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Losing Meeting Focus

Towards Transformative Conferencing and Dialogue

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Part G of Towards Transformative Conferencing and Dialogue: Collection of papers and notes, problems and possibilities on the new frontier of high-risk gatherings concerning social development (1991).


The nature of focus may be partially understood from the various ways in which it may be lost during a meeting. These are the processes which may be guarded against although they are not necessarily independent.

1. Loss of immediacy

Participants may lose any sense of immediacy and allow discussion to focus on questions which erode their sense of urgency and responsibility. The assumption that necessary action can be taken on some other occasion, possibly by others, gradually holds sway.

2. Attention absorption

Topics become a focus for attention for different participants to the exclusion of any understanding of the context from which they emerge and by which they are linked.

3. Attention span

The complexity of the topic is such that participants do not have the patience to attend to any discussion of its intricacies and thus fail to comprehend it. This situation may be aggravated by poor verbal presentation, particularly when an audio-visual presentation would be clearer and quicker.

4. Topic change too rapid

When the meeting is switching between supposedly related topics, this may be done too rapidly for the participants to retain any permanent understanding of their connection.

5. Topic change too slow

Time spent by participants in treating one topic may be too great to retain adequate understanding of the previous topic. In this way they lose sight of the whole and may in fact become bored with excessive detail if they are not unnecessarily fascinated by it.

6. Loss of connectedness

Participants, for any of the above reasons, may lose understanding of the web of relevance interlinking the different topics under discussion. Conceptual fragmentation holds sway and most topics appear irrelevant to the participants major interest.

7. "Topic twigging"

Topics may be explored with such enthusiasm, that issues are broken up into sub-issues, sub-sub-issues, etc without any control over how to maintain the connection between such "twigs" or branches and the trunk of the "tree" from which they spring.

8. Games and traps

Discussion of topics may become enmeshed in various games and traps from which participants find it impossible to extract themselves. Such "sub-routines" may divert all energy from the fundamental or underlying issues.

9. Superficiality

The focus of the meeting may be trivialized by unnecessary enthusiastic interventions which do not take participants forward.

10. Disruption

The "noise-level" of the meeting may be such that no focus may be shared amongst participants.

11. Polarization

Discussion of the focus may provoke some participants to advocate a counter-focus, thus dividing the meeting.

12. Energy drain

The structure and processes of the meeting may be such as to drain participant energy rather than enhancing it. This weakens any focus which is still possible.

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