09 February 2008

Meta-Discussion vs. Groupthink

CZBZ has provided, at this post on her public message board, a very nice introduction to the concept of groupthink [with links to several posts from this blog, for which many thanks, CZ!].

In her post, CZ includes a concise quote from Wikipedia - which I want to quote here as well.
"Groupthink is a type of thought exhibited by group members who try to minimize conflict and reach consensus without critically testing, analyzing, and evaluating ideas. During Groupthink, members of the group avoid promoting viewpoints outside the comfort zone of consensus thinking. A variety of motives for this may exist such as a desire to avoid being seen as foolish, or a desire to avoid embarrassing or angering other members of the group. Groupthink may cause groups to make hasty, irrational decisions, where individual doubts are set aside, for fear of upsetting the group’s balance. The term is frequently used pejoratively, with hindsight."
I've often seen groupthink take over a group without the actual intention behind the process ever being directly articulated. In fact, that's how it's happened whenever I've seen it occur in the past. In some places [occupational], it's been presented as "respect", "not going outside the chain of command", "not rocking the boat" or, my favorite, "avoiding negativity". In other places [such as social, religious, or recovery groups], it's presented as "being nice", "avoiding conflict", "being accepting and compassionate" or, my favorite in this context, "not being judgmental". But what it really is, is pushing groupthink.

Recently, though, I observed active, conscious, open advocating of groupthink ... deliberate, intentional. Unmistakable. The only thing left out was its proper name.

The people involved referenced this link to justify avoiding any examination of their own behavior within a group, or the behavior of that group as a whole.

Here's the money quote:
"What is meta-discussion?

You eagerly start reading a discussion supposedly about a subject of great interest to you, only to find that instead of being about the named subject, the discussion is full of posts arguing about how to discuss, what posts should be allowed on the forum, the attributes of a particular poster, complaints about others' posts and complaints about the discussion. Your heart sinks. You search in vain for any on-topic posts, then give up and never bother returning to that forum or discussion again. That is meta-discussion, and it ruins many a good discussion. For that reason, more and more discussion forum owners are asking posters to avoid meta-discussion. Let me explain why:

Meta-discussion is second-order discussion: discussion about the discussion – for instance, about its style, its participants, the forum in which it takes place, and so on – instead of about on-topic matters."
Now, this blogger has an absolutely valid point.

Any committee, book club, singles group, investment circle, foreign language class, etc., etc. is primarily about accomplishing a specific task. Picking music for church services, if it's a church committee so charged. Reading and discussing specific books, or coordinating fun group activities for singles, or picking winning investments, or learning Italian. The ground rules for how this is actually done will vary from group to group.

The blogger quoted above is pointing out that 'spoilers' often sidetrack [and, not coincidentally, then proceed to dominate] focused, task-oriented groups by repeatedly raising challenges to the ground rules, in one way or another. Attacking the preferences of other members, in music or mutual funds. Objecting to the format or other customs of the discussion ["Why does Nancy always get to go first, why can't I go first?" "Why do we always have donuts and coffee, can't we have celery and carrot sticks?"... or vice versa... and making of these things a crusade, rather than a simple query].

This type of sidetracking is, purely and simply, a form of bullying that holds an entire group hostage. It's basically equivalent to the three year old who comes downstairs during his parents' dinner party and poops on the dining room carpet, in front of all the guests. It's a childish, hostile - never, ever fail to note that it is hostile! even in three year olds, yes indeed - grab for attention and power. It is abusive.

Such maneuvers are best addressed directly and immediately, whether the maneuverer is a coprophilic toddler or a coprocephalic committee member. All too often, though, when ostensible adults misbehave in this manner, the other adults involved merely avert their eyes and wish things were different. The problem is never addressed.

There is a Zen type of paradox here.

The only way to identify and avoid destructive meta-discussion is to practice and maintain constructive meta-discussion.

In fact, it's impossible even to see that a meta-discussion is taking place, unless you yourself are sufficiently detached from the group to be looking at process as well as content. If you are focused solely on content, you will find off-topic discussion annoying; but if you focus on process, you will immediately understand not only why it annoys you, but what is actually going on, and what can be done about it.

Thus: you too must be at the 'meta' level to constructively perceive, respond, or intervene. There's no way around this. Process awareness requires... awareness.

Unfortunately, instead of taking the blogger's actual message -

- that obstructionists who derail groups by challenging and impeding their processes should be identified and constrained, and this process of identification and constraint is in itself a legitimate group process -

- the people who found this quote used it to justify, even enforce, refusing to deal with the issue when obstructionists act out within their group.

In other words, the author's message was misrepresented as "It's wrong to think about group processes at any time, and it's also wrong to discuss these processes in any group at any time."

This distortion, of course, is really no different from the "No-Talk Rule" that predominates in alcoholic, addicted, or otherwise abusive families: "We will not discuss the thing [mom's drinking, dad's affairs, brother's dope smoking, etc.] that most needs discussion." It is an endorsement of mindlessness [as opposed to mindfulness] in group interactions; which is the standard prerequisite for groupthink, and an absolute requirement for establishing and maintaining a clique, gang - or cult.

[Last edited: 17FEB2008.]

1 Comments:

Blogger Stormchild said...

Adding this as a comment because it belongs in a footnote:

This link should take you directly to the top of a comment on Kathy Krajco's blog, in which an extreme case of irruption and acting out is presented.

"One time she even screamed at the top of her lungs and brandished old self-mutilation scars to everyone in a group setting, simply because she'd been left out of the conversation for a few minutes."

This is the adult version of pooping on the Astrakhan. To ignore it is to reward it. To roll one's eyes and tolerate it - is to reward it. And when you reward such behavior, you are guaranteed to receive more of the same.

It is easy to see just how extreme and inappropriate this woman's behavior is, and how such behavior will immediately alienate many reasonable people [and eventually alienates even the most dedicated enablers].

It is much harder and much more unpleasant to look at our own behavior, and see where we might be doing milder versions - much milder, please God - of the same. But adulthood, mere adulthood, demands this of us.

10 February, 2008 10:12  

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