Monday, January 30th, 2017
Before we begin to talk about abstract group discussion, let us first understand what the word abstract actually means.
Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the word as follows: Abstract: disassociated from any specific instance
Abstract topics are generally considered most difficult to talk on (or write on, as they can also feature in WATs) because of the perceived difficulty in finding the framework for the discussion. As a result, most abstract Group Discussions either end abruptly or continue pointlessly with multiple instances of repetition – either of one’s own points or of the others’.
Assuming that they are generally well-informed, most individuals find it much easier to deal with a topical Group Discussion, or a case study, as both these types require one to follow the mental processes with which one is already familiar. Most of us, thanks to what we have imbibed through years of formal education, are used to following definitions, structures, steps, hierarchical models, flow charts, which lay down the path for us. Much as we would hate to admit it, we like rules and structures because we feel comfortable in the knowledge that there is an existing set of information and a set process to follow. The air of familiarity of process that accompanies a typical topical discussion is an instant relief to all of us, as it allows – superficially, of course – us to think in terms of easy binaries: Yes or No, Right or Wrong, For or Against, With Me or Against Me, and so on.
This simplistic way of thinking is thrown in disarray when one is presented with an abstract topic without definitions. Such topics eliminate the possibility of a binary approach, and force the participant to think in a way they are simply not used to. It is similar to being thrown in a game whose rules one does not know beforehand and must figure out quickly, or else the game will be over. Caught in the midst of the unknown, the mind tries the one (and only) thing it is used to doing – superimposing the rules of what it knows onto what it does not.
Here is an example: Imagine the topic under discussion is ‘Blue’. Most people will think of similar things to talk on the word ‘blue’ – the colour blue, the blue sky, the blue ocean, the blues music, the blue blood, the blue earth, and so on. After a while, one (or all participants) will reach a saturation point beyond which they cannot easily think of anything new to talk on ‘blue’. This is what will usually follow: “As we all have just discussed, the earth is blue as can be seen from outer space. The question is for how long it will remain blue. You know why? Because of too much pollution and climate change! Climate change is one of the greatest challenges we face today! Why not talk a little bit on climate change….”
Observer how the mind tries to twist an abstract topic into a topical discussion – the unfamiliar into the familiar – and thereby deviates from the actual topic. The mind needs structure and rules. What it cannot handle is pure, unadulterated, absolute freedom. It SCARES most people.
Many participants believe that their job in an abstract Group Discussion is to ‘interpret’ the topic. Such interpretation is usually made on the basis of a purely subjective view of the topic. I call it ‘the open sky’ approach. If you ask 3 different people to look at the empty sky and describe what they see, their answers will be absolutely subjective. In the blankness, some may see an elephant, a flower, a tiger, a gun, or pretty much anything else they can imagine, for which there need not be any universal point of reference.
When the participants ‘interpret’ an abstract topic, they follow the same process. For example, some will say that ‘Blue’ symbolises ‘love’ to them. To some ‘blue’ will mean ‘depth’. Some will find blue to be ‘the colour of calmness and tranquillity’, and the topic will keep on getting tossed around like a log on the ocean waves – without anything remotely interesting happening to it.
While such personal point of reference may seem better than the blue-to-climate-change sort of wild rollercoaster ride, it does not really showcase your ability to interpret the topic from a universal point of reference, which is very difficult to do, and on which you will be primarily assessed.
This is the problem: To you, ‘blue’ means tranquillity, so what? To me, it means something altogether different. So after a little bit of friendly jousting, we agree to disagree, and merely wait for the panel to announce the end. There is nothing in your interpretation that I can identify with, nor is there anything in mine that resonates with you.
The truth is our contribution to the GD – even if we do not deviate from ‘Blue’ – is negligible unless it is based on a universal (or at least broader beyond personal) point of reference. For example, the colour blue may bring to mind the Indigo revolt of 1859.
This is what I mean by a universal point of reference. It must be something with which the rest of the group identifies. It must go beyond the absolute subjective. Only then do you truly begin to contribute to the discussion by demonstrating your ability to see the connections that most do not.
In abstract GDs, you are primarily marked on the variety and innovativeness of your perspectives. Abstract discussions do not allow us to develop a point further in the course of the discussion. We need many, many new points, and we need them quickly. After you have exhausted the first few obvious interpretations, which will be pretty much the same for most participants, the mind truly begins to push its limits…and it is here that the magic lies. The mind begins to delve into the deepest recesses of your memories and experiences, and discovers something that may surprise even you…only if you allow it to. We reach a point where we feel that we can find nothing new further; that is precisely the point where we need to push ourselves a little bit more so that the mind begins to explore the unexplored. There is a simple way to bring about this push: Take 10 or so random subject matters, such as history, science, TV, literature, medicine, sports, and try to connect the given topic to each subject matter. For example, if I think of ‘blue’ in the context of food and cuisine, it reminds me of the Danish blue cheese, and the Cordon Bleu term that applies to the best of chefs and gourmet food. How do I know this? Because these memories are a part of my life experiences.
As a practice exercise, you may repeat this process across several topics. Take any abstract topic, and ride it across several subjects. Put yourself under a short time limit of a minute or less for each perspective. For example, if you wish to relate ‘blue’ with sports, do not allow yourself more than a minute. This exercise is most useful when conducted in a small group of individuals from (ideally) diverse backgrounds. You will be training yourself to think on your feet and make quick connections between two seemingly unconnected ideas – a most useful skill to have when you are on the job.
The greater the range of your experiences, knowledge, reading, observation, the more exciting the perspectives you can have on abstract topics. Everything has a metaphorical meaning. Find it. Be curious, freethinking, nonconformist and brave. Only then can you have a unique perspective on life.
Do not confine yourself by looking at the topic only conventionally. Look at it like an image, flip it, rotate it, twist it, observe its colours and contours, and look at it sideways. Something will spark a new idea. For example, to a conventional mind, X is a letter, or a roman number. To an unconventional mind, it is the top view of a building with four wings…
The panel wants to know if you are that one unconventional thinker among the ten other white sheep. Do whatever it takes to stand out from the rest. Do not be afraid to look foolish in front of the panel. Do not worry about making mistakes – even on the judgment day. That which we learn without mistakes is past knowledge.
The greater the extent of failure you are prepared to handle, the higher the chances of discovering something that no one has seen before.