This method evolved from observing patterns of conversation in dialogue in conjunction with applying the method of systematics. It can also be considered as a form of structural communication.
N-logue is a method of structuring conversation according to the number of active participants.
Conversation has often been regarded as an important art capable of refinement and development. Scholars of an earlier age would learn how to debate which involved artificially taking on a position and arguing it against a protagonist taking an opposing view. By taking on a position that the person may not have actually held by inclination, he could gain a perspective from an alternative view to his own that would otherwise be difficult to obtain. Not only that, he could learn how to work within a set framework of conversation, just as in a game such as chess where the moves are predetermined.
Adopting a view or role that is at variance with accustomed views and manners serves to awaken consciousness in people. This is because they are separating themselves from themselves. Obeying rules of conduct also enables people to see more impartially.
Of course, debate can become a mere skill operating only at the sensitive level. Debate is focused on winning and that means, on someone else losing. What if, instead, there were a process in which all participants gain?
An image of such a conversation was given in C. S. Lewiss novel That Hideous Strength. A man and woman, two of his main characters, talk with each other in such a powerful and evolving way that the gods themselves are drawn into the house in which they are speaking. In another but allied vein, the philosopher Martin Buber urged people to speak to each other as Thou and not just as It that is, to acknowledge the common humanity in which we share.
With the arising of dialogue a field of experience and investigation was established in which we could learn about ways of speaking together that were of mutual benefit. Dialogue does not exclude dispute or the meeting of contrary views, but it allows for far more than winning or losing in argument. At the same time, the dialogue process does not involve any explicit framework of speaking together but proceeds largely by association, from moment to moment.
Experiences in dialogue began to reveal to us that there recurrent patterns of interaction that could be made more conscious and explicit. This led to N-logue.
Systematics played an important role simply by focussing attention on the possible significance of the number of people involved in a given sub-totality of conversation. It was first observed that dialogue moved forward under a general set of conditions. First of all, there had to be some meeting of contrary views. This brought about a rise of energy. People became interested and concerned. Secondly, there could be the intervention of a third person offering yet another view by which the previous two were somehow fused and transcended. Speaking in threes always seemed significant. In this, there was an echo of the systematic principle of the triad, or three-term system, which can be formally suggested by A + B = C.
Having felt the importance of speaking in threes, the possibility arose of making this more deliberate. At the same time, it became equally possible to look more deeply into the forms that speaking in twos could take.
For speaking in threes or trialogue we had to devise a set of rules and also a set of roles. The most important rule had to be that the people involved were not allowed to reduce the conversation to a collection of paired interactions. To speak in threes meant that there was imposed a three-way conversation. To implement this, the rule was devised of having the three people involved A, B and C speak one after the other in a set sequence: A-B-C-A-B-C-A etc.
This in itself was challenging and rewarding. In nearly all the conversations we have, if one speaks and another replies, then the first speaker feels bound to further clarify or qualify what has been said. In other words, the tendency is to go back-and-forth and collapse the conversation into a dyadic (two-term) mode. By being forced to speak one after the other in threes, the old habit has to be suspended, allowing for something new and unexpected to enter. The participants had to subject themselves to hazard. We can think of this as the hazard of misunderstanding. Our idea was that this very hazard would be conducive to changes in understanding. If someones reply (or the next statement) revealed what the first speaker thought was a misunderstanding, then he or she had to let it go.
The second step was to specify set roles for A, B and C. According to systematics, the three terms of a triad take up three mutually relevant characteristics, such that each is distinct but adds together to make a whole. These roles also had to provide a working rationale for the conversation, a way of making it move. The set of roles with which we have worked is as follows:
A Questioner: asks questions
B Answerer: gives answers or offers statements or assertions
C Commentator: provides comments relevant to question and answer or simply introduces new relevant information or enrichment
Other sets of roles are possible but have not been worked with. An example of an alternative approach might be:
A speaks intellectually
B speaks in terms of feeling
C speaks from sensation
Given three roles and one rule of operation, the rest follows. The trio A, B and C first discuss what topic to take up and also what roles they will adopt to start with (they can be changed round at any time through mutually agreement). A trialogue, therefore, is established in a context of free dialogue.
It was found that:
Given the interesting results of trialogue, we looked into what forms could apply with other numbers of people, such as one, two and four.
The possibilities with two people are more than might appear on the surface. Two main forms came to mind.
A point of departure was the well-known technique of yes-and. It had been observed that many conversations between two people was governed by the phrase yes-but that is, the respondent would seem to agree but in fact would be disagreeing! We decided to split the composite yes-but into pure yes and pure but. The pure yes would be form B and the pure but would be form A.
Thus, in form A: each of the two people would strive as far as possible to disagree with what the other said (no-but). It was pointed out that mere repetition of the same argument would not be allowed. Thus, in each exchange, each person would have to come up with something more. Of course, at times, this resulted in the two people shifting their ground so much that they could end up in quite different positions from where they started!
In form B: each of the two people would strive as possible to agree with the other (yes-and). This meant that they had to come up with something more to add onto what the other was saying. Again, it was not allowed that either person simply said yes or repeated what the other said, even in paraphrase.
It can be noted that even in form A, each person has to be conducting a yes-and internally with themselves.
As a variant, we also introduced a form C such that: each person would continue on from where the other left off. The effect of this was to act as if with one voice, dissolving the difference altogether.
The nature of dyalogue two-term conversation in any of these forms was to stretch those involved. In effect, these forms led people to explore the possibilities of the space of contention. They were still not in debate in the classical sense, since no one could win. Each depended on the other in order to go further.
We felt that it was important to appreciate the value of difference.
Form C led us into consideration of monalogue (note this is not the same word as monologue though very similar). Here we came across something very important. This concerned the audience. Though it is quite possible and valuable for people to shut themselves in a room and talk to themselves another possibility revealed itself. Single people could speak in an audience such that the audience was a necessary feature. Monalogue showed that listening was as important as speaking.
The role of the audience in monalogue is to provide acceptance an atmosphere of consent to everything said. Now, this has been recognised as valuable in the field of psychotherapy. The mere act of being listened to is in itself therapeutic. It is relatively rare experience in our usual world of conversation to be listened to without negative judgement and with full attention. Under such conditions, the person speaking can begin to express himself or herself in ways that would not normally be able to do. In doing so, they immediately learn something new. The power of monalogue is that this can be set up without any particular skill on the part of the audience simply a willingness to participate and with almost no preparation on the part of the speaker.
In actual practice, a few people who speak in monalogue revert to their automatic programmes, playing the same recording of views that unwinds whenever any given topic is raised. If they do that, then they usually soon run out of steam. In such cases, it is sometimes possible to encourage them to go further, in which case something of a different order has to click into place. What is automatically programmed is exhausted, so something more immediate, experiential and felt must be drawn upon.
Bringing to expression is a wondrous thing. Whenever someone speaks such that they have not usually spoken in such a way before, then there is an action in them. They are then experiencing something akin to revelation. When someone says something that surprises themselves they are well able to learn in and through it.
Speaking is transformative.
We have hardly begun to understand the significance of speaking for our state of being. Speaking has been marginalised or trivialised, or given over to experts and teachers. What is common to almost all speech has been disregarded as a central power of our very being. It may be no accident that Buddhism deals in the triad: Body Speech Mind.
Our exploration of monalogue, dyalogue and trialogue then brought us to consider tetralogue - speaking in fours. Here we drew upon basic systematics. The nature of the tetrad or four term system is that it is constructed from the conjunction of two pairs of oppositions. What we did was to take these two oppositions as being derivable from the two basic forms A and B of dyalogue, applied together.
As in trialogue, there is a set sequence of speaking: A-B-C-D-A etc.
A says something, offers a point of view
B performs yes-and in agreement and enhancement to A
C performs no-but in disagreement and contrariness to B
D performs yes-and in agreement and enrichment to C
A performs no-but in disagreement and contrariness to D
...And so on
Of course, every member of the tetrad hears what all the others says, so he or she is processing information from three other sources. Thus, their contribution, even though it is predicated as a response to just the previous speaker must implicitly take into account the whole conversation.
It should be noted that we have here some semblance of the first kind of N-logue, that is monalogue, with a critical role for the audience. In effect, three of the people are acting as consenting listeners for the one person speaking at any time. Thus everyone is involved in awareness of the whole as well as playing their own individual role. The holistic power of this method is considerable.
Observations of tetralogue indicate that the effect is rather as if the idea under discussion is being seen as if it were a piece of sculpture viewed from all sides. A kind of three-dimensional holograph is generated. The structure of the tetralogue generates a kind of scanning of the idea from all points of view that builds into a composite whole. It may well be that this method replicates how we build up our perceptions in the first place such as the perception of objects only we have such perceptions so entrenched in our functioning that we have lost access to how they came into being.
A kind of tetralogue has been specified by David Kaplan, who has influenced William Isaacs of MIT, presently active in promulgating dialogue in industry. In Kaplans scheme, the four roles are:
According to Kaplan, these four roles will emerge of themselves out of a self-organising process. Also, no one person will have any fixed role. Different people at different times will take different roles. However, a conversation is enhanced if the people involved are aware of the four roles. Our suggestion is that the practice of our form of tetralogue will educate people to recognise such roles in a very fast way.
We should note how close the two forms are to each other. There is something intrinsic in the structure of four that will always be much the same. Thus, note also that Kaplans fourth role of bystander is very similar to our commentator in trialogue.
However, we should also acknowledge the greater artificiality of our approach to Kaplans. In Kaplans way, there is no set order for the people to speak in the conversation. The four roles can appear in almost any sequence. We simply argue that having a set sequence makes it more possible for the people involved to acquire an awareness of the mutual relevance of different roles. When people have an unstructured conversation, they may be so caught up in their own ideas and in argument that they cannot see what is going on.
We have not progressed to any higher order of N-logue than tetralogue. One of the reasons for this is that sustaining the chain of speaking beyond four may be too taxing. However, we are looking towards experiments with pentalogue. One idea we have is that we should try adding a fifth person to tetralogue as a disturbing force to the system. This would impose on the fifth a considerable demand. He or she would be free to intervene at any point in a cycle of the four, but only once, say, in any cycle. He or she would act in a similar way to person Ç - the commentator - in trialogue.
Of critical importance in any N-logue (even monalogue!) are the role-functions of:
These two are complementary functions, though often in opposition. They can be seen in operation in the process of dialogue in the performance of different types of facilitator. Since dialogue is creative, there is a rationale for disturbing the peace as well as pointing out the wholeness. They are also implicit in dyalogue. Dyalogue, as we implied, is based on our understanding of the dyadic system and in this system there tends to be one pole that seeks the whole while the other seeks the part.
In a creative process, the same act by which what has gone before is brought into a whole also generates a new point of departure that departs from the past and therefore disturbs.
The complementary role-functions are mentioned because they recur in every form of N-logue in some guise or other. They also indicate that what we done so far in ascribing roles to people is at a very early stage. Also, we lack a wide-ranging data base of observations of people in unstructured conversation from which to draw inferences on possible role functions.
What we rely on very much is that the simple fact of specifying the number of people and giving them equal status is enough to set in motion the corresponding N-logue and the specification of roles merely serves as a starting point.
N-logue may have its roots in early Greek drama. From Aeschylus, to Sophocles to Euripedes we can witness a progression from having just one character speak, to two and then to three. This accompanied a development of democracy since the progression was towards the people speaking together freely. Our present dramatic art uses as a matter of course the speaking together of several characters to reveal a truth. In Greek drama we have the chorus that corresponds to our audience that also participates. The chorus represents a pool of speakers not yet drawn into the sphere of N-logue.
N-logue is a reality in the midst of human conversation. All we have done is to bring it out and into view. In any meeting of people only a few are truly engaged with each other in any one present moment. The rest are passive or are playing the role of listening audience. The ability to sustain conversation between more than two active participants is limited, but it can be fostered. During a dialogue, it is possible to see that there are moments in which more and more people are drawn into an active reciprocal exchange and others in which it all collapses back into dyalogues or even separate monalogues. This may not mean that there are not in operation higher-term N-logues only that they may not be felt or noticed by the participants. This is a very important point.
It has been observed by making tape recordings of meetings and then transcribing them for review that much more is accomplished and brought to realisation during a dialogue than the participants can be aware of at the time. It might appear to them that good ideas are ignored or rejected during the turbulent process of the dialogue but the recorded evidence usually shows that this is not, in fact, the case. The good idea that seemed to be ignored eventually appears later on in a different guise and is integrated into the whole.
In writing about this in our book Structures of Meaning, we suggested that this might be looked at the way in which ideas are detached from the subjectivity of their proponents and attain a state in which they neither affirm nor deny but just are. Another way of looking at this is that the whole of a dialogue brings about a higher-order N-logue at the level of the group as a whole, even though this is not apparent to those involved. This makes the practice of N-logue all the more significant as a way for people to attune to what is really happening. Otherwise, they can feel frustrated and lost.
William Pensinger describes in his novel The Moon of Hoa Binh how he witnessed a conversation in a café in Asia between twenty or so men that was one whole conversation, even though they were clustered into several sub-groups and not apparently acting like a total group at all. In such a phenomenon, we might bring to mind the recent studies of networks in which it is being understood that very large networks can be sustained by having different sub-clusters interconnected with each other through a relatively small number of links. The study of networks may be usefully informed by research into N-logue. For the most part, the interconnectivity of nodes in a network cluster is taken to be a composite of dyadic links. There has been, as far as we know, no attempt so far to consider connectivities of threes, fours, etc. as distinctly significant. This may be because they relatively rare, and therefore not statistically significant.
The speaking together of several people is one of the most extraordinary phenomena we can encounter. The act of speech has not been studied in terms of the generation of meaning since it is only in recent times that meaning has become a respectable thing to study. David Bohm has proved an important pioneer in this respect. Many years ago he proposed - in his book The Unfolding of Meaning that we should consider as a fundamental triad of categories Matter, Energy and Meaning. This has now become the triad Matter, Energy and Information since Bohm introduced the further concept of active information, which has much the same implications as meaning.
It is also important to mention the work of Karl Popper and Sir John Eccles in suggesting that we should consider three worlds. World 1 is that of objects, materiality and fixed existence. World 2 is that of subjective experience. World 3 is that of meaning in that it includes such things as Hamlet, the theory of relativity, Chartres Cathedral, songs and so on. World 3 is the world of public space. It is where we create meaning together. N-logue is work in World 3 par excellence.
Yet another way of considering what is involved is by calling on the Japanese concept of ba or place of meeting as expounded by Nonaka. He argues that organisations wishing to enhance their intelligence and innovation capacity need to set up bas and link them together to form a basho or constellations of meetings. The deliberate creation of a public space of meeting (in World 3) is something new. It has been hidden up until now because of the prevalent assumption that we know what we are doing in talking with each other and have nothing to learn about it. In fact, we do not know. The evidence for saying this is everywhere around us. So often, talking is being used as a form of violence as on television shows and hardly anyone is taking seriously that there is something to be understood before we can speak together to create meaning rather than to seek to destroy the meaning of others.
The assumption that we know how to speak is much the same as the assumption that we know how to read (see article on structural communication). They are unfounded assumptions. Only when this is more generally realised can we hope to see serious research into the nature of conversation.
On a physical level, it is also important to realise that, when we speak, nearly all the muscles in our body are involved. Speech is an expression of our total organism. It is even the case that when we listen, corresponding effects are released in our bodies. More than this, it is highly likely that in speaking together people can become coupled so that their psychic realities are what is called entangled. Quite subtle influences may pass between people through organising speech such as in N-logue. Speech is organic meaning.
If people are not prepared and developed to take it on, the kind of coupling through organised speech we have indicated can result in a reaction of the immune system. If there is a strong belief in being a separate entity locked into a private world, an experience of true speech may not be therapeutic at all but traumatic, leading to rejection of others. Most of us will have witnessed this at some time. Some people are talking and opening up and then quite suddenly one or other of them begins to be negative and apparently intent on destroying whatever meaning has emerged. This can be witnessed between couples, inside organisations, etc.
N-logue, then, offers a way into a world of extraordinary importance for our welfare; but it can never be imposed on anyone, nor should it be considered as a panacea for our conversational ills. At this stage it is only for those who truly wish to create meaning together and are prepared to do the work. Although, it needs to be said that most people can get an enjoyable taste of it - as if it were a game. At least, it is a taste of a co-operative game.
One of the most exciting areas in which to come across N-logue is in musical improvisation in groups. The contemporary composer John Zorn has developed a method called COBRA in which musicians create music together in sub-groups. There is a kind of prompter to regulate the process. A musician can ask him (gesturally) for a given number of musicians, including himself, to play together and the prompter will point these out and lay a card down to signify the start. There are other cards to designate a repetition or imitation of a session etc. There is also provision for a guerrilla group whose job it is to disrupt the music currently being played.
There are great possibilities for N-logue in music. As a suggestion, one might adopt an experiment conducted recently. In this, there were four trialogues, the commentator of each near enough to each other to hear what they were saying. The commentators had the job of performing a tetralogue amongst themselves. In such a way we can imagine building up quite complex sets of relationships amounting to a composition in form.
Summary of Technique
The patterns of N-logue can emerge spontaneously within a dialogue involving many people. It is also possible to practice them deliberately. Some people find this difficult to handle and it is not for all.
1-logue or monalogue (not monologue) is one person speaking, but not in a vacuum. There is an audience, whose role is to listen actively with presence, in an attitude of complete assent. The challenge is to say what you mean. Nothing you say will be denied. Everything you say will be heard. This can be more powerful than a meditation, or it can provide an avenue of creative thinking. If there is a rule in monalogue, it is that you do not stop talking but go with the flow.
2-logue or dyalogue (not dialogue) is two people talking. This can take many forms, according to the logic of: inclusiveness, exclusiveness and sameness. In inclusion, the mode of speech is called YES-AND: everyone the one person says is supported and enhanced by the other. In exclusion, what one person says is denied by the other, who seeks a radically different alternative. This mode of speech is called NO-BUT and is similar to the classical form of the dialectic. In sameness, when one person stops talking, the other continues as if with the same voice. These three modes are practised as distinct arts (art is the root that appears in the word artificial) allowing for endless variation in combination with each other.
3-logue or trialogue is very different. Since the usual mode of communication is between two people (or one to many as in a lecture) having three people is a radical step. The third person is able to act as witness, to be impartial, to see connections the other two may not have had a chance to see. Any of the three can take this on. Since the people (A, B, C) have to speak in sequence, and not all at once, a set order is imposed: A - B - C - A, etc. To preserve the sense of three, there is a rule that no two people are allowed to engage in any back-and-forth discussion. This is hard for many of us, because we want to make our point clear and not be misunderstood! To give form to the proceedings, the three speakers take on different roles. It has been found that the most useful is if: A asks a question; B states an answer, and C provides comments. Different people find one or other of these roles most congenial, but the practice is that everyone takes a turn at all three roles. Different people interpret the role of C in different ways. There is no set method, the only criteria being (a) that what C says is relevant to what A and B have said, and (b) he or she enhances the meaning. When trialogue gels, a current of conversation develops that generates its own insights.
4-logue or tetralogue is conversation between four people. Sometimes known as the circulation of ideas, tetralogue is a co-ordination of argument. A four-fold situation can be understood as a combination of opposites. Out of several possibilities, the following structure for the roles of A, B, C and D seems to work best. A expresses some view on the topic. B then expresses a contrary, alternative, view (cf. dyalogue). In turn, C expresses an enhanced, supportive version of Bs view. D then expresses a contrary view to C; and A must then express a view supportive of D! And so on. Of course, what is said by any one of the people is affected not only by the person who spoke before but by all the others as well. The net result is akin to a rotation around an idea - the theme - which is seen from different perspectives, as a piece of sculpture viewed from various sides. Its not as hard as it sounds.
Any group taking on these patterns needs to develop its own etiquette. However, a few basic points may be helpful.
1. The group agrees before-hand a theme for discussion.
2. Roles are allotted (or, in the case of dyalogue, which mode to use) and also a means whereby proceedings can be stopped by mutual agreement and roles changed.
3. Only one person speaks at a time. It is recommended that people do not speak at length but as succinctly as possible. It is also recommended that, as far as possible, they do not hesitate and leave the others in suspense! It is good to have a sense of flow.
4. The content of what is said should be neither too personal nor too abstract. For example, it is not helpful if A in the trialogue asks B about his or her sex-life! Neither is a quest for factual information usually beneficial.
5. Patience is often needed. Sometimes the conversation will flag. Stay with it if you can.
N-logue in Literature and Thinking
Monalogue: stream of consciousness, sub-voce speech, speech-music
Echoes or anticipations of N-logue can be found in literature. Monalogue is the stream of consciousness that can be found in such major works as James Joyces Ulysses. This can serve to illustrate to people what monalogue can be like. It is the free association called upon in most psychoanalytic practice. It is the articulation that feels as if it were just below the surface of habitual thought patterns.
Dyalogue: and, negation, laws of form
Dyalogue is to be found in what most people call thinking. Thinking takes place in a series of steps, which can be considered as two voices talking together in some kind of alternation. The prospect of dividing oneself in such a way is found in therapy and self-analysis. It is also important in critical thinking. The formal basis of the dyad has been best dealt with by Spencer-Brown in his seminal work The Laws of Form. His calculus rests on the act of making a distinction. The deeper aspect of dyalogue is to enable people to feel and enter into the very act of making a distinction.
Trialogue: playing a role, circularity, following meaning
Trialogue was, in fact, the main form adopted for the traditional dialogues that scientists and scholars published hundreds of years ago to show the bases of their reasoning. In the twentieth century, we can think of the trialogue in Heideggers Discourse on Thinking, called Conversations on a Country Path between a scholar, a scientist and a teacher. Trialogue can in fact be written with oneself playing three parts and used as a technique of creative thinking. Here is an example, that serves as a commentary on trialogue itself:
Tetralogue: four-part harmonies, the world of an idea, nature naturing
Tetralogue of a kind is found in very many places represented as grids, maps, tables, etc. charting out four basic quadrants of meaning. We have not found any common examples in literature of four-fold conversation. Part of the intrinsic reason for this is that tetralogue gives a spatial and timeless feel, just as in the four-dimensional framework of relativity theory. However some interesting experiments have emerged, such as Lawrence Durrells Alexandrian Quartet (based on relativity theory) and the recent movie Time-cone in which the screen is split into four parts each showing continuous video footage of the same characters as they pass from location to location. ??????
Pentalogue: the individual voice, the oracle, the gods and the chorus
We have not so far experimented with pentalogue and seek first to feel our way into its characteristics. For purely intuitive reasons we associated pentalogue with sacred literature.
Our final note is to associated the practice of N-logue with Patrick de Mares advocacy of koinonia usually translated by him as impersonal fellowship. This is a key to the whole thing and an implicit message in the trialogue recorded above. N-logue works when there is a willingness to converse that is not based on greed, sexuality, kinship, belief, etc. It has to be for the sake of the conversation itself. By giving oneself to the conversation, the conversation gives back an essential humanity. What makes us human is the power to speak and to listen. This well-known saying of Christ is pertinent: "When two or three are gathered in My Name, then am I with them."
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