The Liberators
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The Liberators

Liberating Structures Should Be Everywhere People Interact

On the psychological power of Liberating Structures

Liberating Structures are like a language for how people interact. Once you learn to speak and recognize its symbols and its grammar, you see its potential everywhere people interact. I know how weird that sounds — especially when you’ve never experienced them before. This potential affirms my belief that we should use Liberating Structures everywhere people interact.

Unfortunately, it is not that easy. HENRI LIPMANOWICZ surveyed practitioners of Liberating Structures a few years ago and found that even experienced practitioners tended to limit their use to the more obvious settings, like workshops, classes, and training, but not to other settings, like recurring meetings, social settings, and other informal settings. And that includes me too.

If you’d like to learn and experience Liberating Structures, we happily welcome you to a Liberating Structures Immersion Workshop in Amsterdam. If Amsterdam is too far away, you can find more workshops at liberatingstructures.com.

A Quick Primer On Liberating Structures

So what are Liberating Structures? They are the life work of Keith McCandless and HENRI LIPMANOWICZ. Each of the 33 Liberating Structures is a simple recipe to structure the interaction in a group of any size to achieve a specific purpose. For example, the Liberating Structure Impromptu Networking is designed to rapidly share challenges and insights and to build connections with others in the room. This takes 3 rounds and 15-20 minutes. Each round of a few minutes sees participants pair up with another participant to respond to a shared prompt. For example, this could be something like “What are the challenges, possibilities, and opportunities you see for us as a group moving forward on [topic]?” at the start of a gathering, or “With everything we worked through here today, what was most surprising, insightful or interesting to you?”. New pairs are formed each round and participants respond to the same prompt, while also noticing patterns across the rounds. A shared debrief happens after the third, and sees participants share the patterns they noticed.

All 33 Liberating Structures. From liberatingstructures.com.

Impromptu Networking is really good at drawing patterns out of a group (of any size) to explore in more detail with other interactions, or to recap important learnings. It also highlights several characteristics that all 33 Liberating Structures adhere to:

  1. Everyone has the opportunity to contribute, regardless of their background, knowledge, experience, or status in a group.
  2. Trust in the experience, creativity, and wisdom of the participants to determine what is important.
  3. Liberating Structures are designed to be so easy that everyone can facilitate them, regardless of experience. The structure ensures that it works.

For all its strengths, Impromptu Networking serves a specific interactional purpose. If you’d do this at the start of a gathering, you would definitely need to do more to explore and develop any patterns. This is where the other 32 Liberating Structures come in, each serving another and specific purpose. For example, Troika Consulting is designed to allow people to give and get help on specific challenges. But Critical Uncertainties is designed to allow groups to develop strategies to remain effective in different potential scenarios.

The true strength of Liberating Structures is apparent when you string them together, and where the insights generated by one structure flow naturally into another.

The psychological power of Liberating Structures

Up to this point, it is easy to conclude that Liberating Structures are like any other facilitation toolkit. I thought so initially. In fact, I distinctly remember listening to Johannes Schartau in a pub after Scrum Day Europe 2013 as he was telling me how awesome Liberating Structures were, and how I was quite skeptical of the whole thing.

But then I experienced them first-hand, first at a Liberating Structures Immersion Workshop in Berlin, and then at the first Immersion Workshop that we hosted in the Netherlands with Keith McCandless, Fisher Qua, Barry Overeem, Ruben Klerkx - Createur, and Coen Brouwer, in March 2018. It slowly started to dawn on me that something else was happening during these gatherings. Something I hadn’t seen before so clearly in my previous work with groups. I saw so many happy faces around me. I saw so many people intently listening to each other as each shared a personal story. And I saw so many people touched by the awareness that others were really listening to them as they shared those stories. This did not escape the participants either. One described it as a “social movement”. Another described it as “jazz music”. One participant said that it was “the best thing that happened to me in my working life”. Just look at some of the marvelous pictures that Lisanne Lentink took and you see what we mean. It is in the faces:

This is what it looks like when people listen to each other and feel heard.

Initially, I dismissed these insights as a consequence of selection bias. I assumed that the people who attended these kinds of gatherings were just more open to it all. But then I started noticing the same faces in all the other places where I was using Liberating Structures.

“It slowly started to dawn on me that something else was happening during these gatherings.”

This made me realize that there was something to Liberating Structures that was causing this in people and their interactions. Over time, Barry Overeem and I started noticing how each Liberating Structure was carefully tuned to create a positive psychological experience for participants, for example:

  1. In Appreciative Interviews, participants first share a personal success story with another person. This is a pleasant experience in itself. Then, the pair joins another pair, and each person re-tells the story of their partner in their own words. So here you have someone else re-telling your story in their own words, thus acknowledging your experience and how it felt.
  2. In Troika Consulting, three participants give and get help to each other on a personal challenge in three quick rounds. In each round, the “client” receiving help has their back turned towards the “consultants” as they brainstorm potential solutions so that the client can focus fully on listening. There are always smiling faces throughout Troika. It is pleasant for clients to listen to two other people come up with solutions to their challenge, just as it is pleasant for the consultants to offer their help. Furthermore, Troika effectively puts everyone in the position to help twice and receive help once.
  3. In Impromptu Networking, everyone has the opportunity to quickly connect with three people in the room and respond to a shared prompt. Good insights tend to spread naturally over the rounds. These often include insights from the voices we don’t often hear in large group settings and are then mentioned by their partners in the debrief at the end (“My partner from round 2 offered this great idea …”). Again, people are contributing and recognizing the contributions of others. This also happens in most other Liberating Structures, like 1–2–4-ALL, TRIZ, Wicked Questions, Min Specs, Conversation Cafe, and so on.
  4. In Conversation Cafe, small groups of participants (4–7) take time to talk about a deep question or shared challenge. The structure takes place over four rounds, where the first two involve one person speaking at a time while the others are listening. A lively conversation starts in round three. Because listening is such an integral part of this structure, the experience is very rewarding.

The pattern that connects these points is that each Liberating Structure is purposefully designed to create a space where everyone can be heard, seen, and respected. And that always happens in response to a specific invitation (or question) that gives purpose to the interaction, which makes it feel important and meaningful.

More faces :)

Now contrast that psychological experience with what usually happens when you put a group of people together? The example that comes to mind for most is the standard office meeting. How heard, seen, and respected do you feel there? How do other participants, really? And just how purposeful are those meetings anyway? Or is it happening just because it always does? And who decided to put these people together, and not a larger or a smaller group? Are these the most important people to put together, really?

It seems so very wasteful to me, both of time and of human attention, to put people in an office room without a clear purpose, without clear invitations, and without a clear structure that allows everyone to be heard, seen, and respected.

And why stop at office meetings? Although they come to mind first for most, there are so many other interactions that could become more meaningful and fulfilling to those who participate— like gatherings with friends, religious events, educational activities, informal meetings, birthday parties? Unfortunately, even the experienced practitioners of Liberating Structures fail to capitalize on this potential, as the survey by HENRI LIPMANOWICZ showed - which fully includes me.

“It seems so very wasteful to me, both of time and of human attention, to put people in an office room without a clear purpose, without clear invitations, and without a clear structure that allows everyone to be heard, seen, and respected.”

Liberating Structures in not-so-obvious places

Although I too struggle greatly to apply Liberating Structures to the not-so-obvious places, I definitely try. I organized my birthday party with Liberating Structures two years ago. This experiment was born out of the realization that some of the most meaningful conversations I’ve had with others happened at birthday parties. Unfortunately, many parties see the same clusters of people sitting together which makes it hard to jump in. And the conversation usually remains superficial (e.g. work, games, movies). I wanted to see if we could get to more meaningful conversations with a string of Liberating Structures. It certainly wasn’t perfect — I discovered that I couldn’t participate and facilitate at the same time— but the experience was good for everyone. Some of my friends still mention the conversations they had there.

Impression of Appreciative Interviews at my birthday party (the invitation was “Share a story of a time in your life when everything seemed possible”)

Another not-so-obvious place where we used Liberating Structures was in those casual catch-up moments with professional peers. We’ve done a series of remote Conversation Cafes with both Fisher Qua and Anna Jackson, and also with two other business owners. This was a good opportunity to connect on a personal level and to keep in touch, while also sticking to a structure for that interaction that ensured everyone could contribute equally. I was also able to use Drawing Together and Conversation Cafe to de-escalate a highly escalated family conflict.

Recently, I was invited to a brainstorm for a local volunteer-based initiative to bring people together from all walks of life to talk about life, living, and being alive. We obviously used Liberating Structures. What was extra special about this evening was how it brought together people from a very multicultural neighborhood, from different age groups, and from different belief systems.

Set up for a UX Fishbowl in a church building, just before hosting a 2-hour gathering to talk about life, living, and being alive on this planet with people from all walks of life. It wasn’t possible to take a picture of the proceedings due to the presence of people who fled to the Netherlands from oppressive regimes.

Closing Words

I believe that everyone longs for authentic and meaningful contact with others. We all want to feel heard, seen, and respected. On a deeper level, I also feel that Liberating Structures allow something to happen between people that doesn’t happen easily elsewhere. You can just feel it in the room, and see it on the faces of people. Let us work together to create more of these places, and make the world better because of it.

If you’d like to learn and experience Liberating Structures, we happily welcome you to a Liberating Structures Immersion Workshop in Amsterdam. If Amsterdam is too far away, you can find more workshops at liberatingstructures.com.

Check out patreon.com/liberators to support us.

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Christiaan Verwijs

Christiaan Verwijs

I liberate teams & organizations from de-humanizing, ineffective ways of organizing work. Passionate developer, organizational psychologist, and Scrum Master.

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