Rules of engagement

August 29, 2020

Kyle glenn gcw WWu uBQ unsplash

I got a little angry in a Slack group a day or so ago at an attempt to manipulate what was ‘permitted’ in an open collaboration; second time around with the individual in question which other participants might not have realised.  I suspect the protagonist here is someone who feels he lacks recognition and that is always a dangerous starting point for interaction with those who have achieved it.  Either way there is nothing like anger for creativity and I ended up generating a set of rules for how to conduct a disagreement.  I pushed those out on social media and they have had a good take-up. Accordingly, I decided my first serious blog after my COVID break, which has lasted nearly three months would be to summarise them and provide some context.

I had the great benefit at school of being formerly training in rhetoric and I also fell in love with Cicero at an early age.  So the use and misuse of language are not unfamiliar to me.  I also note that Aristotle and Plato didn’t like the sophists very much as they felt they were just teaching people how to get their own way regardless of the truth.  Almost certainly true but awareness is key to countering such shenanigans.

I think it is important at this stage two to say that you can’t prevent conflict, and indeed there is nothing wrong with it per se as it allows for genuine differences to be explored.  What matters is how you behave in that debate.  Here Wikipedia is a great place to learn how to engage properly as it has lots of rules about how you can behave but none about content adjudication  Behaviour is then an enabling constraint that allows the emergence of said content as you have to engage with people you disagree with, without personal attacks and using evidence.   It also helps if you follow the admonition on the green bin pictured!

So what are the rules – well in no particular order I lay them out below as a set of guidelines.  I plan to do some more work on them better structure them and also provide supporting material as a part of our current work to get all of the complex facilitation techniques within the Cynefin family up to date, codified and modified for virtual interaction.

I should also make it clear that I have sinned in respect of all these rules over the years, but poachers always make the best gamekeepers!

Guidelines for conflict

You don’t have to agree with everyone and respect for a person does not entail respect for an idea, method, or tool – so feel free to call things out but:

  1. No ad hominem attacks (look at the NPA policy on Wikipedia for some guidance here)
  2. No passive-aggressive attacks
  3. No innuendo or indirect references – be honest; if you think someone is wrong then call them out directly so they can respond
  4. Sweeping condemnations of classes of people are generally a bad idea; it tends to be taken personally
  5. No claim to authority (I have done 100+ engagements, let me tell you … etc.)
  6. Don’t deflect: if a point is made, answer it don’t try and shift the ground to somewhere you are more comfortable
  7. Don’t restate the other person’s point of view, that almost inevitably creates a straw(wo)man argument; better to say “Is this what you meant?”
  8. Always remember you might be wrong, only partially right, right but ahead of your time etc. etc.
  9. You don’t have to have the last word, but yes we know that is difficult
  10. Remember the difference between a dichotomy and a dialectic – in the later resolution of differences mostly creates something new.
  11. Metaphors can be cruel a rhetorical device, use them sparingly (OK in general explanation of a complex idea that is different)  I refer here to associating people and their ideas with bad stuff
  12. Don’t say “research has shown” unless you can back it up and it’s not a good tactic anyway as you may get called out.  You carrying out a few interviews is not research.
  13. Adding a smiley face to an ‘on the edge’ comment is not a good idea (see rule 2)
  14. Avoid delivering moral lectures to other participants in group chats, you are unlikely to really occupy the moral high ground anyway and it just pisses people off
  15. Critically, remember sensitivities, educational background, experience etc.  Again Wikipedia says ‘Don’t bite the Newcomers’, respond in kind don’t escalate.  If you don’t know about epistemic injustice read up on it before engaging.
  16. Critically if you see someone else playing these games, call them out rather leaving it to the target

If you decide to criticise (or even attack) someone else’s ideas then you need to be resilient enough to handle the response and ultimately (Wikipedia is again good here) if you can’t engage properly then its OK to exclude some people.  Calling out behaviour which breaks these rules is not an ad hominem if you show evidence


Green Bin by Kyle Glenn, Buffalo by Richard Lee both on Unsplash

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

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