How our theories of time affect how we meet together

Whenever people agree to meet together to discuss work it seems to provoke deep anxiety about how to do it. To a certain extent this is well motivated: as a matter of mutual respect, it is worthwhile reflecting on what there might be to talk about and to come prepared. Participants in the meeting, particularly those with greater responsibility for organising it, want to be able to ‘use the time well.’  There is often a fear that not planning things in detail will look ‘unprofessional’, or that not mapping out all of the time will ‘open a can of worms’.

‘Making good use of the time’, then,  sometimes leads to over-planning, trying to map out how the meeting should go in highly detailed ways, sometimes by setting objectives for each session of the meeting and trying to tie things down to the minute. This arises from a linear, instrumentalised understanding of time and the presumption that thought  precedes action. There is a assumption that we can anticipate, as we plan the meeting together here and now, how things will unfold at some point in the future and that our thinking today is adequate for the situation we will encounter when we meet together. Sometimes so much effort is put into ‘structuring’ the meeting, with games, presentations, ‘feedback sessions’ and the other appurtenances of workshops and extended meetings that we have all become accustomed to using, that most metings will have very little opportunity for evolving in unexpected ways. The ‘structure’ prevents it happening, and the meetings do indeed unfold according to the plan with spontaneous and important discussions breaking out in the coffee and lunch breaks instead. This is particularly ironic when people are coming together to discuss how they might work differently, or how they might adapt to new and emerging circumstances. They try and contemplate the new in very habituated ways.

I was recently in a meeting where we sat around a table and were subjected to Powerpoint presentation after presentation as a way of ‘discussing the work’. Of course, that’s the last thing we did, because there was very little time to discuss the work with the presentations taking up most of the time. One might say that what was needed was greater variety in the presentations, a different sort of organisation: more games, more ‘break-out sessions’. We could say, still, that we need to ‘use the time better’.

Suppose we think of time differently, though, not as a linear phenomenon, but as a cyclical process. Supposing, as St Augustine suggested, we are only ever in the present: the present of the past, the present of the future and the present of the present, the last of these the living present where we wrestle with all three. If we consider , if we could allow ourselves, that we are constantly reinterpreting the past in the expectation of the future, cyclically, then allowing time for this exploration in the living present, where spontaneous irruptions of the planned might allow for a different future to emerge from the one that we have been anticipating. If we could pay better attention to how we are thinking about how we think, rather than paying attention to our timetable and our objectives, maybe we could come to understand what we are doing differently.

This might suggest further instrumentalism, however, if we convince ourselves that we can plan into the programme refelection sessions where the radical insights will necessarily occur, a bit like thinking we can plan to spend ‘quality time’ with our partners or children. We still delude ourselves into thinking that we can  manage time perfectly. Unfortunately, none of knows when this quality time will arise. Good quality discussion is a skilful practice that develops episodically between people in an environment where they can sustain both knowing and not knowing where the discussion might be heading.  It is a risk – it may turn out that we have not  ‘used the time well’. Tolerant of ambiguity, of undertaking planned activities with an expectation that important and unplanned things may arise as a consequence, skilful discussants are able to negotiate continuously how to go on together. They are aware that when we plan things together we are hit and miss.

Allowing for episodes of reflection, being alert to suggestions, irruptions, conflict and constantly interpeting  important themes of conversation that are not necessarily present in our meeting plan could open the way up to all kinds of exploration of the new and the unexpected. Our meetings never unfold in a linear fashion, but emerge as we struggle with each other over what we think we are doing and who we are. In this struggle we come to understand ourselves, and what we are doing, differently, and unpredictably.

“We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”


3 thoughts on “How our theories of time affect how we meet together

  1. Pingback: Tying ourselves up in knots - performance management « Reflexivepractice

  2. Pingback: Stephen Billing’s Blog » Reflexive Practice - Chris Mowles’s Blog

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