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.
Queues work well for smaller groups discussing noncontroversial 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.
- "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. [Miller 1956] The number of distinct chunks seems to be People lose track of the
conversation, or forget
some of what they
wanted to sayseven 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.
- 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 Top Next Issue
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More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
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- And on February 8: Kerfuffles That Seem Like Something More
- Much of what we regard as political conflict is a series of squabbles commonly called kerfuffles. They captivate us while they're underway, but after a month or two they're forgotten. Why do they happen? Why do they persist? Available here and by RSS on February 8.
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