A social interaction pattern language 2 of 2

Getting good at social interactions is vital for social learning.

We live in a social world. Every action taken that involves more than one person arises from conversation that generates, coordinates, and reflects those actions. At best, those group actions serve the well-being of the whole: not just the whole of a particular organization, but the whole of life. However, as we well know, many group actions are not life-serving. They are disconnected, existing in a fantasy in which, by analogy, it’s as if they imagine it is possible for the cells in one’s stomach to work against the interest of the cells in one’s heart, without thereby acting against their own interest as well.

Because these group actions, destructive and constructive both, arise from group conversations, those conversations become a potential leverage point for anyone looking to shift the system. People who convene formal group conversations—facilitators, meeting planners, et al.—are particularly well placed to make a difference, and thus we carry an ethical responsibility. We can support processes that empower people, or processes that prevent them from taking charge of their own lives. We can plan meetings that are genuinely open as to outcome, or let ourselves be co-opted by the powers that be as tools of manipulation. We can spread skills for solid group process as deeply and broadly as possible, or we can horde knowledge. Basically, group conversations have power—and the people involved with this project believe that power should be shared . . . and that sharing power in this way serves life.

A group led facilitated by Tree Bressen is working to develop a pattern language for group process.

A Pattern Language is an attempt to express the deeper wisdom of what brings aliveness within a particular field of human endeavor, through a set of interconnected expressions arising from that wisdom. Aliveness is one placeholder term for “the quality that has no name”: a sense of wholeness, spirit, or grace, that while of varying form, is precise and empirically verifiable.

The term was originally coined by architect Christopher Alexander, who, together with five colleagues, published A Pattern Language for building in 1977. Others have since applied the term to economics, software design, liberatory communication, and more.

The group’s goals are:

  • To support Purpose-driven design. Form should follow function. The most important part of any meeting planning is to get clear on why you are having the meeting. That choice drives all subsequent choices for that event.
  • To deepen the skills of those who serve as group process guides, leaders, hosts, and facilitators. To assist with their learning in how to do design. To help them choose among many possible processes to create something that will be the best possible fit for their situation at a given time.
  • To serve as a resource for those who are teaching others to design, lead, facilitate group process.
  • To increase process literacy among people who are users of process(es)—which is all of us. Our world needs us to wake up and get more savvy about this.
  • You can see the work in progress and sign on to contribute at the group’s website.

    Pattern Workshop

    I spent part of yesterday and today writing patterns. I’ll show you what I came up with (in league with Kaliya Hamlin and a few other volunteers).

    Our pattern is called Helicopter. It had been named “Go Meta,” but we decided that was not easily understood.

    Most topics of group discussion can be visualized as a series of layers. The helicopter goes up a layer or two to get the “big picture” or a wider vision. Looking at the forest reveals viewpoints of a higher order than looking at just the trees. From the vantage point of the helicopter, you only see the forest.

    The Helicopter view is also known as going meta. Meta-learning is learning about learning. Meta-cognition is thinking about thinking.


    “Context” is the Helicopter view from a higher altitude.

    The facilitator may direct the conversation to the helicopter level by asking for similarities between objects. Things that are characteristic of an entire group of topics are generally meta.

    Alternatively, the facilitator could use graphics to explain the higher-order process. A process map or social network diagram gives the Helicopter view.

    Map the situation to show the connections. The network of nodes and connectors is at the meta level.

    In some cases, the facilitator may be able to get the group to the meta level by simply asking about the structure of the ecosystem surrounding the topic in question.


    • Finding a bottle neck in a system
    • Understanding the patterns of communication in a network
    • Investigating processes instead of isolated events

    Douglas Hofstadter uses meta as a stand-alone word, both as an adjective and as a directional preposition (“going meta”, a term he coins for the old rhetorical trick of taking a debate or analysis to another level of abstraction, as in “This debate isn’t going anywhere.”). This book is also probably responsible for the direct association of “meta” with self-reference, as opposed to just abstraction. The sentence “This sentence contains thirty-six letters,” and the sentence it is embedded in, are examples of sentences that reference themselves in this way. See Wikipedia article on meta


    Letter from Isaac Newton to Robert Hooke in 1676: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”

    Patterns are meta.

    If you cannot discern a pattern, perhaps you’re dealing with a chaotic system. (Chaos has no meta.)

    “One person’s variable is another person’s constant.” Jay Cross