Thinking about thinking, Theorizing about theory

This is a work in progress. I welcome challenges to it, and opportunities to understand where communication has failed. I’ve worked hard to get this far, and I feel rather insecure about it; confidence in the language should not be interpreted as certainty that I’ve chosen the right words.

There are qualitatively different ways in which we are able to perceive:

  1. We can perceive one thing at a time.
  2. We can perceive several things simultaneously, and the way that one thing follows another thing. (We can perceive them in a sequence.)
  3. We can perceive several things simultaneously, in an arrangement where they are related to each other, but not sequential.
  4. We can perceive several things simultaneously, while also aware of a set of relationships between those things that are changing.

There are also qualitatively different ways in which we can arrange our work:

  1. We can do things with out arranging them at all.
  2. We can pick a specific task as ‘the one that we will do’.
  3. We can plan a set of things to be performed in sequence.
  4. We can specify an objectively testable end-condition for the work.
  5. We can orient towards a goal whose achievement cannot be objectively tested.
  6. We can orient towards an imperative that can never be satisfied.

When we ask someone to do something, the ‘qualitative layer’ at which we communicate is an indicator of the trust that we have in their ability to understand and to act.

Within a domain where they have some competence, a person will have qualitative layer that they prefer to use when arranging their work. Trustworthy development will progress from ‘less abstract’ to ‘more abstract’ within a domain (we master ‘doing’, then ‘tasking’, then ‘planning’, then ‘specification’, then ‘goal-setting’, then ‘imperative-setting’).

When we observe the world, there are qualitatively different ways that we can arrange what we perceive:

  1. We can take the perception without organizing it at all
  2. We can make observations and organize them as ‘belonging to an entity’ in the domain
  3. We can infer imperatives or tendencies on the part of observed entities
  4. We can infer goals, stopping points or other limits on the imperatives of the entities
  5. We can declare a specification of the significant features of the entities and their relationships to each other.

As our maturity develops within a domain, our capacity to arrange our perceptions can follow a ‘progression of increasing abstraction’ in the same manner as our capacity to arrange our work.

This categorization is not an end in itself, we can make predictions informed by the framework:

A conversation between two people using the same cognitive arrangement strategy (the same ‘level of abstraction’) will feel natural and comfortable. It is a ‘peer to peer’ conversation.

If my arrangement is one step less abstract than your arrangement, then I will be able to translate what you say into my arrangement; once I have done that, it will make sense to me.

If my arrangement is two steps less abstract than your arrangement, I will not be able to fully comprehend what you are saying unless you translate it into less-abstract terms. If I cannot fully comprehend, I will respond emotionally (awe, disgust or disengagement, depending on predispositions and circumstances).

Words are a lossy compression method for thoughts. I.e. when we translate our jumbled thoughts into words, there are things that get left out.

Communication is effective when the message that is received matches the message intended to be sent.

When one can monitor the way the message is received (eg, in face-to-face communication when I can observe your response to what I say), one can communicate concepts that are one level less abstract than the thoughts motivating the communication.

When one cannot monitor the way the message is received (eg, in written communication) I must anticipate and correct for potential misunderstandings, without the opportunity to test for misunderstandings. Therefore, I can communicate concepts that are two levels less abstract than the thoughts motivating the communication.

When two parties to a communication disagree, they will never reach agreement unless they are both communicating at the same level of abstraction. (And the level of abstraction they communicate at is the level at which the disagreement truly exists.) Identifying the true level of the disagreement is the first step in resolving any disagreement.

There are further implications

There are further implications of this body of theory, particularly when referring to organization design and to technical disciplines (especially computer programming), but that’s as far as I’m willing to go without stopping to check if the message received is the message I intended to send :)

Written by

Nick Argall is an organization engineer, structuring activities to help businesses achieve their goals.

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