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II. Welcoming differences while supporting creativity

(this is part three of a four-part article titled On Relational Facilitation: Supporting the Creative Potential of Divergent Perspectives”; the second part immediately preceding this one, is “I. Psychological safety, feeling “gotten”, and the social engagement system”.)

While the first principle explored earlier 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.

IIa. Early learnings about eliciting and protecting creativity in groups. In the late 1950’s and early 1960, creativity researchers William J.J. Gordon and George Prince discovered the major importance of group climate for the generation of creative ideas²⁷. In audio recordings of unfacilitated groups, they noticed a pattern where whenever they heard someone responding dismissively to another person’s idea, they could rewind the recording and find some time earlier in the process when the now-dismissive person had offered an idea of their own which had been subtly ignored or overlooked. After witnessing this pattern repeatedly, they realized the key role of facilitation for generating the optimal environment for creativity. Prince wrote: “Perhaps the most remarkable lesson that has emerged from our work, is the fact that people cannot wholeheartedly work in a group unless the individuality of each is carefully protected.”²⁸

Of course there are different ways we can go about “protecting people’s individuality” in groups. And despite their potent insights, I find it unfortunate that the powerful methods Gordon and Prince developed for encouraging creative thinking were all designed for commercial innovation. Yet given various crises we are currently facing (crisis = danger + opportunity), it seems timely to explore how we might take what we know about human creativity and apply it to socially significant issues.

One of the early formats for eliciting creativity in groups was Osborne’s invention of brainstorming. In this process, idea generation (coming up with many different ideas) is separated from idea evaluation (assessing the value of the different ideas) as a way to create enough psychological safety for people to engage in “out-of-the-box” thinking. While brainstorming can be very useful in some contexts, it has also been subject to recent critiques; when not carried out as originally designed, people can still feel inhibited in a group context and perform less well than when they work individually.²⁹

A more elaborate way of generating creativity in groups was devised by Edward DeBono, who developed the Six Thinking Hats model (among a much larger body of work)³⁰. DeBono describes “black hat thinking”, or critical thinking, as a critical element in the design process — yet one that needs to not come in too early, since it can wither the “young green shoots” of creativity. “Green hat thinking” is similar to brainstorming — anything goes — while “yellow hat thinking” is “possibility thinking”: a response to the question, “what would it take for that idea to succeed?” Red hat thinking includes feelings and gut responses, without the need for justification; while white hat thinking invokes careful observation, while stepping back from any assumptions we may be making. Last but not least, blue hat thinking has to do with meta-level process observations, such as “Which hat might be most useful for us to be wearing right now?”

Both brainstorming and Six Thinking Hats can be useful methods for working with groups, yet they are only the tip of the iceberg of a much larger body of work dealing with creativity in groups. The yearly gatherings of the Creative Problem Solving Institute are one place where practitioners in this field gather³¹. Yet as mentioned earlier, much of this work has been lamentably restricted to purposes of industrial innovation, and has generally not been applied to addressing public policy issues.

IIb. How we elicit and protect creativity in 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 process³². 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.

IIc. Other approaches that create psychological safety in a similar manner to DF. Better Angels is a relatively new organization in the U.S. that is dedicated to creating opportunities for “Reds” and “Blues” to have the opportunity to understand more about one another. One recent innovation they have launched is the Better Angels’ debate format³³, where psychological safety is maintained by having participants direct their very different perspectives toward the “chair” or moderator of the debate. The “chair” in this format does not engage in “looping” (i.e., reflecting back the essence of what has been said). However, the simple act of not having participants address their energy at each other, but instead direct their comments to the “chair”, helps to shift the dynamics of the process such that everyone is better able to listen to the different perspectives being offered.

On the other end of the ancient-contemporary continuum, an elder in Hawai’i once described to us a traditional ho’o pono pono process used for community conflict resolution. Once a circle has been called to address a particular conflict, and prayers have been offered, the main parties to the conflict are not allowed to speak to one another directly, “until their hearts have opened” and they are ready to apologize to one another. Until that point, they are asked to direct all of their responses to the Elder who is holding the circle. She or he interviews each of the parties to the conflict in the presence of a small group circle that has been convened expressly for this purpose. The Elder also calls on others in the circle, to offer their perspectives on the situation.³⁴

IId. Other elements of creating a generative space. While in this article I have been primarily focusing on the two micro-dynamics of a) helping people feel “gotten” through “looping” and b) redirecting criticism toward the facilitator, as two complementary ways of creating psychological safety for differences, I don’t mean to imply that these are the only ways to create a generative space. From the framing of the original invitation, to bringing together participants with different roles in the larger system and thus different perspectives, to asking questions that elicit creativity, there are other elements that are also significant for a creative process.

Now for the last section of this article:

III. Relational facilitation, a regenerative culture, and “taking all sides” This last section also includes a brief closing section on “New Perspectives on Research”, as well as a full reference list.

footnotes

²⁷ Prince, 1970

²⁸ Prince, 1970, p. 41

²⁹ Isaksen & Gaulin, 2005

³⁰ De Bono, 1992

³¹ These gatherings are sponsored by the Creative Education Foundation, http://www.creativeeducationfoundation.org

³² For more on the value of welcoming initial solutions, see Zubizarreta, 2006; also Zubizarreta, 2013.

³³ https://www.better-angels.org/what-we-do/#Debates

³⁴ personal narrative, shared with us by a traditional Elder on the island of Malakai

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