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.

 

How your landscape expands if you talk about conflict…

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Let me start by saying: I don’t like conflict. I am actually pretty good at diffusing unnecessary conflict and running away from necessary conflict.  (except sometimes, when I turn around in mid-running, and explode, but that is a different story).

I don’t even like talking about conflict. So why have I started insisting that most of the groups that I draw network maps with, add a link of “conflict” to their picture? Even if they don’t approach me with the question: “How can we solve our conflicts better?” Even if they don’t mention a single conflict when we plan the Net-Map session. But rather, their question might be: How can we be more successful in project implementation? How can I achieve my personal career goals? Or: How can we change the world?

I stumbled over the importance of talking about conflict when talking about networks rather unintentionally. When I included the link “conflict” in some of the maps I drew, I realized a pattern: Often the groups had agreed on the actors that play a role for the question, put them all on the map, linked them with friendly or neutral links, such as collaboration, hierarchy or money flows.

Then we moved to the question: Who has a conflict with whom? And all of a sudden new actors came out of the woodworks, quiet participants became agitated and the group explained the world to me in a way that had much more depth (dark and deep holes too) than the good weather picture we had seen before.

While I learned a lot about the personal differences, conflicts of interest and beliefs, I also learned about the history of the system, because most conflicts reach into the past. I started understanding where people were coming from, both in terms of their thinking and their family, loyalty and tribal relations. And by mapping out the conflict flows and how they are embedded in the rest of the social network, we could detect patterns and reasons that go beyond individual .

One agency or actor might be at the center of all conflicts in the network: Is that because they are mean and always looking for trouble? Or because they are standing up for what is right, in a corrupt system? Or is it because their formal role is to control others (e.g. evaluation function) so conflict is inherent in their role and will remain a productive force in the system?

There might be actors who have conflicts with our opponents – can we build coalitions, even if their area of interest is different from ours?

Drawing the lines of conflict is like adding the shallows to a nautical navigation map. Instead of just seeing where the ocean starts and ends, you now know which rocks and sandbanks you need to avoid on your perilous journey of change. And, in case you are nervous to ask about conflict when you are drawing network maps, in my experience, putting the conflict on paper by drawing colorful lines together seems to be enough of a diffusion that the sessions don’t normally end in a yelling match but rather turn into a collaborative exploration of how the conflict works.

For innovation: Amplify the low signal

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Crow brings the daylight, by Ruth Meharg

My work often involves getting familiar with a new country and sector in a short amount of time, discussing challenges with many different stakeholders and together developing and implementing strategies for change.

One skill which is crucial for this is the ability to detect patterns quickly, understand what the common themes are, the issues, people, strategies and conflicts which are mentioned again and again. What is the shared story on which we can build our planning? What are the loudest and most consistent signals?

However, one great risk when listening for the common pattern is that you distill the story that everybody knows already and focus on the issues that everybody agrees are THE issues. If you want to help people discover new possibilities, experiment with new solutions, discover the positive deviants that exist already, you have to grow a third ear which listens for things that are only said in passing (or not at all), for ideas that people laugh about or don’t dare believe in, for challenges that cannot be discussed out in the open and sometimes you have to be the one who mentions that the emperor might have forgotten to get dressed…

But how do you know what is an interesting low signal and what is just plain noise?

I tend to pick up a number of different half-sentence ideas as I travel through the system and then I try them out when I talk to the next person. Many of the ideas don’t make it to the third or forth discussion but every once in a while, the next person says: “Well, I hadn’t thought about that but now that you say it…” and they start adding weight, color, texture and context to this idea.  And slowly a new door opens, a different approach emerges or we develop a clearer understanding of a long overlooked risk.

Amplifying a low signal is something I could never do alone, it is rather that I start bouncing these signals off other people and see if they disappear or become stronger.

Join us: Largest international Net-Mapper meeting ever!

Wouldn’t it be great if Net-Mappers from all over the world could share their experience, learn from each other, build a common knowledge-base and just hang out and enjoy each other’s company? You might be working with Net-Map in your university, organization, consulting practice and maybe you are the only one excited by the participatory drawing of networks. Or, maybe a lot of your colleagues are excited, but they all have no clue how it really works, so you always have to be (or look like) the expert who knows everything. I am sure you have some great stories, lessons and results to share and together we might find the answers to your questions.

We (that’s Eva Schiffer, Jennifer Hauck, Amit Nag, Paolo Brunello and our Net-Mapping friends) are planning to have the biggest international meeting of Net-Mappers at the next Sunbelt Conference of the International Network for Social Network Analysis in Brighton, UK (June 23rd to 28th, 2015). In addition to hosting one (or two) sessions which will be dedicated to applying network knowledge, we are planning to host a Net-Mapper get-together as informal side-event of the conference so that we can all get to know each other and each other’s work and start working together more closely.

We will discuss whatever questions are at the forefront of our minds. For me there are three things I am really curious about:

  • Learning more about all the great applications of the method to start having an extensive case collection.
  • Strategies for working together to make Net-Map interventions happen and grow the community of practice. This could lead to developing a database of international Net-Map consultants so if any of us wants to implement something that is bigger than one person, we know where to go.
  • Asking and answering questions about how to use and analyze Net-Map, moving the method forward and understanding it better.

To make this happen we need you. And you. And your net-mapping colleague too. If you are interested, please contact me directly. And submit an abstract for the Sunbelt Conference session on applying network knowledge.

Oh, and did I say that this is just the side-event? The main event is also pretty amazing. Sunbelt is the largest Social Network Analysis conference and it’s an great mix of the old gurus, the young geniuses, master’s students getting feedback for their half-done thesis, and everything in-between. Also, they have great hands-on introductory workshops on most of the common SNA software and approaches (including a Net-Map training) during the first two days of the conference. If you have never submitted an abstract to a conference and the task intimidates you, I am happy to talk you through it. And, surey, you can also come just as a participant, without presentation… but we would all be missing out, if you didn’t share your work. Looking forward to seeing you there!

Session on “Applying Network Knowledge” at the Sunbelt XXXV

by  at the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research – UFZ / Department of Environmental Politics

Would you be interested in presenting your Net-Map work at the at the Sunbelt XXXV, Brighton, UK, June 23– June 28, 2015, the largest annual conference of Social Network Analysis, organized by the International Network for Social Network Analysis (INSNA)?

Our proposal for a session on “Applying Network Knowledge” during the Sunbelt XXXV has been accepted and we are encouraging people with interesting presentations on the subject to submit their abstracts (see conference website for details).

A bit more about the theme of the session:
Governance approaches for example in public health, education or policy making typically involve many actors from different domains who are not all connected by hierarchy and whose behavior cannot easily be mandated. Thus, successful governance approaches rely on networks of actors who collaborate and on the quality of their collaboration. To understand success factors or governance failures and to improve existing structures it is thus crucial to understand the underlying formal and informal social networks. In many cases Social Network Analysis (SNA) has been used to provide answers to these questions. This session contains presentations of cases that made use of SNA knowledge in divers situations, using participatory, learning oriented network mapping exercises.

If you are interested:

Contact Jennifer directly (jennifer.hauck@ufz.de) and tell her about your possible session.

Check the Sunbelt website for their call for abstracts, submit your abstract and indicate that you want to be part of the “Applying Network Knowledge” session.