What would Harrison Owen have developed instead I ask myself, if he had been thinking about the coffee breaks of today? Open Space technology as a facilitation method was developed using the idea of a coffee break, where he realised that the most valuable conversations often happen between meetings, and in coffee breaks. Not in the actual meetings themselves.
Looking around at many of the participants at a workshop I participated in recently it seemed that most of the conversations in the coffee break were taking place outside the room. Most of the conversations were with other people far away and with people probably doing a million and one things other than being in a workshop. These conversations were the digital kind, the tweeting kind, the messaging kind or the putting comments on facebook kind. Ok, so it was a Social Media course, with perhaps a little extra inspiration to be doing this, but still indicative of the kind of cultural communication shift that frames our coffee breaks these days.
And it wasn’t as if there weren’t any conversations, it was that they were mostly silent and not taking place between human beings sat conversing face to face.
It wasn’t that there wasn’t communication, it was just digital rather verbal.
And I’m pretty sure it wasn’t that the participants didn’t want to talk to each other, we just had, during the workshop which was participatory and engaging in a way that involved everyone and gave us opportunities to talk.
I wonder if it was more to do with the fact that there is an extra dimension to the way we communicate these days, and we somehow need to make space for it. We need to have conversations with each other face to face, but we also crave that interaction with others in another way using the powers of technology. So, having just conversed and discussed and questioned all through the workshop, maybe there was this sense of having had enough of actual people, of being sociable in the traditional sense. And in doing so, using the digital world as some kind of break from verbal interaction people, the need to switch modes, to do something other than talk to each other.
But how does this all fit in, and what is the priority? Surely there is room for both, whether in our every day personal life, or at work. The way we communicate has become super multidimensional. But has something had to give, has one type of communication been diminished at the expense of another? Or are we just adapting in a very fast way, without really knowing about it? Quantity is not necessarily quality, maybe our face to face conversations have become more efficient as we need to ensure we have time for the other types of conversations. Maybe if we equate coffee to actual face to face conversation, we are need to equate tea and herbal tea and smoothies and juices and other soft drinks to the different type of communication available. We like choice, don’t we?
I like to think that there is room for everything, at some point, in its place. But it is a question of balance. And getting that balance right, having the right conversations in the right place, with the right people has perhaps become more complicated. The rules of engagement are constantly changing and the methods that we use to engage so vast and fluid that perhaps we need to take care we don’t get lost in the choices.
I do like to think that the coffee break to some degree will always involve a bit of banter, and chatter and that there will always be those spontaneous conversations at the vending machine or over the kettle. There is an intrinsic and irreplaceable value in our face to face conversations and interactions. But they are very seldom just face to face for very long and our conversations may need to be created in different ways as people divide their time between the here and now, the face to face and that need to digitally connect.