Explosions: When Personal Experience Meets Social Interaction

Explosions: When Personal Experience Meets Social Interaction

Inspired by Ann Kowal Smith’s previous reflection on the power of experience, Books@Work Board member Karen Nestor reflects on the ways in which that experience is compounded through social interaction of the sort provided in Books@Work seminars. Karen is a longtime educator, having taught every single grade level from kindergarten to graduate school and has deep experience as a researcher, often employing a biographical approach.

A few weeks ago, Ann Kowal Smith wrote about The Power of Experience and ever since I have been musing about how that power is multiplied through social interaction. We all are shaped by our unique life experiences and we are using what we have learned from life in a myriad of ways each and every day, but often we are completely unaware of the experiences that are behind the ideas and actions of those around us. We simply never have the opportunity to talk about so many things that have made us who we are.

In Books@Work we have seen the exponential power that is unleashed when people share their life experience with others in new ways and begin to challenge their assumptions about the world and each other. I like to think about how shared ideas actually explode into possibilities for future learning and action that benefit individuals, their co-workers and organizations as well.

The workplace is filled with assumptions about what is possible. When people engage with others in a lively discussion of good literature, they often are surprised by the error of their assumptions about each other. I never knew. . . or Now I understand. . . are frequent refrains in Books@Work discussions, as long-time co-workers surprise each other with experiences, talents, or insights that have never been evident. And when assumptions are broken, new potential emerges. In one company, a group of line workers gained confidence from their discussions and stepped up to solve a sudden personnel gap; their supervisors recognized that they had the skills to prevent a looming problem.

The explosion of impact goes beyond the knowledge gained about each participant because the interaction in a book discussion actually changes the social dynamic within the group and beyond. We are aware of the social siloes that exist in many organizations, but we may be less aware of the behavioral habits that dictate what people say and how they say it over time. These unspoken interpersonal rules often limit the potential for alternative ways of working together. Books@Work creates a safe space where cross-hierarchical participants can experiment with ways to disagree without consequences, challenge each other’s ideas, ask dumb questions that lead to big insights, introduce an outlier point of view. These new ways of interacting can make their way into work-related discussions that lead to more effective collaboration.

One of the things that many lament is missing in contemporary life is common sense, and literature allows us to tap into our intuitions about how life works. Some cognitive scientists have begun to suggest that participatory sensemaking activities are essential to our ability to learn and grow. That is precisely what happens when groups come together to talk about literature that deals with the fundamental questions that challenge humans in their lives. When we puzzle together about why a problem emerged in a novel or how people managed to make their way through a challenge in a short story, we are exercising our common-sense-making muscles. And those strengthened muscles are better prepared to bring that same common sense to all aspects of our lives.

I urge Books@Work participants to pay attention to how their interactions with others are exploding the power of experience in their lives and in the workplace. We would love to hear your stories.

Image: M. W. Turner, The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, 1834-5, Philadelphia Museum of Art [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

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Karen Nestor

Karen Nestor

In more than four decades as an educator, Karen has taught at every level from early childhood through graduate school. She recently completed a doctorate in human and organizational learning, with a focus on how people repeatedly reshape their lives throughout the lifespan.  Karen is a member of the Board of That Can Be Me, Inc., the facilitator of Books@Work.