20+ Tiny Tweaks To Use Liberating Structures More Effectively

An overview with personal insights I gained from using Liberating Structures, in particular during our public Immersion Workshops

Barry Overeem
Published in
13 min readJan 24, 2022

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Since I discovered Liberating Structures about 4 years ago, I was hooked. From then on, I used Liberating Structures for my training, workshops, and meetups. More importantly, I also use it for regular day-to-day conversations and meetings. I’m convinced that every conversation or gathering with more than 2 people strongly benefits from Liberating Structures!

Over the years, I gained experience in how to use structures effectively. Many of my findings are small tweaks in framing an invitation, arranging seating, or forming groups. Yet accumulating all these small tips & tricks makes Liberating Structures work. Earlier, I published the article “How To Design & Prepare Your Own Liberating Structures Immersion Workshop.” This follow-up article mainly focuses on facilitating Liberating Structures, particularly when working with larger groups.

It’s quite an extensive list. Just browse through the list and cherry-pick the things you consider helpful. There’s no logical order; it’s just a brain dump with hopefully some ideas! Enjoy using them, and if you’ve got other tiny tweaks that help you use Liberating Structures more effectively, feel free to share them! Let’s learn and grow together!

Pictures of the public Liberating Structures Immersion Workshop we hosted in Copenhagen in October 2021.

Start with a very short introduction

“Hi! My name is Barry, and this is Christiaan. Let’s get started!”

Afterward, we immediately start with the first Liberating Structure. A long time ago, we started our workshops with a more detailed explanation about who we are, our company, our experience with Liberating Structures, etc. But who cares? The workshop isn’t about you — the facilitator — it’s about the participants. So, let’s get them talking with each other! If someone wants to know more about you, use the next coffee or lunch break.

Experience over explanation

Talking about Liberating Structures is like talking about food without eating it or wine and beer without tasting them. It doesn’t make a lot of sense. Put differently, the longer you talk about Liberating Structures, the stronger the contradiction becomes. A presentation is one of the conventional conversation structures you want to prevent! So, stop talking about Liberating Structures and have the participants experience them first. If necessary, talk about it afterward. But keep it short. It’s better to use your time for another structure :-)

Set clear expectations on the short timeboxes

Experiencing Liberating Structures can feel like a rollercoaster. In particular, a 2-day Liberating Structures Immersion Workshop. I don’t like rollercoasters. I do like Liberating Structures. So, there’s some tension going on here… Liberating Structures are the accumulation of many short timeboxes. We always emphasize that we don’t expect each participant to have a “eureka-moment” during every 1- or 2-minute timebox. Everyone has done a great job if the group has one good insight! This removes the pressure from the participants and prevents people from stressing out. Just go with the flow and trust the wisdom of the crowd.

Use Tingsha bells

Nothing beats the sound of high-quality Tingsha bells. So, I don’t mean the cheap, plastic ones. We use Tingsha bells to announce the end of a timebox. This prevents you from shouting, which scares the group, or the need to raise your hand, which hardly anyone notices. The Tingsha bell sounds loud enough for everyone to notice, and the 5–8 seconds last allows everyone to wrap up their conversation gently. However, we don’t use the bells for every small timebox. There’s a thin line between powerful and freakin’ annoying…

A set of Tingsha bells

Use name tags

Maybe you’re one of those who can remember everyone’s name, even if you’ve never met them. Unfortunately, I’m not one of them. I believe it helps build safety in a group if everyone can address each other by name. Instead of “hey you”. To prevent you from asking, “What was your name again?” encourage everyone to use a name tag. It’s a simple solution, and you’ll notice that during the workshop, you’ll start to memorize the names as well.

“When I’m done explaining.”

It would be this if I had to pick one “trick” when using Liberating Structures. You’ll notice the strength of this sentence mainly when NOT using it. Even if you’re still in the middle of your explanation, people jumped into action because you started your explanation with “Form pairs…” or “ Find a group of 3 people…”. I start all my explanations of Liberating Structures with the sentence “When I’m done explaining… <insert next step>”. This ensures people listen to you carefully and move into action only when you’re done with your explanation. Simple, but so powerful!

Check this short and simple video Carsten Lutzen created about it:

“Anything to add?”

This sentence becomes important when working with other co-facilitators. Explaining Liberating Structures can be challenging. Chances are you forgot a step or nuance. Or other facilitators who want to share their own experiences or ideas. With the sentence “anything to add?” you create space for co-facilitators to develop your existing explanation. This sentence ensures a smooth connection. If you don’t use it, and your co-facilitator wants to add something, it can quickly feel like (s)he’s correcting you. Also, if you don’t add it, your co-facilitator doesn’t know what a good moment to jump in. As such, “anything to add” creates clarity for the participants and facilitators.

Verify your instructions

Once you’ve explained to the group how to move forward with a Liberating Structure, always verify if your instructions were really clear. Otherwise, it could be that some people get it, others think they get it but don’t, and some are just confused. To prevent this from happening, always quickly check: “Any questions?”. Most of the time, if you’ve kept your explanation short & simple, people know what to do. Make it a habit to reflect on the structures that weren’t clear from the start. How can you explain them differently next time? Often, shorter is better.

Offer alternatives for seating

The arrangement of space and the seating of participants is an important element when using Liberating Structures. Put differently, it can make or break a structure. For example, with “Heard-Seen-Respected,” the participants must sit close to each other. This encourages them to listen actively and brings intimacy, increasing the likelihood of sharing a personal story. We used to ask people to sit knee-to-knee but learned that some people find this uncomfortable. A great alternative is to have people sit diagonally. As such, they have enough space for their legs and can talk comfortably without losing a close personal connection.

During our Liberating Structures Immersion Workshop in Copenhagen, many participants preferred to sit next to each other, instead of knee-to-knee.

Use the SCARF model to structure interactions

We facilitated a Conflict Workshop with Karen Dawson and Julie Huffaker two years ago. During that workshop, we learned a tiny tweak that helps pairs or groups decide who will start first. Offer them a prompt like “the person with the longest hair starts”, “the person that lives furthest away starts”, or “the person with the most blue in their clothes starts”. It’s a simple tweak that prevents the person with the loudest voice from starting; it’s fun, builds trust & safety, and allows people to connect on a different level. This tweak is based on the SCARF model by David Rock.

Always start with 1-minute of individual thinking

Even when this isn’t included in the description of most Liberating Structures, we always start each structure with 1 minute of individual thinking. This allows people to gather their thoughts first before jumping into a conversation with others. Especially because the timeboxes are already short, it helps if people start the conversation immediately without using the first 30–60 seconds to think about what to say. And again, it’s a way to include & unleash everyone, not only the people with the loudest voice or the strongest opinion.

Don’t timebox too strict & visible

When I started using Liberating Structures, I timeboxed every step strictly according to how it was recommended. A 1–2–4-ALL took one minute individually, 2 minutes in pairs, 4 minutes in small groups, and 5 minutes with the entire group. Not one minute longer. To clarify the timeboxes for the group, I used a large time-timer. I stopped using it. I only timebox the structures or the rounds that impact the entire group. For example, with Impromptu Networking, I listen to the sound level of the group, watch the facial expressions, and check the body language. This informs me sufficiently to decide when to move on. Not using the timeboxes too strictly and visibly prevents the mechanical use of Liberating Structures. Instead, you create a natural flow of all the steps, and participants can focus on the conversations.

A time timer…

Repeat every invitation twice

With Liberating Structures, the invitation contains the question, statement, or challenge you want the participants to discuss. A good invitation doesn’t judge or frame open avenues, is specifically ambiguous, and is slightly abstract. A consequence of these characteristics is that good invitations are longer and use more words than weaker ones. As such, participants benefit from hearing it at least twice. It takes time to digest and process. So, once you’ve shared the invitation, do it again!

Raise hands when forming a pair

Besides 1-minute of individual thinking, forming pairs is probably the most used activity. Especially in a large group, it’s tempting to form a pair with the person standing next to you, which is fine to a certain extent but might result in having the same pairs continuously. We always encourage people to raise their hands before pairing up. This allows everyone to see who still needs to pair up. Another tweak is that we encourage people to point to the person across the room. Once you’re pointing at each other, you’ve formed a pair, and all you need to do is physically walk to the other person. This is way more fun and brings back some energy in the group.

Don’t explain the steps in too much detail

Liberating Structures are based on 5 design elements. How the structures use these elements varies. Each structure has unique characteristics in how they use the invitation, how space is arranged and what materials are needed, how participation is distributed, how groups are configured, and the sequence of steps and time. If you explain an entire Liberating Structure upfront, participants will be overwhelmed with information. It’s too much to digest. Try to keep your explanation as short & clear as possible. Often, we get the seating & group configuration arranged first and next only explain the very first step. This also makes your life as a facilitator easier because you don’t need to memorize every step. It’s a win-win!

The 5 design elements of Liberating Structures.

Don’t use a presentation

A presentation is one of the conventional structures for which Liberating Structures are an alternative. So, it makes sense not to use it during a Liberating Structures workshop, right? Although showing a presentation with supporting material for the structures (the steps, invitation, etc.) doesn’t mean you will use it as a boring presentation, it does have a big impact on the group. The screen with the presentation becomes the central focus of the group. People move their seats automatically toward the screen. It also reduces flexibility. Instead of going with the flow of the group and making changes as needed, it’s tempting to follow the flow of the slides. If the slides contain the invitation & steps, a pitfall is that you start reading the slides in front of the group, while it’s often better to make small changes at the moment because it’s a better fit with the group. So, no, we don’t use a presentation during our workshops!

Play with the chairs & tables

The setup of a room greatly influences the dynamic of a workshop. Large tables in the middle of the room that are impossible to move around take away your flexibility as a facilitator. For participants, connecting and starting a spontaneous conversation is more difficult. Tables can become barriers between participants. That’s why we pay lots of attention to how to use chairs & tables. Everyone should be able to move around quickly. Tables are only put on the sides of the rooms so that people can leave their bags, coffee cups, and notebooks on them. And the chairs should be lightweight and easy to stack and move around. We even start all our workshops without chairs. This encourages people to stand, making walking to someone else and starting a conversation even easier. Only after the very first exercise do we bring in the chairs. At that moment, the first connections had already been made, and we’d set the tone for the type of workshop participants could expect.

Make visual recording a shared responsibility

One of the principles of Liberating Structures is that they are experts. Anyone can use it. You don’t need an expert to try a Liberating Structure. And there aren’t any expensive certification programs available. During our workshops, we used to hire a visual illustration to capture the essence of the session in a mind-blowing visualization. Everyone loved it, and so did we. And although our visual illustrator encouraged everyone to start drawing themselves, some participants felt overwhelmed. They got the impression that you need to be an expert to draw. So, during recent workshops, we made creating a visual recording a shared responsibility. Everyone was encouraged to create an illustration about something that stood out. It resulted in a nice overview of all the lessons learned from the group. And it emphasizes the expertless principles of Liberating Structures.

Visual recording in progress during the Liberating Structures Immersion Workshop in Copenhagen, October 2021.

Optimize for diversity

When picking participants who want to share something, pick people in such a way as to optimize for diversity. It’s a stereotype, but try to prevent only middle-aged men, with loud voices & strong opinions, from being heard. The structures already help reach more diversity, but when sharing ideas with the entire group, try giving everyone space to contribute. A simple trick is to ask the entire group to raise their hand if they want to share something. Then, wait 10 seconds. Check which people raised their hands, and pick the ones you prefer. This allows you to optimize for diversity.

Explain the connection between the structures

Each individual Liberating Structure is a Lego brick. Individually, they’re powerful, but their strength & potential become particularly clear when connecting them. All structures can be connected. This is called a “string” of Liberating Structures. Given the 33 structures, you can create endless unique strings. If you decide to use Liberating Structures, always start with the purpose you want to achieve. So, given the meetup or gathering you have in mind, what purpose do you want to achieve, and what structures will help you do so? When you’re new to Liberating Structures, this might be difficult. That’s why we always explain how we created strings of Liberating Structures during our workshops. So, at the end of each structure, explain what will happen next and why. Repeat this at the start of a new structure. It clarifies the participants and creates a nice flow in the workshop.

Turn Simple Ethnography Into A Powerful Bonus Structure

Simple Ethnography is probably not the most known Liberating Structure. However, it is powerful and useful for various reasons. Simple Ethnography is all about gathering empirical data through observation. Part of observation is being curious, asking questions, and refraining from judging. This allows you to see what’s going on. You probably know the situation that you can’t make groups of even numbers. For example, you want to do “Heard, Seen, Respected” in pairs but end up with one group of three. As such, you’ve got two options: 1) simply from one group of three and encourage them to make creative use of the timebox, or 2) ask one participant to become a simple ethnographer. This person doesn’t engage in the Liberating Structure but uses Simple Ethnography to pay attention to body language, facial expressions, sound level, etc. In the debrief, you can include their observations. By doing so, you did two Liberating Structures simultaneously, creating an extra valuable experience for everyone!

Whisper out loud

If you use Liberating Structures for a workshop, meeting, or gathering, try hosting it with someone else. This isn’t only way more fun but also easier. When your co-facilitator explains a step, you can take your time to prepare the next one. Another advantage is that you can work together to improve during the session. New insights likely emerge that require a change to the original program. This could be a small tweak in the invitation or a complete reshuffle of a string. Regardless of the impact of the change, always be open about it with the group. We model this openness by ‘whispering out loud” as facilitators. We openly talk about potential changes we have in mind. This helps the group understand what’s happening and strengthens their understanding of Liberating Structures. It also builds safety, showing them we don’t hide anything from them. Make this a work agreement you share at the start, and try it!

Encourage self-facilitation

Whenever we use Liberating Structures with a group, our intention is always to give them enough guidance and inspiration to use it for themselves afterward. Initially, we used to create complex strings of Liberating Structures that worked, but the participants needed to learn how to use them in their context. Mission failed. From that moment on, we deliberately create space for self-facilitation. For example, during a Shift & Share, we ask the participants to run a 1–2–4-ALL to collect & share ideas. Or we invite them, kickstart an Impromptu Networking, and only explain the steps to help them get started. Nothing more. Let them figure out the other rounds for themselves. They’ll get it. Henri Lipmanowicz and Keith McCandless always say: “trust the structure.” Based on this, we even created t-shirts with “Liberate Your Structure, And Structure Your Liberation” :-)

Closing

In this blog post, I offered an overview of insights I gained from using Liberating Structures, particularly during our public Immersion Workshops. If you’re interested in learning more about Liberating Structures first-hand, why don’t you join our 2-day Immersion Workshop? If you want to join, book early — they are exceptionally popular!

Our work is mostly supported by the community. You can already support us with $1/month. Find out more on patreon.com/liberators

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Barry Overeem

Co-founder The Liberators: I create content, provide training, and facilitate (Liberating Structures) workshops to unleash (Agile) teams all over the world!