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Creating Equitable and Fully Participatory Spaces for Strategic Conversations

Updated: Apr 1, 2021

“I really like that suggestion, but...and I’m not quite sure how to say this....The loudest person in the room is the one not involved in any of the programming. And of course, he’s a white male. And he takes up a LOT of space.”

My client interrupted me in our co-design session ahead of the strategy workshop. I waited for her question.

“...Any ideas on how to have our workshop in a way that amplifies the other voices on our team?”

. . .

When we talk about strategizing for equitable outcomes, we have to first talk about how the process to make those strategic decisions has to be equitable.

What does an equitable process in decision making spaces look like?

  1. There are many relevant voices present in the room.

  2. Everyone in the room is fully engaged to participate. Each person on an individual level is intentionally ready to be present even before the meeting technically begins.

  3. Participation is distributed to amplify and accommodate all voices once we are all in the room.

. . .

Who is in the room?

Be intentional about who is physically (or virtually) in the room - and who is not. Are there voices who should be represented in the room? If they can not be there, how are their voices being included? Ensuring the presence of many relevant voices - be it through prior collated qualitative and quantitative data, or though representation in the room of key participants committed to including those voices - is key to strategic conversations with equitable outcomes.

. . .

Is each individual fully engaged to participate?

In designing an equitable and fully participatory space, you want to spark creativity by engaging with participants in an individual way. This will stimulate participants to more thoroughly later engage with a group.

There are two things to be intentional about in the design of such a space: Centering and Priming. Centering is to create and hold space for participants to acknowledge what is in their head space prior to entering the meeting. Priming is to ask relevant, connected-to-the-main-subject questions as a brain-warming activity for participants.

. . .

On Centering

Holding space to acknowledge what a participant is percolating over – be it a difficult conversation one had with a loved one that morning, or on the heels of an emotionally charged email one just read prior to entering the room - and connecting it to what is about to happen next, can be crucial for full participation.

It can be a disaster to not create space for a centering exercise - and I speak from personal experience as a participant at one such space.

I had just finished listening to the news headlines on my drive over (pre-pandemic) to Day 3 of a conference with 300+ attendees. Over 50 Muslims had been gunned down in Christchurch, NZ that morning, and analysts were commenting that it was due to the rise of white supremacy globally. I walked into the conference, suddenly acutely sensitive that I was one of a handful of persons of color in a room of white folks. And that no one looked like me: a visible in-a-headscarf Muslim and Brown woman. Attendees were blithely (it seemed to me) making small chit-chat waiting for the conference to begin, and we were soon divided into pairs for the ‘ice-breaking,’ fun and whimsical exercise.

I broke down sobbing in the middle of the activity. I had not had time to process why people had been gunned down for looking like me, and I could not – perhaps irrationally – understand why everyone was not talking about this massacre. I had brought all my emotions to the session and could not leave them at the door to fully be present in the opening exercise, let alone for the conference.

We as humans bring our thoughts and emotions to any gathering – and often need coaching to come to a place of quietude in order to fully engage. This is especially relevant when you want participants to be strategizing about "the big picture," and you want them to be wholly there.

Many movement, drawing, breathing and meditation exercises can be very powerful for participants’ centering, particularly when they draw upon both the right-brain and the left-brain.

Critical to centering exercises is holding the space to coach participants, and connect what is on their mind to the purpose of why they are present in the space.

This can be as simple as using a few words to intentionally frame the centering exercise.

Some more robust centering exercises like Nine Whys help individuals become fully present in the process of responding to a partner with only one follow-up question being asked - "Why?" - nine successive times. You create a space for participants to articulate out loud their thoughts about being present in the space - thereby introducing a culture of taking ownership of their ideas in the subsequent conversations about strategy.

. . .

Priming and How It Can be Used

Priming is to prepare participants by asking thoughtful intentional and connected questions that they reflect on individually, even before they share with others.

Consider why we use primers as a preparatory coating on materials before painting: as a painter will tell you, priming materials ensure better adhesion of paint to the surface, increasing robustness and additional preservation in the longevity of said object.

Intentionally spending time on priming drives to the core of making spaces more robust and effective: we can tap into the innovative potential of each individual. Priming ensures that emerging ideas will allow for a synergy of respectful and creative group interaction.

An example of priming, then: as we waited for a leadership team to dial into a strategic discussion on how to timely allocate funding to organizations committed to racial, climate and gender justice – not a light conversation by any means - we intentionally played David Bowie and Queen’s “Under Pressure.” As participants joined, we invited them to listen to the music, paying attention to the experience of listening together in the (virtual) room. After the piece was over and we were ready to begin – and before we even did introductions - we then invited participants to share, simultaneously over chat, their experience of listening to the piece. In spending time on this behavior, we were able to name emotions to strengthen the quality of the subsequent conversations.

. . .

What about distribution of power?

Priming can also mean that exposure to one stimulus influences a response to a subsequent stimulus, and not in a positive way. This is most easily seen when one considers anchoring: an anchoring bias describes the common tendency to give too much weight to the first thought or idea shared in a discussion by another person, particularly if it’s a person within a team that has more formal or informal power over other participants, and using that as the basis to influence all further discussion.

This is what you want to avoid when holding space for an equitable conversation, particularly one that distributes power and participation.

The order of participation in the priming activity can influence the way individuals show up in the conversation. In my practice, a robust priming structure that works well in person is 1-2-4-All, which allows for individual reflection, followed by sharing sequentially in pairs, quartets and then the entire group. A facilitation structure that works very well in person AND virtually, however, is Impromptu Networking. It invites all participants in a group – regardless of size – to share stories and experiences that matter, right from the start, and to do so in a 1-to-1 format with 3 different persons in 3 different rounds.

Both of these structures distribute power and

tap into the collective brainpower of participants, to rapidly identify patterns that can inform later strategic discussions.

. . .

Connecting all concepts

Sometimes, killing two birds with one stone, and coupling priming and centering, is the more useful design option. In my practice, I have often used Mad Tea Chatterfall, taking each participant through this combined centering and priming exercise. Through this series of questions that incorporate divergent and convergent thinking, you can pay acute attention to possible emotional highs and lows that the participant may feel in responding to set questions, making sure to wrap up with a question that will definitely elicit an emotional high. This particular design allows for participants to be excited about key decision-making strategic conversations. Power can be easily distributed using Mad Tea Chatterfall virtually by asking all to respond simultaneously on chat or using Google Slides to anonymously share responses.

. . .

Why are these concepts relevant for a strategic discussion?

In a very chaotic world, we invest in strategizing to make informed decisions and achieve desired outcomes. In a decision making space, preparing participants as they enter the room - virtual or otherwise - and facilitating their settling in ensures they are in the best preparatory state to be involved.

In chaos theory, the butterfly effect highlights how small adjustments to a chaotic system can significantly impact a system’s outcome. In choosing to spend a short amount of time on priming and centering ahead of a strategic conversation, with a particular intentionality in distributing power, you can create and hold space for more engaged, richer strategic conversations that equitably incorporate varied voices.

This piece is inspired by ideas developed in collaboration with Maggie Chumbley of Lead Groups Better, for the co-design of a break-out session “Distributing Power and Participation in Virtual Conversations,” at Philanthropy Northwest’s 2020 Annual Conference.

Sarah Karim is a facilitator + strategy consultant committed to creating belonging and inclusivity in how teams meet. You can learn more about her here.

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