To talk about swimming – or make them jump in?

Any talk about water won't rival the feeling of this swimmer who just jumped in (picture by Horia Varlan on Flickr)

Or: Why talking about an experience is no substitute for the experience.

This week I led students of Latin America Studies at Georgetown University through a Net-Map exercise (Thanks to their teacher Patricia Biermayr-Jenzano for organizing this!). They chose their own questions (a wide range, from personal family disputes to crime reduction in a Latin American small town) and started mapping it after a brief introduction. All of them had read some of my papers and case studies before, so one of the things that struck me in their feedback was how different Net-Map looked to them when they read about it and when they actually did it. Some of their comments:

“I initially was skeptical because I did not understand why a simple activity could be a method for creating social change.  Net-Mapping allowed me to view the world differently.  Granted, stepping back and analyzing the degree of influences in our lives should be a natural process, but it is something that we do not do visually.  By doing this activity and visually seeing our influences, it breaks the ice and fosters dialogue in a non-confrontational way.” 

“The level of sophistication of the tool far exceeded my personal expectations.  I was skeptical not because of the materials involved in the process (paper and pen) but because of the difficulty in determining who influences whom in most of the research in which I have participated.  I think the greatest advantage of the Net-Map system is the ability to look at an activity from a variety of levels.  My group worked on the scale of the individual, but seeing the work of the other groups made it obvious that Net-Map can be transferred to an organizational level or even perhaps to an international level.” 

“I had never done net-mapping or anything alike before. Honestly, when listening to the explanation I thought it was kind of a game. However, after doing the exercise I actually realized the great value it has. Using this hands-on method of visualizing problems or activities I believe is really useful. I believe that great ideas and problem visualization can be seen that may not be realized using other strategic methods.”

Yes, I fully realize the irony of this post, because, as I said in the introduction: talking about an experience is very different from experiencing it. So, get some pens, post-it notes and toys, print out the instructions, come up with a question that bothers you and involves many different actors and see what happens if you try mapping it. You might not start out as an Olympic swimmer but rather splash around in the shallow pool for a while. But even that will be a more interesting experience than reading stories about water, wouldn’t it?

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