The secrets behind Dynamic Facilitation’s special power

I want to share with you Rosa Zubizarreta’s remarkable insights into how a very powerful process works its magic. That process is Dynamic Facilitation and Rosa reveals its elegant recipe for transforming intense group conflict into creative group breakthroughs. So what’s the secret?

In the essay excerpted below, my dear friend and colleague Rosa Zubizarreta articulates the essence that underlies a group processes we both find uniquely potent, Dynamic Facilitation (DF).  Innovated by consultant Jim Rough, DF is an outstanding tool for addressing conflict and deeply polarized issues and situations. As Rosa points out, although the factors that generate DF’s effectiveness are not original or unique to DF, their combination definitely is.  And together they add up to experiences of liberation and openness for individual group members while dependably generating breakthrough discoveries by the group as a whole.

Her long full essay is available online in four parts beginning HERE.  I have excerpted all four parts below to help you more readily grasp their important insights into DF.  However, in doing so, I have cut out Rosa’s many clarifying comments on other powerful processes and her extensive reference notes.  I highly recommend that you go back and read the entire original.  You’ll be rewarded with an abundance of wisdom and useful practices.

And now to the heart of the matter:  You are about to adventure on a guided tour of deep listening, safety and challenge, diversity generating collective creative genius, and unbounded empathic relationship.  Oddly, although you may never have seen this particular landscape before, you might actually recognize it.



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On Relational Facilitation: Supporting the Creative Potential of Divergent Perspectives

by Rosa Zubizarreta

I am … 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 planning. Deliberative democracy often works with sortition-based [randomly selected] 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 approaches can support and enhance the design and facilitation of these processes….

While I’d had some experience with group processes before then, it was not until the year 2000 that I first encountered Dynamic Facilitation [DF]. 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 participants. One of the key aspects of this approach is listening deeply to each person in the group….

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….

Dynamic Facilitation [DF] 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, Austria, another 50 or so times in other regions in Austria, and to a lesser extent in Germany. 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 DF. 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…..

[Below I will] 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…. 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….

[These basic principles are:]
I. Psychological safety, feeling “gotten”, and the social engagement system
II. Welcoming differences while supporting creativity
III. Relational facilitation, a regenerative culture, and “taking all sides”

I. Psychological safety, feeling “gotten”, and the social engagement system

One of the key principles in Dynamic Facilitation… is to create a space where each person can feel safe enough to risk being creative.

One of the key ways in which we create psychological safety in this method, is through a very active role on the part of the facilitators. Initially we work… with each participant in the group, drawing out and reflecting back their contributions, while the rest of the group is informally listening and observing. This is very similar to what [others have called] “listening to understand”,… “active listening” or “empathic listening”. It is also similar to what The Center for Understanding in Conflict calls “looping”; in DF we, too, follow up our “reflecting back what we have heard” with a question to actively check whether we have in fact understood: e.g., “Did I get it?”

Whenever “looping” (or active listening, empathic reflection, resonant listening, or whatever we may choose to call it) is done in an authentic manner, motivated only by the desire to truly understand what another person is communicating, the results can be quite powerful…. Positive psychology researcher Dr. Barbara Frederickson writes in depth about… how these “micro-moments of connection”, of feeling seen and understood by others, are not just emotionally satisfying; they are also one of the most beneficial experiences that humans can have on a physiological level.

Likewise, Dr. Stephen Porges… illuminates the tremendous difference between [people] being in a low level of fight-or-flight stress reaction (which… is quite common in many group situations) or instead being connected with what he calls our “social engagement” system — the nervous system’s state of being relaxed yet alert, which allows us to be curious, take in new information, play, and engage in complex problem-solving with others.

From this perspective, the role of the facilitator in DF can be understood as simply supporting each person in the group to feel psychologically safe enough to stay in their “social engagement” zone, while the facilitator is also actively welcoming divergence and creativity. This allows each person’s natural drive to create meaning to work unimpeded, and allows the entire group to engage constructively and emergently with a complex set of multiple perspectives….

[In the online text, Rosa goes on to explore forms of psychological safety provided by other methodologies and clarifies that safety IN the process does not necessarily guarantee safety outside of the room.  Then she adds the following….]

“Psychological safety” as it applies to DF, means that the facilitator is doing their best to offer basic respect to each person, along with preventing any overt put-downs, criticism, or undercutting of anyone’s ideas or contributions. It does NOT mean, however, that no one in the room will ever utter an unconsciously racist, sexist, or classist comment. To be able to respond effectively to this kind of situation requires those of us who are facilitators to be developing our own sensitivity in these areas in an ongoing manner, through cultural competency trainings, equity and inclusion trainings, etc. By doing this, we will be better able to recognize these kinds of difficulties when they happen, and respond in a useful manner that supports a learning environment for all.

II. Welcoming differences while supporting creativity

While the first principle [above] has to do with creating a basic level of psychological safety, this second principle has to do with maximizing creative tension — while still minimizing interpersonal anxiety. As facilitators, we seek to welcome different perspectives, as different perspectives are essential for creativity. Yet people won’t usually allow themselves to get creative if they feel they are going to be criticized.

[After discussing various well-known approaches to creativity like brainstorming and DeBono’s Six Thinking Hats, Rosa returns to DF….]

Unlike brainstorming or Six Thinking Hats, in DF we don’t protect creativity by isolating critique to a distinct “phase” of the process. Instead, we welcome both solutions AND concerns about others’ solutions, throughout the process.  So how do we create the psychological safety that is needed for the “tender green shoots” of people’s creative efforts?

Instead of limiting critique to a certain phase of the process, we ask participants to shift where they aim it. We invite them to address any critiques directly to the facilitator. The facilitator can then reframe those critiques as “concerns”, thus appreciating and welcoming the energy of caring about having a sound outcome that lies underneath each critique. After listening deeply to a concern, and reflecting it back both verbally and in writing, the facilitator will invite that same participant to offer their own creative solution to the challenges that are being considered.

This is one example of how in DF there are various times when we invite participants to speak directly to the facilitator. To begin with, we do so throughout the initial stage of the process, when we are “purging” participants — i.e., harvesting all of their initial solutions, concerns about one another’s initial solutions, relevant information about context, etc. After this initial stage, participants often shift into speaking directly to one another, while the facilitator periodically pauses the group to reflect back the last handful of contributions and to check that he or she has recorded them accurately.

In the later stage of the process, we move back into the format of “participants speaking directly to the facilitator” in two kinds of situations. One is, whenever strong differences arise that begin to trigger a pattern of attack/defense. Secondly, we also move back into this format whenever a creative idea has been offered and another participant begins to respond with the energy of critique instead of building (“Well, but… “ instead of “Yes, and…”)

After checking back in with the previous participant to re-establish resonance, the facilitator welcomes the concern that has arisen, listens to it in detail and reflects it back. No one is “made wrong”. After the participant who has a concern has finished sharing it, and has felt heard, he or she is now invited to offer their own creative solutions.

Thus, directing the critique to the facilitator allows the person who was originally targeted by the critique, to sit back and “overhear” it as a concern. This allows for very different perspectives to be shared, while maintaining psychological safety in the group.

[After exploring other approaches that use some of the creativity-enhancing strategies we see in DF, Rosa shifts to the next major subject….]

III. Relational facilitation, a regenerative culture, and “taking all sides”

If… our work as facilitators consists of helping each person “feel gotten”, one implication of this is that we need to allow ourselves to be more fully human. We need to welcome people’s emotions, and allow ourselves to empathize and resonate with people.

[After noting the widely acknowledged need for facilitators to be “impartial” and how the usual approach to this involves “taking no sides”, Rosa suggests that such a “neutral” approach can feed a sense of detachment that undermines a facilitator’s ability to relate empathically and authentically to the people in the group.  She then explores some other facilitation approaches that actively seek to “take all sides” and then explains how that practice manifests in DF….]

DF is the first process I experienced as a participant, where the facilitator sequentially “takes all sides” in a group, in a way that generates an extraordinary amount of psychological safety within a group. After almost two decades of exploring a variety of other processes, I would have to say that DF is still exemplary in this regard.

While “taking all sides” feels qualitatively different than “not taking sides”, there are also some similarities:
(a) our intention is for people to have the experience of being treated fairly and
(b) we are specifically NOT “taking sides” with regard to the content.
In order to be able to authentically “take all sides”, part of what we are assuming as facilitators, is that each person in the room has a deep-down positive intent along with a desire to contribute. Furthermore, we see it as our responsibility to draw out each participant, while attempting to understand their contribution and to empathize with their perspective; this allows each person to feel “gotten” [and valued].

In learning about this approach, some facilitators become worried that we are “doing therapy”. I don’t think this is the case, any more than [lawyers who become mediators] are “doing therapy” when they are working with clients. Yet in my attempts to understand and empathize with those concerns, I’ve come to realize something key: “taking all sides” assumes a fundamentally different worldview than the transactional approach to communication. In relational facilitation, we are assuming a universe of resonant relationship, where having a listener who cares about what we have to say makes a world of difference.

It is unfortunately the case in our culture, that often the only people who offer this kind of listening are therapists or social workers. And so the fear of having our work “mistaken for therapy” is quite understandable. Yet deep listening is not therapy, even though it may be deeply therapeutic. Nonetheless, it is still quite a new paradigm in some fields to treat human beings as relational beings, and not as disconnected billiard balls in a mechanistic universe….

By working with relational approaches to group facilitation, we make room for participants to bring more of themselves to the table. My own research and experience, as well as the many Bürgerräte that have taken place in Vorarlberg, other parts of Austria, and Germany, suggest that this can lead to powerful outcomes, and thus serve as a useful step forward toward a culture of deep democracy.

From Conflict to Creative Collaboration: A User’s Guide to Dynamic Facilitation


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