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  • Writer's pictureBeatrice Schulter

How participatory methods keep surprising, if you dare...

How can we break out of soporific conference and meeting formats, where communication is a one-way street? How can we use our natural impulse for play and creativity that can bring participants’ knowledge, experience, ideas and skills to a shared space and time?

Recently, I worked on this issue with the organising committee for a conference. I facilitated several workshops in preparation of the conference, as well as two break-out workshops during the conference itself.

Walk the Talk: Using Liberating Structures to learn Liberating Structures

The aim of the preparation workshops was to match content and format: Talk and learn about interactive methods by applying such methods, so that the format provides answers to the question on how to shape truly interactive and participatory meetings and conferences. We experimented with different Liberating Structures methods and discussed how they can be applied face-to-face and online. Starting from the light approaches of Impromptu Networking, 1-2-4-all, the Mad Tea Party, we transitioned to the more sophisticated – but just as easy to apply face-to-face or online – Fishbowl, Appreciative Interviews and the Troika Consulting. Equipped with these methods, the participants would be expected to prepare their parts for the conference, replacing the classical keynote inputs (e.g. Powerpoint présentation) with other formats. Solutions to this challenge were interview formats, the fishbowl or quizzes.

Open Spaces: Black Holes or wonderland?

For the conference I dared to pitch in with two “open spaces”. These were time slots for workshops without any pre-defined topic. Conference participants were invited to propose any topic for discussion, and to see whether other participants would be interested to join.

We all had been a bit worried that nobody would propose anything, only to see that a total of six additional topics were put forward!

But how should we deal with this, since we only had two time slots available? All interested conference participants joined the discussion on which topics to choose for which time slot. Everyone agreed that all six topics should be discussed, putting together three (seemingly unrelated) topics in each time slot.

How to facilitate an unprepared workshop on three unrelated topics at once?

Feeling a bit challenged to facilitate such a setting, I also felt thrilled about how the invitation and the open space had resulted in participants being bolder than I had ever imagined!

The participants were seated in a circle and the title of each topic was written on a flipchart in different corners of the room.

Otherwise, the materials provided were limited to post-its, markers, coloured paper, a bell, a watch with a countdown function and a "squeezy ball".

Conversation Café – trusting the process

We started the workshop using the Conversation Café. The rules are simple: An object is chosen and declared the “talking stick”. The person holding the talking stick can talk about anything they want. Everyone else listens carefully. There is a strict time slot of one minute for each person to hold the talking stick. If he or she is finished before or does not want to say anything, the talking stick is handed to the next person. There are at least two such strictly timed and ordered rounds. In this way participants can react to others’ inputs or answer questions that were directed at them (if they want). After these regulated rounds, there can be one or more rounds, where the rules of the talking stick and timing are upheld, but the order is free, and people can ask to receive the talking stick randomly.

In both workshops, the Conversation Café not only allowed us to go into the three topics, but revealed that these seemingly unrelated topics have in fact a lot to do with each other.

Take a minute to reflect – before walking on.

Using the method 1-2-4-all we inserted a moment of reflection to narrow down the topics for further discussions.

One of the objectives was to find out if participants would like to break up in sub-groups, in order to focus on different specific issues. In both workshops participants were thrilled to see how surprising new perspectives came up because three seemingly unrelated topics had been put together, and they wished to continue in the big group, with more Conversation Café.

Deep reflection for conclusions

Towards the end of the workshops, in order to wrap up and develop conclusions, I invited participants to write a “Spiral Journal” and to reflect on four questions related to the overall topic of the conference: Inspiring insights gained through the workshop; New or pertaining challenges related to the topic; Concrete recommendations to different actors in relation to the topic of the conference; And their own resolutions on what they want to do further or differently after the workshop.

And the results?

The energy during and after these open space workshops was sizzling: participants had established a thorough interest in each others’ work, experience and challenges and immediate feedback was thoroughly positive. But what would participants think in hindsight and in comparison to other prepared workshops? Would they be disappointed, because they had not received any presentations or materials documenting complex projects or approaches? Would they find after reflection, that it had not been too worthwhile after all, even though the experience had been inspiring initially?

I admit that even I, a declared fan and promoter of open working methods, was surprised: All conference participants evaluated these two open workshops with the highest possible marks, both in terms of content and format . It is striking to realise that a format, which takes literally no time for preparation, allows participants to discuss what is really relevant to them, to share experience on an equal par, to discover surprising new perspectives, and to have a thoroughly satisfying conference experience.

Three simple, but really, really important recommendations:

1. Use liberating structures and other open working methods

There are a great number of concrete tips, methods and approaches that are helpful for overcoming differences of authority or hierarchy, for trusting participants and for not anticipating the outcome or the exact questions to be discussed. Now it is about trying things out!

For me, the Liberating Structures are the absolute highlight, because they are easy to learn and apply, and because they are described in a simple and understandable way. You will find a library of methods, including stories and examples on how to use them here:

I would also like to recommend the Open Space Technology, a completely open, self-organising format for conferences of at least one day. Organise the most amazing conferences on any topic with up to several hundreds of participants, without any content-related preparations. The technology has been developed by Harrison Owen, and while you can find a lot of guidelines and short information on the technology online, I recommend reading his book “Open Space Technology – A User’s Guide”, in which you learn about the fascinating story on why and how he developed this method.

2. Tell your fears to go elsewhere – they are telling lies...

You might be afraid nobody would take the spaces that you provide, that people would expect you to feed them with knowledge and expertise and that you would look like a fool, while everyone would fall asleep or walk out of your meeting. I understand this very well, this fear keeps coming back after all these years and workshops – only to be proven baseless every single time I try something new. So try something new and expose the fears!

If you want some help in getting started in using Liberating Structures or other out-of-the box methodologies for co-creating projects and strategies, get in touch with me!

3. Trust your participants

Remember that your expectations of and towards participants has an influence on their behaviour. If you treat them as ignorant lazy people, like school children, that has to be guided into a specific direction so that they learn exactly what you believe is important to learn, they will be exactly that: lazy, ignorant, passive, or in the best case rebellious (because alive). If you look at them in a different way, trusting that they are in your meeting or workshop for a reason, with a specific interest, and that each of them has something to contribute, they will do exactly that: each one a treasure in themselves, a library and university with a heart, head, and hands.


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