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.

 

Can you make it more playful and more serious?

picture by Donald Zolan (and, by the way, not my child) http://abstract.desktopnexus.com/wallpaper/430791/

picture by Donald Zolan (and, by the way, not my child) http://abstract.desktopnexus.com/wallpaper/430791/

What? Everything.

Keith McCandles of Liberating Structures asked me this question when I shared my instructions for the use of network pattern cards with him. He proposed to make it more serious by inviting a group to explore a shared problem and to make it more playful by asking: “What is the pattern you would need to choose if you really wanted to mess this up?” And only after that the group would pick the pattern they think will make them succeed. This follows the idea of the liberating structure TRIZ.

His question stuck with me – way beyond the concrete discussion of how to facilitate a group experience. Now it has a place of honor on a post-it on my office wall: “Can I make it more playful and more serious?” How would my life and work be, if I made it more playful and serious.

When I am with my kids, could I have more playful openness and laugh more about things that just aren’t that important AND have the mindful focus of someone who knows that this is serious, that these few years of closeness run by quicker than you think and that every moment matters.

At my work, what would happen if I played and improvised more freely, inviting myself, my colleagues, our clients to use play for experiencing the changes we aim for in an nonthreatening environment – it’s only play after all. And what if at the same time I was much more serious about my aspiration, much braver about naming and claiming the changes I really care about, allowing myself to really care about them?

What are the things in your life that could be transformed by being more playful and more serious? Are you taking steps in that direction already?