Collaboration or collective monologue?

I heard a great term recently – “Collective Monologues.

The context I hear it in was where young children first attend day care, preschool or kindergarten.

Apparently they all happily play together and have a great time. But if you listen carefully to what is going on then you realise that they are not all playing the same game. In fact they are not even having the same experience.

Because the kids are used to people listening to them, they are all talking happily, but because they are not used to listening or negotiating what game to play, they are not actually listening and responding to each other.

They are all enthusiastically sharing their own thoughts, oblivious to the fact that the other kids are sharing completely different thoughts. It’s fine because they are all enjoying their own monologue and also enjoying being in the company of others – they are just not collaborating at all.

So what the teachers do is to let them have some fun, but then start pointing out what someone said. Eventually they might introduce the idea of a “thought bubble”. Staying in the same thought bubble means listening to someone and building on what they are saying.

Changing thought bubbles means moving onto another thought. If you do this then I guess you want to make sure people know you are thinking about something new, but also that they are going to join your thought bubbles rather than staying in their own.

But adults know better right?

I thought the idea of little kids and their “collective monologues” was cute. But then I decided to pay attention in some meetings and try to notice whether people were “sharing the same thought bubble” or whether they were actually in different conversations.

The concerning thing is that I actually noticed several sessions of “collective monologues”.

One person would say something, people would nod and then someone else would say something.

Then the first person would add something relevant to what they had said before, but not related to what someone else had said since then.

People were happily sharing their own thoughts (sharing a monologue) while not even noticing that others were sharing their own monologues.

Everyone was happy talking and the meeting flew by. But I am not sure we were actually in the same meeting.

Collaboration then, is different to sharing the same space while talking. I am a coach and I like to think I am good at collaboration, but it is disturbing to think that sometimes join a “collective monologue” ceremony, or that I sit there passively while everyone in the room continues on oblivious.

Collective monologues might be fun, but they do not help us solve a problem or come to a shared understanding.

So next time you are “collaborating” – try observing how each persons comments (or questions) follow on from what someone else said. Noticing when people are not “in the same thought bubble” means that you can save time AND improve the richness of the collaboration.


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