What Are Liberating Structures? Perspectives From Participants
Reflections from participants on their experience of Liberating Structures
What are Liberating Structures? I could explain that there are 33 of them and that each one is a “microstructure” with a specific purpose. I could give you examples of how they work. For example, the Liberating Structure 1–2–4-ALL asks participants to first reflect in silence on a question for 1 minute, then to share their insights with a partner in 2 minutes, and then combine their insights with another pair in 4 minutes. I could also explain that they are facilitation tools.
But all of this is theory. None of these explanations capture what it is like to be participating in a Liberating Structure. None of this captures what it feels like to experience entire strings of them, where the interactions from one structure flow naturally into the next.
In this post, I want to share what it is like to be part of Liberating Structures. There is a magical quality to them that is hard to describe and transcends anything that I have experienced before in professional workshops. Although I will add my own experience, I will begin with the experiences that others have shared with me. This collection is connected by our attempts to describe something that is very hard to describe in words. You have to experience it.
“It’s like Jazz”
In the most recent Liberating Structures workshop I attended, one participant compared Liberating Structures to Jazz. Jazz is all about improvisation and adapting to what is happening at the moment. As people become more proficient with the songbook of Liberating Structures, and how they are structured on a micro-organizing level, they can start riffing and combining them in new and innovative ways. And the more proficient people are, the smoother and more natural the experience is. Like learning to play music takes time, so does this.
“It’s like a social movement”
For another participant, Liberating Structures are a social movement. By allowing everyone’s voice and perspective to be included without losing pace — even in very large groups — Liberating Structures can drive change across groups, organizations, and society. It works wonders all building personal connections, connecting people, and spreading ideas within groups.
“I remember all the faces”
My initial understanding of Liberating Structures was that they are “facilitator tools”. Considering that I was a professional facilitator at the time, that showed my bias. My initial experiments didn’t change that. I tried a 1–2–4-ALL here, an Impromptu Networking there. But everything changed when I participated in a 2-day Liberating Structures Immersion Workshop in Berlin in early 2018. In more ways than one, this workshop was a seismic shift in how I understood my role as a facilitator, as someone contributing to group conversations, and how I relate to other people.
Why? Being immersed for 2 days in Liberating Structures showed me a profound truth that was hiding below the surface: they make it easier for us to be human with each other. Instead of hearing only the usual suspects go on and on, all of a sudden everyone was given a voice and equal time to contribute. Instead of hearing only strong opinions, all of a sudden there was space for nuance and complexity. Instead of everyone going for themselves, all of a sudden people were actively listening to each other.
What still surprises me to this day, is how I still remember many of the faces of the people I interacted with. For example, there was someone who shared a personal story in the structure Heard, Seen, Respected. I still remember his face, the sadness he showed while telling his story, but also the way he looked relieved when he had shared it — maybe for the first time with someone he didn’t actually know. I also remember how he listened to my story.
That makes Liberating Structures exceptionally humanizing to me. I am not a very emotional person. But whenever we run a solid string of Liberating Structures, or when I participate in one, I can’t help but feel my heart open in response to the intimacy that Liberating Structures create between strangers.
“It's like a language”
Another participant described Liberating Structures as a language. Coincidentally, this is a metaphor we also often use. Each structure represents a word, and you can start telling stories by stringing them together into sentences. The repertoire of Liberating Structures is designed to help groups explore, broaden, narrow, and conclude their exploration of a shared challenge or topic. Some structures are applicable in many situations while others are more specific to certain interactions. For example, a 1–2–4-ALL is versatile in its use, while a Min Specs is helpful specifically for narrowing it down to the essentials.
When groups learn the language of Liberating Structures, they can start re-framing their interactions accordingly. When groups feel the need to get a better sense of what is happening, they may
“Liberating Structures are like LEGO, building blocks for interaction”
A good way to explain the potential of Liberating Structures is to compare them with LEGO bricks. One LEGO brick can be fun, but the real joy starts when you have multiple LEGO bricks to play with. It is said that there are 102,981,500 possible ways to combine six eight-stud LEGO bricks of the same color. The same goes for Liberating Structures. One Liberating Structures is fun and valuable. But the real strength becomes clear when you start creating strings of multiple Liberating Structures. We’ve also found it incredibly fulfulling to discover different ways to string Liberating Structures together and see how it works in groups.
“It’s the best thing that happened to me in my working life”
Another participant emphasized authentic connections. During drinks in the bar after a workshop in December 2019, he described the experience as the best thing that happened to him in his professional life. Why? Because Liberating Structures are so great at creating authentic interactions with others. The workshop he was reflecting on had been attended by about 60 participants, and he marveled at how he’d met and spoken with all of them. Not just casually, but in a meaningful way, and in response to thought-provoking questions. Those conversations had advanced his understanding of himself in his work, and also how he could help others do the same.
“It's like glasses”
Finally, one participant described each Liberating Structure as a different set of glasses to look at the same reality. For example, a structure like Ecocycle Planning invites a group (of any size) to reflect on their activities and their place in their natural growth cycle. But a structure like Heard, Seen, Respected goes for the deeply personal stories of where people didn’t feel heard, seen, or respected by others. Together, the 33 Liberating Structures provide a rich repertoire of glasses to apply with groups. It also removes some of the bias that is inherent in people, by inviting them to take a different perspective.
Experience it yourself
A simple glance at the steps of each structure on liberatingstructures.com doesn’t tell you anything about what it feels like to participate in them. Not to mention the experience of an entire string of structures, where each flows smoothly and fluently into the next.
This is the purpose of Liberating Structures Immersion Workshops; they exist to give participants a powerful first-hand experience of the liberating and unleashing potential of Liberating Structures. It demonstrates on a very visceral level how interactions — even in large groups — are harmonized and humanized. Instead of hearing only the usual suspects, all of sudden you
If you want to experience Liberating Structures yourself, sign up for the nearest 2-day Liberating Structures Immersion Workshop that is close to you. Do pick a workshop that is hosted by facilitators who are visibly active in the global Liberating Structures community. That way, the workshop isn’t just a technical training on how to run the structures but honors the history, principles, and creators of Liberating Structures — Keith McCandless and Henri Lipmanowicz. You are welcome to join our 2-day Workshop in Amsterdam on March 16+17. Or you can e-mail us to connect you to more local facilitators.