Cooperative conversational threading

by philh2 min read15th Apr 201525 comments


Conversation (topic)
Personal Blog

(Cross-posted from my blog.)

Sometimes at LW meetups, I'll want to raise a topic for discussion. But we're currently already talking about something, so I'll wait for a lull in the current conversation. But it feels like the duration of lull needed before I can bring up something totally unrelated, is longer than the duration of lull before someone else will bring up something marginally related. And so we can go for a long time, with the topic frequently changing incidentally, but without me ever having a chance to change it deliberately.

Which is fine. I shouldn't expect people to want to talk about something just because I want to talk about it, and it's not as if I find the actual conversation boring. But it's not necessarily optimal. People might in fact want to talk about the same thing as me, and following the path of least resistance in a conversation is unlikely to result in the best possible conversation.

At the last meetup I had two topics that I wanted to raise, and realized that I had no way of raising them, which was a third topic worth raising. So when an interruption occured in the middle of someone's thought - a new person arrived, and we did the "hi, welcome, join us" thing - I jumped in. "Before you start again, I have three things I'd like to talk about at some point, but not now. Carry on." Then he started again, and when that topic was reasonably well-trodden, he prompted me to transition.

Then someone else said that he also had two things he wanted to talk about, and could I just list my topics and then he'd list his? (It turns out that no I couldn't. You can't dangle an interesting train of thought in front of the London LW group and expect them not to follow it. But we did manage to initially discuss them only briefly.)

This worked pretty well. Someone more conversationally assertive than me might have been able to take advantage of a less solid interruption than the one I used. Someone less assertive might not have been able to use that one.

What else could we do to solve this problem?

Someone suggested a hand signal: if you think of something that you'd like to raise for discussion later, make the signal. I don't think this is ideal, because it's not continuous. You make it once, and then it would be easy for people to forget, or just to not notice.

I think what I'm going to do is bring some poker chips to the next meetup. I'll put a bunch in the middle, and if you have a topic that you want to raise at some future point, you take one and put it in front of you. Then if a topic seems to be dying out, someone can say "<person>, what did you want to talk about?"

I guess this still needs at least one person assertive enough to do that. I imagine it would be difficult for me. But the person who wants to raise the topic doesn't need to be assertive, they just need to grab a poker chip. It's a fairly obvious gesture, so probably people will notice, and it's easy to just look and see for a reminder of whether anyone wants to raise anything. (Assuming the table isn't too messy, which might be a problem.)

I don't know how well this will work, but it seems worth experimenting.

(I'll also take a moment to advocate another conversation-signal that we adopted, via CFAR. If someone says something and you want to tell people that you agree with them, instead of saying that out loud, you can just raise your hands a little and wiggle your fingers. Reduces interruptions, gives positive feedback to the speaker, and it's kind of fun.)


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In large formal groups: Robert's Rules of Order.

Large organizations, and organizations which have to remain unified despite bitter disagreements, developed social technologies such as RRoO. These typically feature meetings that have formal, pre-specified agendas plus a chairperson who is responsible for making sure each person has a chance to speak in an orderly fashion. Of course, RRoO are overkill for a small group with plenty of goodwill toward each other.

In small formal groups: Nonce agendas and rotating speakers

The best-organized small meetings I've ever attended were organized by the local anarchists. They were an independently-minded and fierce-willed bunch who did not much agree but who had common interests, which to my mind suggests that the method they used might be effectively adapted for use in LW meetups. They used the following method, sometimes with variations appropriate to the circumstances:

  1. Before and after the formal part of the meeting is informal social time.
  2. Call the meeting to order. Make any reminders the group needs and any explanatory announcements that newcomers would want to know, such as these rules.
  3. Pass around a clipboard for people to write agenda items down. All that is needed are a few words identifying the topic. (People can add to the agenda later, too, if they think of something belatedly.)
  4. Start with first agenda item. Discuss it (see below) until people are done with it. Then move on to the next agenda item. In discussing an agenda item, start with whoever added it to the agenda, and then proceed around the circle giving everyone a chance to talk.
  5. Whoever's turn it is, they not only get to speak, but they are the temporary chairperson also. If it helps, they can have a "talking stick" or "hot potato" or some physical object reminding everyone that it's their turn. They can ask questions for others to answer without giving up the talking stick. If you want to interrupt the speaker, you can raise your hand and they can call on you without giving up the talking stick.
  6. Any other necessary interruptions are handled by someone saying "point of order", briefly stating what they want, and the group votes on whether to do it.

In small informal groups: Natural leaders

Sometimes people have an aversion to groups that are structured in any manner they aren't already familiar and comfortable with. There's nothing wrong with that. You can approximate the above structure by having the more vocal members facilitate the conversation:

  • Within a conversation on a topic, deliberately ask people who aren't as talkative what they think about the topic.
  • When the conversation winds down on a topic, deliberately ask someone what's on their mind. Be sure to let everyone have a chance.
  • Tactfully interrupt people who are too fond of their own voices, and attempt to pass the speaker-role to someone else.

What happens in the anarchist group if someone does not wish to relinquish the stick? (Perhaps the very ethos of the group makes this unlikely. But I'm curious if there's a method for dealing with people who, as you put it in the third part, "are too fond of their own voices".)

In theory, an annoyed person would have called "point of order", asked to move on, and the group would vote up or down. The problem didn't occur while I was present.

One technique we've used with moderate success is to pass a clipboard around. People can jot down notes, or conversational ideas that are tangentially related or unrelated. Sometimes that provides a convenient way for someone else to say "hey, what's this thing you wrote down about?".

It also could let you list your three things to talk about in a breadth-first manner rather than talking about each one sequentially.

It probably sounds like a better idea than it is in practice; the clipboard gets stuck when holders get distracted, or people still refrain from bringing things up, or whatever. But you might try it out anyway!

Idea related to the clipboard, but combined with poker chips:

There is a stack of blank note cards on the table, and several pens/markers. If there's an existing discussion and you want to talk about an unrelated topic, you grab a notecard, write down the topic, and place it face up on the table. At any time, there may be several note cards on the table representing topics people want to talk about. Each person also has a poker chip (or a few) that they may place near a particular card, expressing their interest in talking about that topic. Poker chips are basically upvotes.

I like the index cards approach. I worry that the poker chips start making things distracting, which will discourage their use or reduce their effectiveness.

You're right, I think poker chips is too messy. Since you already have pens right there, it'd be better for people to just write a little mark / star / [their name] on any card that they were interested in.

[-][anonymous]6y 0

[Our informal team of students] gathered in numbers from 3 to 20, and we gradually came to just having an appointed scribe noting down everybody's contribution and later mailing it to the participants and people who could not attend. You could directly tell the scribe there's something you want to talk about or comment later via e-mail, if you thought you need time to organize your thoughts. Which you should note down if you don't want to interrupt somebody regardless of whether you expect to be able to speak about them or not.

The more people there are the harder it seems to bring up something new because multiple people want to talk. If that happens often at your meetups it might be time to split the group into two.

If you do want to have discussion with 5 plus people you can have a moderator. Roberts rules of order would seem appropriate. LW people usually are good at following fixed rules.

In environment where there aren't fixed rules, I have found body language to be a tool to signal that I want to talk. I change my posture to be more upright and come forward. I raise my muscle tension. I take up a bit more space. I hold stronger eye contact with the speaker.

If I do this I often manage to look like I want to speak to other people. It's still requires other people to give you the word, but getting the skill of looking like you want to speak down helps you also outside of LW meetups where you can't trust that people know why you took the poker ship.

Sometimes there a situation where pauses between speakers are very short and I need 3 seconds to form a sentence and get speaking. In those situations making a gesture such as putting your hand on the table can signal to other people that you "take the floor" before you actually speak.

Robin Hanson's "EquaTalk" seems relevant:

Conversation is an art. There were points in time where the upper class engaged in lots of it governed by elaborate rules of etiquette. And apparently there is a 'well-known' Cooperative Principle which states

"Make your contribution such as it is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged." -- ''Grice, Paul (1975). "Logic and conversation". pp. 41–58.''

This could be used as a guide: For a pleasant conversation experience (OK, may not be everybodys goal) do not abruptly change topic but slowly steer toward your intended topic by using intermediate steps. This also reduces the Inferential Gap thus preparing the ground for your topic without needed to recourse to much once you start.

I don't remember what we were talking about when this happened, but the three topics I wanted to raise were

  • How does one signal that they have a topic that they want to raise?
  • We've previously had discussion about getting good photos taken of us, can we open that discussion again?
  • Did anyone see that thing I wrote recently and does anyone have opinions about it?

If I were obeying traditional rules of ettiquette, and was attempting to steer gradually between these topics... I imagine the likely result is that I make some jumps that seem jarring to everyone else, and still fail to raise them all before I have to leave. And that's if nobody else has an agenda.

I think the "steer gradually" thing works well if the goal of the conversation is just to pass the time pleasantly. It would be a disaster in a boardroom meeting. At least to me, LW meetups are neither of those, and it doesn't seem obvious that adopting ettiquette wholesale from either situation would be optimal.

good photos of people are valuable and I would highly reccomend. In lieu of good photos taking skills, take lots of photos with a fancy camera on an automatic setting. (lots = 100+ per person)

In different poses, in different places, outdoors, indoors, looking at or away from the camera, pulling happy, normal or other expressions.

some relevant information:

We've previously had discussion about getting good photos taken of us, can we open that discussion again?

What do you mean -- is the answer something other than "find a good portrait photographer"?

What do you mean -- is the answer something other than "find a good portrait photographer"?

That still leaves the question of how you find a good portrait photographer.

It also useful to discuss issues about what to dress, what kind of background to use, how to get nice looking body language and in general what photos are appropriate for the occasion. Do I want to signal that I'm nice by smiling? Do I want to look more conservative?

That still leaves the question of how you find a good portrait photographer.

That's a different question and the answer to it is likely to depend on the context (are you in a big city? do you have friends who are good photographers? etc.)

and in general what photos are appropriate for the occasion

Do you think there are universal answers to these questions?

In LessWrong Sydney we are blessed with an unusually high number of natural leaders or people quite good at steering conversations. Its our luck, and we take advantage of it. (I am one of those people) (estimate 5-6 of our core are like this, usually at least 3 are at a meetup)

I stubbornly take out a notepad and pen, and persistently make notes on "current topic", a few words or so. in addition, if ever there is something I want to mention, I also write it down (often as I feel the conversation steering away without covering it), and people don't seem to mind coming back if the conversation does not naturally steer back over it. So far I have never not-managed to mention something and don't usually feel over-bearing in controlling the conversation (although I have my feelers out about doing so around LW)

I would like to emphasise as well that social control and awareness is a skill that can be learnt through some of each of books, online guides and in-person-practice.

The traditional way to announce a contribution is to raise your hand and wait until the current speaker or a moderator elects you. You may have heard of this method. Sarcasm aside this does work. Having a moderator (a role that may take turns) can also help to keep focus. Precodition on such a role being accepted. Also your hand is always available even if you do not have chips.

That feels a lot more demanding, to me. If someone raises their hand, I'd expect them to get the floor within a few minutes, and if they then started to speak about something totally unrelated, I'd be surprised and perhaps a little annoyed - that could have completely cut off an interesting and productive thread. For my purpose, I'd be happy to wait an hour for a point where we wouldn't be leaving the old topic in the lurch.

A modification of this, which I was introduced to at the DC meetup, is for each person to display a number of fingers--the first person to want to speak 'takes' number 1, and then the second person takes number 2, and so on. This gives you a queue to follow afterwards, without needing a moderator (but also doesn't get the benefit of intelligent moderation).

[-][anonymous]6y 1

Tell culture? potential solution,

To me it feels awkwardly autistic. I mean, I am probably autistic, I am just bloody ashamed of the possibility and like to pretend behave as if not, as I am not sure anyway. But if I could overcome that I could easily see myself telling people if I raise my left hand, please see it as a sign I would like to talk and get undivided attention in the next 10 mins and you are not obliged to comply, just know and recognize I would like to. Deny the request if you wish to, just be clear that it is a denial, and accept the chance that I am less likely to come to this meeting again if I get too many denials.

It feels to me that tell culture is about what you say, and this is about having an opportunity to say it.

Just create a subreddit for the meet up. You can post/vote(up/down) comments/questions/topics before/during/after the meeting.

Of course it would work even better if people could "quarters up" their favorite posts. Why would it work better? Because it would allow participants to quantify their interest in the various comments/questions/topics. Plus, how cool would it be to get paid for being an excellent poster?

Just create a subreddit for the meet up. You can post/vote(up/down) comments/questions/topics before/during/after the meeting.

Likely leading to people being on their smart phones instead of listening. The whole point of a meetup is direct interaction.

Plus, how cool would it be to get paid for being an excellent poster?

In generally people don't enjoy being payed a lot under their usual wage. Changing to monetary norms for a social interaction is often bad and doesn't incentive good behavior.

Offering to pay a woman with whom you are on a date for sex isn't a good move.

We've gone beyond the capacity of the human mind to an extraordinary degree. And by the way, that's one of the reasons that I'm not interested in the debate about I.Q., about whether some groups have higher I.Q.s than other groups. It's completely irrelevant. What's relevant to a society is how well people are communicating their ideas, and how well they're cooperating, not how clever the individuals are. So we've created something called the collective brain. We're just the nodes in the network. We're the neurons in this brain. It's the interchange of ideas, the meeting and mating of ideas between them, that is causing technological progress, incrementally, bit by bit. However, bad things happen. And in the future, as we go forward, we will, of course, experience terrible things. There will be wars; there will be depressions; there will be natural disasters. Awful things will happen in this century, I'm absolutely sure. But I'm also sure that, because of the connections people are making, and the ability of ideas to meet and to mate as never before, I'm also sure that technology will advance, and therefore living standards will advance. Because through the cloud, through crowd sourcing, through the bottom-up world that we've created, where not just the elites but everybody is able to have their ideas and make them meet and mate, we are surely accelerating the rate of innovation. - Matt Ridley, When ideas have sex

Less Wrong meet-ups should be orgies. Everybody should be having sex with everybody. They won't be having sex with their bodies of course... they'll be having sex with their brains. Do you want people to have safe brain sex? No way! Every meet-up should be responsible for the birth of a billion beautiful brain children.

And in order for this to happen... you really can't have a format where everybody holds their questions/comments until the end of some lecture. You can't pass one mic around and have everybody listen while one person speaks for 5 minutes. You need a format where people freely and simultaneously throw their thoughts out there... and freely share their thoughts on other people's thoughts.

You want a bunch of brain storms... not one brain drizzle.

With a completely decentralized format... you can have dozens of different discussions simultaneously occurring. But... how can you know what people in other clusters are discussing? You can't... unless people use Reddit to share notes on their discussions.

When information becomes more symmetrical (here, here)... the nodes can continually better position themselves. The AI cluster will grow or shrink depending on people's interests and information. Same thing with the economics cluster and the transhumanism cluster and the epiphyte cluster. Clusters will break apart and reform with different nodes... so there will be fusions and hybrids... like Chinese tacos and coywolves.

The logical consequence of destroying the dam is that you'll get a flood of information. Facilitating a bunch of brain storms will result in a deluge of information. The challenge will then be prioritizing. Your brain can only process so much information... so you'll want to process the most valuable information.

This is why "quarters up" is necessary. The crowd uses their pennies, nickles, dimes and quarters to give more volume to the most important information. Essentially they are saying... "have sex with these ideas!"

Offering to pay a woman with whom you are on a date for sex isn't a good move.

Is it a good move to accurately communicate your valuation of her company? Of course it is. And it's absurd that it's acceptable to give her a diamond but it's not acceptable to simply give her the money instead.