Image for “Systems Thinking” card from Wise Democracy Pattern Language deck, Co-Intelligence Institute. Credit: John Haslam — Flickr

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

(this is the closing of a four-part article titled On Relational Facilitation: Supporting the Creative Potential of Divergent Perspectives”.

The second part is “I. Psychological safety, feeling “gotten”, and the social engagement system”, followed by “II. Welcoming differences while supporting creativity” )

If, as we explored earlier, our work is 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.

IIIa. Positive intentions behind the desire to be “impartial”. We want to acknowledge the positive intentions behind the call to “impartiality”. Clearly, the injunction that facilitators should refrain from “taking sides”, aims to have us to treat participants fairly. Yet another way to achieve this same end, can be to “take all sides” or be “multipartial”. In family therapy this has sometimes been called “multidirectional partiality”³⁵. This simply means, taking turns empathizing with each side, and attempting to do so fully. We don’t need to use a fancy term for it; we just want to point out that this approach has been around for a while, and has been found useful in a variety of contexts.

Yes, it can be harder to do this, than to simply put up a wall of “impartiality” around our hearts. It is often much easier to simply fall back on transactional measures, like giving everyone equal time, instead of seeking to actually empathize, understand, and connect with everyone in the room. And sometimes, in a given situation, a more transactional approach may be the best we can do. Yet it helps to not lose sight of the awareness that more is possible.

IIIb. Other facilitation approaches that actively “take all sides”. Two approaches informed by Non-Violent Communication (NVC) come to mind here: one is Dominic Barter’s Restorative Circles³⁶, and another is Miki Kashtan’s Convergent Facilitation³⁷. Each of these processes offers its own unique gifts, and is worth exploring in greater depth. Another approach that “takes all sides” was mentioned earlier, the work of The Center for Understanding in Conflict, founded by Gary Friedman and Jack Himmelstein, the ones who coined the term “looping”³⁸. Unlike the first two examples, their work is not based on NVC, to my knowledge.

Then there is the Lewis method of Deep Democracy³⁹, created by Myrna and Greg Lewis and inspired by the Process Work of Arnie and Amy Mindell. Having experienced both of these related approaches, it seems to me that the Lewis approach to Deep Democracy has a greater focus on creating psychological safety than the original Process Work model, though some have still found it too edgy for comfort. Both of these models are based on the principle of honoring the energy of divergent perspectives as a potential resource for greater creativity and growth. And they both seek to embody the principle of “deep listening to all sides”.

IIIc. “Taking all sides” in DF. There is not much to add here beyond what I have already written in earlier sections. 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”.

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 the lawyers-turned-mediators from the Center for Understanding in Conflict (mentioned above) 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.

IV. In closing: New perspectives on research

As deliberative democracy practitioners, many of us are focused on the practical work of creating spaces that support engagement, trust, and collaboration. At the same time, from a research perspective, sortition-based microcosms — “mini-publics” where high quality group deliberation can take place — can be understood as a way to improve upon traditional public opinion polls. Instead of answering the question “How does the larger public feel about this issue, off the top of their heads?”, a method called Deliberative Polling⁴⁰ answers the question “How would the larger public feel about this issue, IF they had the opportunity to learn a bit more about it, and then engage in a moderated discussion with others about this issue?”

Deliberative Polling works quite well, and is certainly a vast improvement over regular polling. Yet if we wanted to bring more of our humanity into this research picture, we could choose to ask, “How would the larger public feel about this issue, if they had the opportunity to learn a bit more about it, by participating in a facilitated creative exploration with others about this issue?”

In the process, we would be expanding our research question — and, we would be opening the door to enhanced creativity, meaning, and engagement. 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.

footnotes

³⁵ Long & Kort, 2016

³⁶ For a list of resources, see https://restorativerevolution.com/restorative-circles-resources/

³⁷ Center for Efficient Collaboration, 2015

³⁸ https://understandinginconflict.org

³⁹ Lewis 2015

⁴⁰ https://cdd.stanford.edu/what-is-deliberative-polling/

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