What is signal, what is noise?

In my rant yesterday, I suggested that we humans are predisposed to interaction with each other and that panel sessions cheat the audience of it.

I’m fascinated by the idea that language emerged as an extension of the social grooming we see among apes. When we are talking to each other we are not merely exchanging information. If you watch meetings with the sound turned off you can see all the play that is going on, consciously or unconsciously.

The other day I watched a group arguing. It was heated, and you could see participants flinching, their faces reddening, their volume rising, as it went on. They were showing physical responses of fight or flee.

I suggest that people are often quite blind to the emotional content of their engagement, as if the rational content is the only thing that matters. It goes with the whole championing of vigorous debate, battle of ideas schtick.

People may argue that that stuff is noise, and the vital thing is the signal, the actual ideas.

For example, at the end of that argument, one participant said, “that was really good”. This struck me as a somewhat inadequate description of what was clearly a big emotional experience.

Many psychotherapists will argue that an important part of their work is identify what they call incongruence in their clients. For example, a client will describe a painful experience and not be aware that they are smiling as the describe it. They are saying one thing but their bodies are saying something else. I think that debater’s description of a debate where he was showing the physiology of being attacked as “good” was veering to incongruent.

The “noise” is actually signal, and we dismiss it at our peril.

Quite apart from what we are saying, we are flirting, teasing, prodding, poking, attacking each other. Whatever content gets written up later, a whole series of social interactions are happening that are going to have an impact on whatever we go on to do together.

Look around at most panel sessions and I think you will see a lot of yawning, distraction, boredom and frustration in the room.

Discussing my post on twitter, Sarah Hesketh argued

But I’m paying to hear experts, not listen to an often unknowledgable/agenda driven audience.

and

I think he’s giving audiences more credit than they deserve.

I absolutely see where Sarah’s coming from. The audience participation in panel sessions, by the time we get to it, is often more exasperating than the panel itself. Not least because it stands in the way of me getting the drink I now desperately crave in lieu of actual social contact. So it’s understandable that the audience appears more tiresome than the panel.

But I contend that this is not because the audience members are inadequate but because the terrible format sets them up to act out. We are not naturally predisposed to sit still and just watch other humans groom each other. We want some grooming too. Some speakers and good actors can enthrall us, but most panels don’t.

When we get to Q and A people are tired and fidgety and want to make some noise. They have had to sit on their ideas, objections and questions for a long time and are bursting. They are not in the best place to be reasonable or polite. They probably deep down want conversation, but the whole format deprives them of it. Starved of relationship, of course they struggle to relate successfully to others in the room.

I’ll go a bit further with this. The panellists themselves probably want a conversation too, but are onstage and self-consicous, so they give a performance of a conversation instead of having a real one. This contributes to an atmosphere of falsity. Everyone ends up pretending to have a conversation and it’s not satisfying.

When finally we break for drinks and the ability to converse in small groups, the energy level just shoots up.

That, I suspect, is what a lot of us are here for anyway.

Related post: Clippinger on collaboration

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