Some have the experience of wanting to contribute to more than one thread.
When people who want to make multiple contributions to different threads finally do speak, they have to flip from one thread to the next. Sometimes, things get so confusing that they have to use notes. They forget some of what they wanted to say, they misspeak, or worse. Discourse quality degrades.

Thread tangling makes discussions disconnected and confusing. People feel stress. Destructive conflict is more likely to erupt. Thread tangling is bad news. Next time, we'll explore some techniques for dealing with thread tangling.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Untangling Tangled Threads  Next Issue

[1]
George A. Miller. "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information." The Psychological Review, 1956, vol. 63, pp. 81-97.

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