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.


Rare opportunity: Learn Net-Map in the UK!

How about hanging out at the beach, learning Net-Map and meeting about 1000 highly intelligent social network analysis experts of every discipline, who do everything from crazy complex quantitative stuff to anthropologically observing network development on the ground? The Sunbelt Conference of the International Network of Social Network Analysis (INSNA) is an inspiring event, whether you are a beginner or a full-blown SNA genius and one of the great things about it is that it always starts with two days of training workshops, before the three days of 700 talks in parallel start. A great way of learning for example some of the complex software, which is painful to learn alone at home. Ah, and another great thing is that they insist on always finding a location close to the sea. They alternate between the US and the rest of the world and this year the conference will be in Brighton, UK.

This year Net-Map will be present there in a three hour hands on training in the first part of the conference and we will have two sessions for applied network knowledge which will be heavily leaning toward Net-Map. Though my talk will not be about Net-Map but about the new network pattern cards which I am developing. I would love to see you there. The last time I have taught Net-Map in Europe was the Summer School in Italy, and that was in 2011. A few spots are still available for the Net-Map training workshop, so if you are interested just go ahead and sign up and I will see you there. Together with a whole bunch of other Net-Mappers.