Uncertain? Welcome to the Club!
By Cat Tabbner with contributions from Monique Campbell
Welcome to the second part of our blog on Facilitating Uncertainty. Whether you are new to public or community engagement or a seasoned facilitator, we hope that our honest reflections will be useful or at least let you know you are in good company.
Our first part shared some of our learning about how we encounter uncertainty when facilitating groups. We shared some of the ways we have been learning to deal with uncertainty in terms of theoretical approaches and practice – or praxis. This second part explores some of the creative and reflective methods that we use as ways of supporting groups of people to manage uncertainty safely and meaningfully.
Creative processes and wellbeing
Studies of creative and participatory processes have revealed how they can enhance wellbeing by encouraging out-of-the-box thinking, positively changing how people feel physically, mentally and emotionally, and by changing how they create and experience their collective participatory space (Atkinson & Robson, 2012: 1349)6. Examples of positive impacts include reducing social isolation and loneliness, sustaining health and wellbeing, and increasing resilience and life expectancy (Kings College, 2019)7-9.
By looking at the available evidence of what works, participatory and democratic processes have also been documented as enabling transformative engagement that promotes wellbeing at individual and community levels (Kilroy et al., 2008)10 when people claim power to identify and act on their visions of wellbeing (Atkinson et al. 2020) 11, 12 (ACE, 2012). Some participatory processes can place wellbeing at the centre of processes by inviting people to use bodily senses such as hearing and smell as ways of exploring knowledge about ourselves and the world around us (Hunt and Atkinson 2020)13.
Creative approaches can also be a “catalyst to enter the required ‘space’ for both wellbeing to arise and (Garner et al, 2007:6)14 ‘transformational learning’ to occur (Mezirow, 2000)15. Transformational learning can “shape the learner and produce a significant impact, or paradigm shift, which affects the learner’s subsequent experiences” (Clark, 1993: 57)16.
Transformational learning can be helpful for facilitating public and community engagements because it can help the teams of people involved appreciate how they may understand the task at hand differently and see from the perspective of another. Developing this understanding can help people to collaborate and to build a shared meaning of the engagement and to respect each other’s views:
Different members of the team are likely to have different perceptions of the topic or community, different interests, different knowledge and different views on the issues. Cultivating the ability to ‘think from the other’ in this setting should help initiators to be open to learning and to appreciate that the same topic can mean quite different things to different people and can be framed in different ways (e.g., Tannen, 1993). (Faulkner and Bynner 2020).2
Creative processes and the arts can help us to see things from a different point of view which can help us think and act differently, altering the way we see ourselves and others and can therefore support transformational learning (Kilroy at al. 2008; Garner et al, 2007:6)10,14. A dominant theory of how creativity fosters transformation is that:
participation […] may build both an inward-looking self-esteem and awareness and an outward looking connectedness […] which in turn, open up new narratives through which to construct resilience and make choices. This transformation, involves the re-imagining of one’s self, capabilities and interrelationships with others (Atkinson &
Robson, 2012: 1349).
Examples of ways that transformational learning, fostered using arts activities, can help engagement include building relationships and empathy between groups of people by learning to understand each other and developing helpful ways of interacting with each other (Stevenson, 2019b)17. Results can include improving mood and reducing stress (Stevenson 2019a)18:
Prompted by the activities, the children and care home residents found common ground and over time they began to understand one another’s needs resulting in “helpful interaction” across the generations.’ (Stevenson, 2019b).
Other examples include the impacts of participating in group music activities on facilitating learning among young people who struggle in school-based learning or whose talents are not typically nurtured in those settings (Garnham and Harkins 2017)19. Areas of learning positively impacted by this kind of activity included concentration, problem solving, language development and coordination (Evaluation of Sistema Scotland)20.
Critical reflection and critical self-reflection
So, if transformational learning can be helpful for engagements, how does transformation come about and what is it? In their practical guide, the International Futures Forum describe transformation as a process that: ‘invites us to draw on an innate human capacity to act in tune with and realise our deeper aspirations in a complex world rather than just settle for fixing what’s failing’ (Leicester, 2016)21.
We find that this definition of transformation gives us comfort because when we facilitate groups of people we can be confident that they hold the keys to their own solutions and therefore they also may have ideas about how they can deal with uncertainty along the way. Our job is to help them explore their ideas. One of the ways we do this is to enable groups to use critical reflection and critical self-reflection.
Theorists like Mezirow describe how critical reflection and critical self-reflection can help transformation arise in people by taking on different perspectives of themselves, others and the world around them (2000). Taylor (1998 in Mezirow, 2000)15 identifies three forms of reflection:
1) content: how we think, feel, act.
2) process: reflecting on how we perform the functions of perceiving.
3) premise: an awareness of why we perceive.
Other theorists (such as Dirkx, 2001 in Cranton & Lipson-Lawrence, 2009)22 place imagination, intuition, and emotion at the heart of transformation. This emphasis can make the arts and creative practices particularly well suited for facilitation methods when there is potential for conflict and where uncertainty lies. Jim Ewing also illustrated the ways that people use their bodies and minds have the potential to create and sustain transformation – through their heart (emotions), head (imagination and possibilities) and feet (walking our talk, action and discipline) (Executive Arts Limited 2016)23.
Here are some examples of how we went about facilitating critical reflection and critical self-reflection when supporting a community panel for the GoWell research and learning project:
Co-production By sharing power to design and run knowledge exchange workshops, we removed some mystery about each other and started to build a trusting collaboration because we got to know what we all had to offer, we demonstrated commitment to supporting the Panel and understood what they required and walked our talk. We collectively re-visited our terms, our values and our plans. This iterative process of co-production invited the Panel to think as individuals and as a group about what they wanted from working together, what they could give and what they required. Since the point of co-production is to honour and pool each other’s power by working together as equals, our ability to demonstrate our commitment to this principle helped to create a safe space for the group to reflect. For those that wished, we met with Panel members individually and crafted ways of inviting their thoughts and ideas about themselves and the group through conversation, appreciative inquiry, stories, maps and photos.
National Standards for Community Engagement. We used the National Standards for Community Engagement as our framework by working out together how we would use them and by reviewing our progress based on them. This process revealed to us what values and principles we had in common, giving us confidence in exploring how we would work together. We reflected on past experiences, what we wanted this time around and why.
Experiential learning. We co-designed knowledge exchange workshops with the GoWell Panel and all our activities took the form of experiential learning or learning by doing and from experiences. The group said that basing the workshops on hands-on, practical, community-based activities helped to reduce their doubts and uncertainty about working with a research team partly because the workshops were based on a form of knowledge they were experts on – experiential learning. Starting with this common form of knowledge helped the group reflect on how their experiences varied and what this meant for their collective knowledge base. The group still encountered surprises and uncertainty, such as discovering that learning can be fun and social or creating their own projects. However, these uncertainties were more manageable because they were acting from an empowering knowledge foundation – experiential learning.
Listening, dialogue and stepping into each other’s shoes. We created spaces for listening and dialogue, inviting Panel to raise awareness in themselves and group about what they were hearing2, 24. The GoWell team and the Panel co-designed two activities with a GoWell Principal Investigator that flipped their roles to step into each other’s shoes. In one exercise, the group reviewed the researcher’s evidence briefing and advised on what changes needed to be made. In another exercise, the Panel role played a Scottish Parliament committee and designed questions the researcher had to answer about GoWell evidence. These exercises triggered reflections in several ways: the researcher realised he needed to change the way he linked GoWell evidence to policy implications. These changes were not apparent to academic interpretations because lived experiences of regeneration was required to understand the relevance of some parts of the evidence base to policy. The exercises also revealed to the Panel that they were not used to thinking from positions of power or expertise and that research and policy makers were missing out because the group produced pertinent and astute questions.
Curiosity. Curiosity can be defined as being interested, asking questions that might lead to unexpected answers, actions and values. We based the Panel workshops on activities that invited the group to reflect, take action and then reflect again on what they had learned. Curiosity was transformative for several Panel members who went on to make decisions and obtain achievements with their communities that might otherwise not have occurred without being open to uncertain or unknown things.
To sum up, we hope that the examples from our practices and the authors we have cited demonstrate that you are in good company when it comes to facilitating groups through uncertainty. These examples and references are far from exhaustive and we hope that this blog will help encourage you to research other theories, practices and learning examples.
While most of these examples are from pre-Covid times, on reflection of what it can be like to do this work during the pandemic, we think they still usefully demonstrate that how three aspects of group facilitation can be designed and supported from the start:
- Safety first: creative and reflective methods have been shown to support psychological safety, as well as, positively impacting on both individual and collective wellbeing.
- Transformational learning can be helpful for facilitating public/community engagements because it can help the teams of people involved appreciate how they may understand the task at hand differently and see from the perspective of another. Creative and reflective methods can support transformational learning.
- Facilitation methods that draw on critical reflection and critical self-reflection theories can be used alongside creative methods and can help transformation arise in people by taking on different perspectives of themselves, others and the world around them.
As we said in the first part of our blog, we are continually learning as practitioners. We find uncertainty a fascinating and challenging part of facilitation and we hope that this blog encourages continued reflection in our engagement communities. We’d gladly welcome discussion on this topic so if you have different views and other resources to highlight, please get in touch!
We will follow up this blog with a blog about our learning to date on facilitation and dealing with uncertainty during the ongoing Covid pandemic. Watch this space!
1. International Futures Forum. Transformative Innovation. Available at: https://www.iffpraxis.com/ti-resources (accessed June 2021).
2. Faulkner W, Bynner C. How to design and plan public engagement processes: a handbook. Edinburgh: What Works Scotland; 2020. Available at: https://policyscotland.gla.ac.uk/public-engagement-processes-handbook/ (accessed 11 November 2020).
3. For more information: www.iaf-world.org/site/facilitators. ‘Pure’ facilitation means that facilitators are neutral in that they have no stake in the group’s task or outcomes. When we support groups of people we often have a role in helping to design and sometimes deliver the engagement activities, so we tend to say we take a facilitative approach (using principles, processes and tools) rather than claim to be pure facilitators.
4. For more information about public engagement: https://www.publicengagement.ac.uk/about-engagement/what-public-engagement
5. Scottish Centre for Community Development. National Standards for Community Engagement. Available at: http://www.voicescotland.org.uk/ (accessed June 2021).
6. Atkinson S, Robson M. Arts and health as a practice of liminality: managing the spaces of transformation for social and emotional wellbeing with primary school children. Health & Place 2012;18(6):1348-1355.
7. Gordon-Nesbitt R. Older and wiser? Creative ageing in the UK
2010–19. London: Kings College London; 2019. Available at: https://www.kcl.ac.uk/news/new-report-finds-more-work-needs-to-be-done-to-normalise-the-role-of-the-arts-for-older-people (accessed June 2021).
8. A note on evidence: broadly speaking, while the evidence base for the effects of creative and participatory processes on health is increasing, there are also gaps and a need for further research to explore the various links. For example, there’s a need to better understand individual and group biological, psychological and social processes, how these interact with creative activities, their effects on people’s lived experience and, therefore, on health (Garnham and Campbell 2015). Given such a complex range of processes to understand, some question if it is ever possible to truly ‘know’ the effects of creative processes on health (Garnham and Campbell 2015).
9. Garnham LM, Campbell A. ‘It makes me feel happy and joyful’: the evaluation of arts-based social interventions in public health. Journal of Public Health 2015;38(4):589–591.
10. Kilroy A, Garner C, Parkinson C, Kagan C, Senior P. Exploring the impact of creativity, culture and the arts, on health and wellbeing. Manchester: Manchester Metropolitan University; 2008.
11. Atkinson S, Bagnall AM, Corcoran R, South J, Curtis S. Being Well Together: Individual Subjective and Community Wellbeing. Journal of Happiness Studies 2020;21:1903–1921.
12. Ings R, Crane N, Cameron M. Be Creative Be Well. Arts, wellbeing and local communities: An evaluation. London: Arts Council Englang; 2012. Available at: https://www.artscouncil.org.uk/be-creative-be-well-arts-wellbeing-and-local-communities-%C2%A0evaluation (accessed July 2021).
13. Atkinson S, Hunt R. Geohumanities and Health: Global Perspectives on Health Geography. Switzerland: Springer; 2019.
14. Garner C, Kagan C, Kilroy A, Parkinson C, Senior P. Towards Transformation: Exploring the Impact of Culture, Creativity and the Arts on Health and Wellbeing: Arts for Health. Manchester Metropolitan University; 2007. Available at: core.ac.uk/download/pdf/272322.pdf[CT1] (Accessed 15/05/15).
15. Mezirow J. Learning as Transformation: Critical Perspectives on a Theory in Progress. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass; 2000.
16. Clark MC. Transformational Learning. New Directions For Adult And Continuing Education 1993;57:47-56.
17. Stevenson R. Evaluation of the ArtFelt project. Ruthless Research; 2019. Available online at: https://luminatescotland.org/resource/evaluation-of-the-artfelt-project/ (accessed July 2021).
18. Stevenson R. Evaluation of the Bandrum pilot project. Ruthless Research; 2019. Available online at: https://luminatescotland.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/Bandrum-Pilot-Evaluation-Report.pdf (accessed July 2021).
19. Garnham LM, Harkins C. ‘Transforming lives through music’ as a public health intervention: further reflections on our evaluation of Sistema Scotland. Journal of Public Health 2017;39(4):793–795.
20. For more information: https://www.gcph.co.uk/children_and_families/evaluation_of_sistema_scotland
21. Leicester G. Transformative Innovation: A Guide to Practice and Policy. Axminster: Triarchy Press; 2016.
22. Cranton P, Lipson-Lawrence R. What You See Depends Upon How You Look: A Photographic Journey of Transformative Learning. Journal of Transformative Education 2009;7(4):312-331.
23. Ewing J. Real world change: Maps for the journey. Executive Arts; 1989-2016. For more information: www.executivearts.co.uk
24. For more information about dialogue, go to Oliver Escobar’s handbook on public dialogue and deliberation: https://oliversdialogue.wordpress.com/public-dialogue-and-deliberation/