Johnnie Moore

Threepenny words and facilitation

Why avoiding too much detail is usually good in facilitation
Johnnie Moore

Johnnie Moore

I’m Johnnie Moore, and I help people work better together

'Simple language, short instructions' is a good mantra for facilitation

Transcript of this video:

The writer, John Clippinger talks about what he calls high register language. And as soon as I use that phrase it’s quite likely that if you haven’t heard it before your brain is now having to work a bit on what could that possibly mean.

So to spare you that it basically means jargon. It means fairly specific, often quite technical language designed to convey things with precision. And that’s sometimes quite useful.

I remember when, from my days of flying that over the air traffic control at busy airports and in busy airspace, pilots used a lot of very specific technical jargon so precise information could be conveyed very quickly and efficiently, so that planes would end up in the right place rather than crashing into each other. And a lot of flights could be processed in a limited period of time.

So that was great. But Clippinger argues that there are also many cases where we’re tempted to use that precise, high register language where it can be quite counterproductive at conveying what he calls command intent. …actually allowing groups of people to follow instructions in a way that’s creative and effective.

And to use, you know, a mundane example, if I think about a process I often facilitate called open space, I’ve been doing this for something like 20 years, and I think when I was first doing it I tended to give quite long instructions to groups because you know, it’s a potentially complex process.

There are various things that can happen or arguably go wrong, and I thought it was helpful to people before they started to have pretty good guidelines on what to do.

Over time I discovered that this was somewhat counterproductive. The more detail you load people’s brains with the less they can take in.

So I wasn’t actually successfully conveying useful rules to them because people start to tune out and also often the essence of the process is that people will muddle through.

And these days I try to explain it in 5 or 10 minutes and I tend to say to people, I expect you’ll be able to muddle through, which actually gives people to improvise within the structure.

And in my experience, that nearly always works really well because it conveys more power and agency to the participants.

And as a general principle, I think when leading, managing or facilitating groups, we’re often going to do better to take the risk of using what Clippinger would call low register language, or I sometimes call threepenny language to give people more power to create for themselves rather than trying to treat them as sort of robots or computers where we just need to get the programming exactly right.

Often I think when people talk about complex systems there’s a tendency to drift off into, well “what are the heuristics of strange attractors?” and before you know, you’ve lost everyone.

I think if you want an organization to run well, it’s often gonna be a good idea to use language that pretty much everyone in the organization will have some idea what it means rather than lose people with a kind of fake precision.

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