Why the NCC Works

Bob 1One of the groups I belong to calls itself, modestly, the Northwest Corner Caucus (NCC).  We meet at “our Starbucks” most mornings.  We solve problems; we cause problems—it’s your ordinary group of guys (mostly) sitting around with too much caffeine.  I thought for a while that we might get T-shirts made, but it seemed a comedown when we already have…you know…a starship.  I had to sort through a lot of pictures to get one where the NCC, the Northwest Corner Caucus, was that clear.[1]  Of course, we don’t meet here, but I am sure there is a Starbucks on board somewhere.  I would guess…near the transporter room.

While there isn’t anything like a “membership,” there are people who make the kind of contribution to the group that is so substantial that there wouldn’t really be a group without that person.  The person who fits that description is named Bob.

Bob made a comment some months ago that made a lot of things clear to me.  He said, “You know why I like these discussions?  It’s because there is no ego involved.”  It isn’t exactly true in the most general sense, but the comment had a context and in that context, I knew exactly what he meant and I knew he was right.  He meant that we, those of us who gather in that corner, argue like colleagues, like fellow craftsmen.  He meant that the quality of the argument was our joint project and that when we did our work well, we both took pride in it.  When we didn’t, we were disappointed in our work.  He meant that no one ever “won.”

That particular comment came after we had spent half an hour, maybe 45 minutes, working on the question of whether God, who put limits on His power for the purpose of covenanting with human beings, should still be called “omnipotent.”[2]  Bob’s view of God doesn’t incline him to either view or, quite frankly, to care.  My view of God makes the question more interesting, but I don’t actually care one way or the other about the answer.  We both grew up in very conservative religious settings—it was one of the first common backgrounds we discovered about ourselves—and we knew this was the kind of question that split churches and divided families.  Not us.

Sometime in the minute after Bob said our discussions were not ego-driven, he said the same thing in another way.  “There isn’t any counting coup,” he said.  And again, he was right.  Particularly with religious questions, people with our upbringing are taught that taking a piece out of your opponent—showing that you could demolish his argument, and then not doing it—was the right way to do it.  It was a blow for Truth, if not for Freedom.

The arguments do get heated sometimes in our little corner, the membership in the group changes morning by morning[3] and Bob and I remember that “counting coup” is not part of what we are doing here and together, we steer the discussion in some other direction.

Bob was on the streets, finding a way to take care of himself, by the time he was 12.  It is entirely improbable that since then, he has directed plays and represented unions and has run the conciliation service of the State of Oregon.  It isn’t very likely, but it has the merit of being true.  Here is what seems more remarkable than that.  Here he is in a comfortable suburban Starbucks trading stories, jokes, and observations with people who had a lot of social advantages he didn’t have and never once, in my hearing, playing the “poor kid” card.[4]  The pressure must be nearly intolerable.  Bob’s way of arguing is to point to better available arguments or unacceptable consequences of pursuing the current argument or by telling a story about a friend of his—probably, he himself was “the friend”—who had an experience very much like that.  Nothing remotely like, “if you had grown up on the streets like I did, you would know how much better my argument is than yours.”  I say the man’s a hero.

There’s a rhythm that goes with talking with Bob.  I’ve liked this style of conversation for a long time and just within the last few months, I heard a name for it.  It’s called “back-channel communication.”  Back-channel communication refers to all the small sounds or remarks or facial expressions that indicate agreement with the speaker or that offer recognition, at least, that it is this speaker’s turn to speak.  When I’m holding forth, Bob can say something as long as “I saw a movie that made that exact point last week,” without ever giving me the impression that he is pushing me to finish my turn so he can have one.  Here’s how that works.

Because I know he isn’t trying to shorten my turn, I hear what he says without being anxious about it.  If I take a breath while he’s saying that, it’s a short breath because I know I am still “on.”  I recognize his contribution and continue my turn—very likely I continue that same sentence.  Having made his comment, Bob relaxes and continues to invest himself in what I am saying.  And because both of us treat “back-channel communication” from either of us in the same way, there is a notable and satisfying rhythm to our exchanges.

If that sounds unfamiliar, let me contrast it with something that will sound more familiar.  You start to agree with a speaker or note the value of what he is saying, and he raises his voice to cover up what you are saying.  He leans forward.  The shoulders go up a little.  The speed of delivery increases.  This guy has reacted like you tried to board his ship and he is engaged in repelling the attack.  That means I don’t relax.  It means I don’t reinvest in his turn.  It means our rhythm is shot to hell and the heat of the discussion has just risen with no corresponding increase in light.  It’s sad, really, but it isn’t uncommon.

But it doesn’t happen all that much in our corner.

Bob has probably had more different kinds of experiences than anyone else at the table.  He might very well have read more books than anyone else at the table and seen more movies and managed more different kinds of construction projects.  But that diversity shows up in the range of people and of conversations he is interested in.  It doesn’t show up by his playing a trump on top of anyone else’s four of spades.

This particular corner of this particular Starbucks brightens the mornings of a lot of people.  Some of these people—I am one—don’t always have good nights and the time when the Starbucks opens and the Caucus convenes, is a time to look forward to.  I’ve seen other groups that were more or less like this.  They don’t last all that long, as a rule.  Somebody moves; somebody dies; an interpersonal grievance is sustained and not redeemed.  Something.  And since it might not last, I’m going to enjoy every moment of it.


[1] I have begun to build a back-story for us.  According to his version, we met first on January 7, of 2001.  The Star Trek people were so jazzed about the beginning of the group that they put our first meeting date on the Enterprise as 1701, but which, in a clearer numbering system, would be 1/7/01.  This is in the long tradition of the Pogo comics where Walt Kelly, who drew and wrote the strip, would put the name of friends and acquaintances on the side of the barge.

[2] I know that seems abstruse, but it is a common kind of argument.  Does a worker who can hardly see at all without his glasses, but who sees well enough to do the job when he is wearing glasses, have a “handicap?”  You can see both arguments at a glance.  The difference between one and the other is millions of dollars.

[3] You don’t have to do anything to be a “member” except just sit there and listen to the discussion.

[4] Try to imagine that.  It’s like being the only black guy in the group and not claiming moral superiority because you are an oppressed minority.  It’s like being the only woman in the group and not claiming superiority because you see things in a more human way.  It’s like being the only Asian in the group and not gaining a step on an adversary by accusing him of “Western-style linear thinking.” 

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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