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Self-constraining Configurations (Energy Dissipation)

Towards Transformative Conferencing and Dialogue

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Part K of Towards Transformative Conferencing and Dialogue: Collection of papers and notes, problems and possibilities on the new frontier of high-risk gatherings concerning social development (1991).


In organizing a meeting there is concern that it should be sufficiently "stimulating" to attract and maintain the interest of participants. There is however also a concern that any "controversy" should not exceed what can be contained by the meeting structure and processes. A low risk meeting therefore runs the risk of being boring and without significance. The question is whether this dilemma can be understood in a new light in order to be able to organize interesting and significant meetings, whilst minimizing the risk of their being torn apart.

Consider, as one extreme case, what needs to be done to avoid all controversy. The relationships between the participants, the topics or the meeting sessions need to be such that only supportive, reinforcing information is exchanged between them but none which challenges, denies, accuses, limits or questions assumptions. If any such challenges are effectively transferred to the relationship between the meeting and the external world, the meeting can maintain its positive harmonious nature. This could be called exporting or projecting problems, inconsistencies or contradictions.

For this to be possible however, no effective link should be established between those participants, topics or meeting sessions which would draw attention to such contradictions by the nature of their interaction. This can best be illustrated by a grid, reflecting (according to its size) the variety of participants, topics or meeting sessions. In it supportive information of one kind is transferred from point to point along grid lines. Only by confronting information from distant points which is avoided in the meeting, would the challenge they constitute be evident. In the meeting the challenge between them (at any particular grid location) is minimized. Expressed differently, every effort is made to ensure that feed back loops are not completed. Or alternatively, the meeting is perceived as a grid on an infinite plane.

This approach ensures that energy is effectively drained into or absorbed by the meeting environment. There it merely goes to reinforce any positive or negative images of external problems or organizations. It does not enhance the ability of the meeting to get to grips with such problems or its own. The meeting is essentially escapist, dumping its own problems on the environment. A grid configuration is a de-motivating, energy- dissipating pattern, not an energy conserving pattern. For this reason care should be taken when basing meetings on linear agendas, coding or classification schemes.

Consider now the opposite extreme in which conflict is internalized and challenge is accepted as an integral feature of the meeting. If the meeting is not to be torn apart, the opposing participants, viewpoints or meeting sessions need to be held in relation to one other by a configuration which distributes the stress evenly throughout it. This calls for the completion of all feedback circuits and the juxtaposition of integrative (harmonizing) and dissipative (challenging) forces at every point throughout the configuration. Such configurations are not constrained by the environment, as in the previous case. They are self-constraining. Energy is not dissipated; it is conserved as synergy.

It is such self-constraining patterns of curvature which provide the focus which is absent in a "planar" meeting. The question is how to "foldup" a grid into an appropriate configuration.

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