Relate – Complex Responsive Processes

The following is an article I’ve written about the need to become more conscious of the complex relational dynamics that impact how we can productively work together:


I believe we need to gain a more practical grasp of what it means to connect and work with each other – whether it is in projects or in groups or in organisations or communities.

The UK scholar, Ralph D. Stacey, in his account of communicative action, proposes that any meaningful themes or knowings arise “between people, while always, at the same time, being experienced in individual bodies as fluctuations, marked or subtle, in the feeling rhythms of those bodies” (2001: 141). In this account, human bodies reciprocally form each other as they are, in turn, formed by each other, through various interactions, using “tools and cultural artifacts [sic]”. Stacey suggests that what is purportedly captured in artefacts, such as written texts ,  “can only become knowledge when people use them as tools in their processes of gesturing and responding to each other” (96).

However, Stacey does also caution us against assuming that this organising the experience of being together doesn’t lead to all interacting human bodies sharing the same identical experience. To support his claim that the sharing of common experience between human bodies is debateable, Stacey draws upon on a new interpretation of George Herbert Mead’s theories of mind, self and society, synthesised with analogical insights from the complexity sciences. Stacey argues that knowledge is not something that can be stored but instead perpetually emerges, indeterminately, out of the interaction of the individual and the social (69). These are interactions principally between human bodies in the medium of various symbols that includes oral and written language. Symbols, in turn, are understood as consisting of gestures ‘thrown together’ with responses.

It is in these responsive, bodily interactions of relating that knowledge is continuously reproduced and transformed, rather than stored and shared. The same might be said of the dynamics between playwright, director and actors, and consequent audiences. Experiential knowledge is continuously reproduced and transformed in and between all these embodied persons through words, silences, tones, gestures, actions and in-actions(101-102). Stacey reiterates:

Knowledge, therefore, is not an “it” but a process of action. Action is undertaken in the living present and is, therefore, ephemeral … Reified symbols can be expressed in the forms of marks and so stored as artifacts. However, these artifacts are not knowledge. They are tools that people use in their bodily communication with each other in which meaning and knowledge arise. (116)

It is through acting and interacting together, that meanings are produced and reproduced. Individuals respond differently, out of their unique bodily dispositions, to the emerging text-driven themes. Nothing is being shared as each body uniquely resonates around common themes to do with being together. Stacey concludes that they are not “sharing knowledge” but are really just responding and interacting with each other in meaningful ways (141).

Stacey, Ralph D. 2001 Complex Responsive Processes in Organizations: Learning and Knowledge Creation London and New York: Routledge

For more details about other resources about this valuable approach to complexity, feel welcome to contact me.