All conversation between mammals is about relationship

Gregory Bateson was studying porpoise communication when he realised that all conversation between mammals is about relationship.

(‘Communication’ here is meant in the widest sense, including gestures, movements and other types of non-verbal communication.)

At first the trainer would reward a porpoise with a fish whenever it performed a particular trick. The porpoise learned what that meant, and this established a relationship between them.

Then the trainer made it more difficult: he wanted to reward the porpoise only when it performed a new trick. But how could he communicate this?

At first the porpoise did not understand the new rules. Indeed “the experience of being wrong was so disturbing to the porpoise that in order to preserve the relationship between the porpoise and trainer it was necessary (in the trainer’s judgment) to give many reinforcements [fish] to which the porpoise was not entitled*.” When, eventually, the porpoise understood what was being asked of it, it “put on an elaborate performance including eight conspicuous pieces of behaviour of which four were entirely new — never before observed in this species of animal**.”

As Bateson subsequently realised, all communication between mammals is about relationship. The giving of ‘undeserved’ fish was about preserving the relationship. The putting on of an elaborate performance was about preserving the relationship. And when Bateson himself reported these findings in a lecture hall packed with other people interested in communication, the real communication that was going on was not about whales or porpoises but about the relationship between him and the people in the room. The ‘speaker at the podium’ was communicating in ways that asked for attention from the audience, and trying to them to see things in a new way. The audience in turn was showing respect for the speaker at the podium. And all within the ‘rules’ laid out for how to behave in a scientific conference about whales.

So what?

Things are not things, they are processes. Processes are relationships. Relationships are communication. Communication is about relationship. The yellow duck is only yellow because we see it that way. It is our interaction with the world that shapes the way we see it.

So what? What does this have to do with strategy and sustainability?

Well, at a simple level, if all conversation between mammals is about relationship, then it means that when a manager asks (or tells) an employee to do something, what is really going on is that they are having a conversation about the relationship between them. The way the conversation happens (for example, asking or telling) communicates something about the relationship between them. And both parties will either agree or disagree with what is being unspoken about the relationship.

When twelve managers sit around a table discussing the monthly financial results, what they are really talking about is the relationship between them — who has done ‘well’, who needs to ‘improve’.

When those managers talk about strategy, they are talking about the relationships between them and the outside world, which their strategy is going to interact with.

When people start looking for ‘sustainable’ ways of living and doing business, they are really looking for new ways to be in relationship with each other and with the world.

The story with the porpoise (*) illustrates that this can be a very tricky, and a very rewarding experience. In the first case, severe pain and maladjustment can be induced by putting a mammal in the ‘wrong’ regarding its rules for making sense of an important relationship with another mammal. In the story above, it was the porpoise who experienced upset when the trainer decided to change the rules. In our every day lives it is often the person who seeks to find a new way, a more ‘sustainable’ way, of relating who experiences rejection for being in the ‘wrong’ about his or her relationship with others.

But the story of the porpoise also shows (**) that if this pain and maladjustment can be warded off, then the total experience may promote great creativity.

Tomorrow we look in a little more detail at what happens when we combine “all conversation between mammals is about relationship” with “the yellow duck is only yellow because we see it that way.”

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