How facilitation can lead to exclusion

I was totally thrilled to go to the first Liberating Structures Global Gathering in Seattle last month, to play with my facilitation superheros. Liberating Structures are a set of facilitation tools, gathered and curated based on a strong philosophy. Their aim is to allow anyone (whether trained as facilitator or not) to facilitate better meetings, with just the right amount of structure (not too chaotic and not too rigid) and giving everyone equal opportunity to contribute. If you don’t know them yet, I recommend diving into their website…

But in this post I am not going to talk about my love for Liberating Structures but my struggle with them – because of the productive friction that comes from struggling with what you love and because I think it is important to continue adding new perspectives and shining light on blind spots. The reason I want to share this with you goes beyond Liberating Structures, because a lot of my observations below also apply to other facilitation tools, approaches and habits.

When I entered the room in Seattle I was faced with 300 people who looked like me (kinda) – mostly privileged, highly educated, fast speaking, left leaning white people. Which made me wonder: Where are the others?

Once I started asking this, I couldn’t let go of the question, so I used the three days to discuss it with friends and strangers and together we started down a messy road of exploring privilege and unintentional exclusion, and how the ways we facilitate can reinforce patterns that we intend to break.

For me this conversation isn’t done yet, though the meeting is over. Here are some initial paths that our conversations explored:

  • Time: One characteristic of most Liberating Structures is the fast paced rotation. “Spend 2 minutes to discuss with one person… then pick a new partner…” This empowers those who can think quickly on their feet and are comfortable expressing their thoughts and needs in the moment, without preparation.
  • Low Context: In these fast rotations and different group constellations, we expect that participants dive into the content immediately. In the 2 or 5 minutes you have with your new partner, you won’t have time to inquire into who they are and where their family is from, and also get the work done. This empowers those from cultures where it is appropriate to start the work without knowing the person (e.g. Germans over Ghanaians).
  • Language and Education: Many Liberating Structures aim at unearthing a group opinion and putting it in words. They rely on participants’ ability to grasp instructions quickly and put their needs/thoughts in words that engage others. This will often be easier for those people who feel comfortable of their command of the language used and of their education, with the risk of intimidating those that need some time to search for words.
  • Above the Shoulder: The majority of Liberating Structures engage primarily with the head (rational mind), ignoring heart and body. This means they lose out on possible sources of inspiration and privilege those who are more rational mind oriented.
  • Extrovert Friendly: A typical Liberating Structures event consists of a string of fast paced interactions with rotating partners or groups, rooms buzzing with conversation: invigorating extroverts and leaving introverts overwhelmed and possibly checked out at the end.
  • The Face of Facilitation: If among 300 global meeting participants there are about 10-15 people of color, none with discernible disability. few without excellent mastery of the English language, it makes me assume that in most settings the facilitator will probably be a white, able-bodied, eloquent person, sending an initial signal of: This is what the person who speaks in this room looks / sounds like.

As I said above, I love and constantly use Liberating Structures. At the same time I am really concerned about how easily we overlook the people who are not in the room and don’t hear the voices of those that remain silent. I’d love to hear your thoughts, experiences, discomforts and strategies.


2 Responses

  1. Hi Eva,
    Your analyses are always so thoughtful and rigorous. I appreciate the ways you are diagnosing the underlying biases and preferences that are both explicit and implicit in the practice of LS or any other approach to working with groups.

    More and more I am focusing attention on the micro-organizing elements and how those can be configured in a way that is responsive to and reliant on the context. So, in each situation we are localizing the practice and inventing new structures with the existing repertoire as a reliable library of what’s possible AND not dependent on it as the only source of working with specified structures. The organizing elements have become for me a translational mechanism that helps us provide just enough stability to group interactions in a way that people encounter each other differently and as a result adjacent possibilities get re-arranged.

    Granted the ‘logic’ of the micro-organizing elements is already culturally situated, so we need to be mindful of that always. For me, one of the paradoxes is that something like time is understood well enough across multiple contexts that it is a useful abstraction AND at the same time completely and utterly oppressive as a social construct. It does make me want to start anything with a diagnostic along the lines of: Is time relevant here? Do we make distinctions between the individual and collective? What are the sequences of social interaction that are formally or informally part of how things happen here? Are there specific ‘rules’ around who participates and how? What are the proximities and physical arrangements that people are comfortable navigating?

    The answers to those prompts may help us more closely localize the use of micrologically organized structure in different contexts. This is all also under the assumption that working across contexts or cultures is even appropriate or ethical. Those kinds of existential questions I ponder AND then willfully ignore because the paradoxes are too complex and overwhelming for me to even begin disentangling. Or, the result of my exploration of them merely leads to elaborate justifications for probably bad behaviors.

    • Thanks Fisher for your thoughtful and deep comment. What comes to mind when I read the first part is that using liberating structures is like playing Jazz. You can’t just make any kind of sound and call it Jazz. But you also don’t just play notes as they are arranged on a sheet. You interact with the underlying rules and structures, your fellow musicians, your own emotional state, the audience, the room, playing with the energy that comes from harmony and dissonance and resolution. The better you know the structures and the more in tune you are with yourself and the others, the more freedom you have in your play.

      As you are talking about the cultural specifics I am thinking: Let’s listen to Fela Kuti to learn how this music whose roots traveled to the Americas in the bones of the slaves, grew into something unique in the cities of this country, returned to Africa to evolve into something new again. I feel like there is something to learn about integration and play and the amazingness of opening up that goes beyond intellectual analysis…

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