On Relational Facilitation: Supporting the Creative Potential of Divergent Perspectives
As practitioners of the participatory arts know, there are many benefits that can arise from engaging the collective intelligence of groups. In addition to specific practical outcomes, other benefits include the greater systemic understandings that participants develop, along with a greater sense of cohesion and purpose¹. One might say that regardless of methodology, participants seem to generally enjoy processes where a diversity of perspectives is welcome, where they have the opportunity to learn about other points of view, and where they have an opportunity to make meaningful contributions on topics that matter.
While that last statement conveys some sense of equifinality about whatever method we may choose to work with (many paths leading to the same place), many of us nonetheless find great value in learning about the wide variety of processes that are available. We enjoy discovering the unique gifts of each, as well as what contexts and purposes each process is most useful for. And, we also enjoy understanding the shared underlying principles that make these varied processes effective.
So I am writing for my fellow “process geeks”, as well as anyone interested in participatory processes and their potential for helping groups arrive at practical and creative next steps with regard to specific challenges. These challenges could be within an organization, a community, or a region.
I am particularly interested in the potential of participatory processes for supporting new forms of governance. Initial experiments in this regard go by the name of deliberative democracy, participatory democracy and participatory planning². Deliberative democracy often works with sortition-based mini-publics, such as Citizen Juries and Citizen Assemblies, and its use has been rapidly growing around the world. I am interested in how relational facilitation approaches³ can support and enhance the design and facilitation of these processes. I am also interested in the “dialogical turn” in organization development, which emphasizes generative and emergence-based processes⁴, and its implications for the work of deliberative democracy.
Some initial starting points. While I’d had some experience with group processes before then, it was not until the year 2000 that I first encountered Dynamic Facilitation. This particular process is especially indicated for eliciting participants’ creativity in the face of issues on which there is a high emotional charge. As others have written, this process tends to result in a strong sense of “we” among group participants⁵. One of the key aspects of this approach is listening deeply to each person in the group. Given my background in peer counseling, this was something that felt familiar to me, even though most of my listening work before then had been in dyads, not in a whole-group context.
My desire to understand how this method worked led me to return to school later that year for a master’s in Organization Development, where I continued learning about many other ways of working with groups. During the course of my learning and practice in the field of participatory processes, one key discovery has been that each method I have learned has its own gifts to offer. While this may seem obvious, it is also worth stating, given the methodological partisanship that can sometimes characterize this field.
I have been particularly interested in methods that can work creatively with the potential energy inherent in conflicting perspectives, and that are also applicable for working on issues of public policy. While learning and practicing other forms of working with groups, I have also continued to learn about, practice, experiment with, and teach the Dynamic Facilitation (DF) process. More recently, my interest in the power of theory for understanding our world and leveraging change has led me back to school for doctoral studies.
Where things are now. As of this writing in 2019, Dynamic Facilitation is a key element in the “Bürgerrat” or “BürgerInnenRat” format that has been used more than 50 times in participatory public policy processes in the state of Vorarlberg, Austria⁶, another 50 or so times in other regions in Austria⁷, and to a lesser extent in Germany⁸. In English, “Bürgerrat” translates as “Citizens Council” or “Civic Council”; it is based on the Wisdom Council model developed by Jim Rough, who is also the originator of DF⁹. The Vorarlberg Bürgerrat model is similar in some ways to a Citizen’s Jury, yet public engagement practitioners in Austria have found it more cost-effective than other approaches while equally powerful.¹⁰
Dynamic Facilitation has also been successfully used to help solve gnarly challenges in the business world¹¹. Yet while more effective forms of participation are certainly needed in the business world, that is not the application I will be focusing on here, except to point out the usefulness of this approach in a wide variety of contexts.
Back to the Councils in Austria. While they have proliferated, little of this work has found its way into the English language¹². That is too bad, as those of us who are committed to more participatory forms of democracy would do well to learn from one another. While I have been only indirectly involved with the Austrian or German Bürgerräte, I have had extensive conversations and in-depth interviews with my colleagues who have facilitated these Councils. These connections have grown as a result of my leading workshops in Germany several times on DF, the main “operating system” of these Councils. I have also written a book on this methodology that has been translated into German.
What I’d like to do next, is to lay out a few insights I have gained about some of the underlying dynamics of how this particular facilitation approach works, and why it can be such an effective tool for helping a group work together effectively. Please note: I write “can be”, since any tool can be misused or poorly applied. What I am writing here, is not a “how-to” guide; that exists elsewhere.¹³ Instead, it is an attempt to “connect the dots” by connecting what I know from practical experience, with relevant work that has been done in other fields.
At the same time, the underlying principles that I am foregrounding here, are not unique to any particular methodology. While I have found them extremely helpful for understanding why DF works so well, I have also seen these principles at play in other processes, and will be sharing those observations as well. Conceptually, it makes sense that there are often many different instances that show the same principle or underlying theory at work, albeit in different forms.
Here are the links to the next three sections of this article, where I explore each of the following themes in turn:
III. Relational facilitation, a regenerative culture, and “taking all sides” This last section also includes a brief closing piece on “New Perspectives on Research”, as well as a full reference list.
¹see for example Kadlec & Friedman, 2010; Melville & Kingston, 2010, on the benefits of engaging community members in participatory public policy processes
²Gastil & Levine, 2005; Forester, 1999; Barber, 1984
³for one compilation of the growth of relational approaches in fields other than group facilitation, see Spretnak 2011
⁴Bushe and Marshak, 2014, 2009
⁵Asenbaum, 2016; Trattnigg & Haderlapp, 2014
⁶see project description for Bürgerrat/Civic Council at https://democracyrd.org/work/
⁷conversations with Martina Handler
⁹Hellrigl and Lederer, 2014
¹¹zur Bonsen, 2014
¹²see https://diapraxis.com/home/translations-of-germanlanguage-resources-on-df-and-cccs for a compilation of some English-language materials