Board members need to collaborate in order to arrive at collective
decisions, and it isn’t always easy. Here, Rosa Zubizarreta of
Diapraxis, which specializes in collaborative leadership and
“flow-friendly meetings,” provides some insights to help boards develop
the empathetic approach that is crucial to this work.
Boards are often dealing with high-stakes issues, where the
difficulties of the situation are compounded by the fact that
participants may have significantly different perspectives. As human
beings, we know from experience how easily our differences can trigger
one another into defensive postures, and how unproductive and unpleasant
that can be. From a group facilitation perspective, the challenge is to
foster conditions that allow for learning and discovery, along with the
creation of new shared understandings. In turn, this leads to new
possibilities for shared action.
Within the growing field of brain science, researchers have been
mapping how, whenever humans are triggered into a fight-or-flight state,
we temporarily lose our connection to the open and creative state of
mind that allows access to higher-order capacities. Conversely, when we
shift into connected-and-creative mode instead of fight-flight-freeze,
our brains become more open to hearing other perspectives and better
able to handle complex problem solving.1
This has confirmed one of the key principles of Diapraxis’s
facilitation work, which is “maximizing creative tension, while
minimizing interpersonal anxiety.” As facilitators, we want to foster
inclusion and creative thinking by welcoming a wide variety of
perspectives; at the same time, we work hard to help each person feel
understood and accepted. In our experience, this creates a creative
incubator, where the natural human drive to learn, create new patterns,
and make meaning can flourish freely.
We are also witnessing a growing body of research on the power of
empathy. For example, in the field of positive psychology, Barbara
Frederickson2 has been documenting the powerful physiological
effects that are brought about as a result of empathic understanding.
She describes the experience of “feeling gotten,” or being deeply
understood by another, as a “micro-moment of connection,” and sees the
cumulative effect of these moments as key to our well-being. This has
been another confirmation of our facilitation approach, which is
primarily focused on creating these moments of connection through
Some of what we have learned from our practice runs counter to the
conventional ways of facilitating meetings. For example, instead of
asking participants to put their initial positions aside in order to
follow a step-by-step problem-solving sequence, we find it helpful to
welcome participants’ initial solutions. Indeed, when working with
facilitators who are learning our approach, we often describe
participants’ initial solutions as their “best creative efforts to date,
with whatever limited amounts of information they have had at their
Thus, by welcoming and appreciating each person’s best creative
effort to date, we invite each participant to step into a larger field,
where all of us together can explore the wide variety of initial
solutions they are bringing. These initial solutions are just that—the
launching point for our creative journey. As we do this, and each
participant feels that his/her initial solution has been heard and
“gotten,” we find a growing sense of openness among participants to one
What is key to remember here is that simply saying something aloud in a group does not usually
equate to feeling heard. Instead, to feel deeply heard, humans usually
need to experience that someone else has really “gotten it.” Whenever we
are facilitating, we see this as our prime directive: listening deeply
to what each person has to say, reflecting back to make sure we have
understood, and recording the gist of what they have said, in their own
words. Of course, the attitude with which we do this is key, and I will
say more about that later on. Just going through the motions with this
can be worse than useless!
While welcoming and appreciating participants’ initial solutions,
we also welcome and appreciate their critical thinking. Edward de Bono,3
in his brilliant “Six Thinking Hats” framework, defines this as “black
hat thinking”—the energy that points out everything that could go wrong.
This kind of thinking has its own gifts to offer; for example, you
wouldn’t want to buy a new car without knowing that it had gone through
extensive crash testing! Yet de Bono points out how crucial it is, for
anyone holding a “young green shoot” of creativity, to be protected from
premature exposure to this black hat energy.
In our own practice, we have confirmed the importance of
protecting creativity. At the same time, we have found other ways to do
so. Unlike de Bono’s approach, and also unlike a conventional
brainstorming session, we don’t need a separate time for welcoming
critical thinking. Instead, we have found that we can usefully welcome
it whenever it arises. Yet to do so we need to strongly protect the
creative energies in the group by asking participants to redirect their
critical energy toward us as facilitators.
In practice what this means is that whenever a concern comes up,
we verbally acknowledge it as a sign of care. We recognize that the
person who is voicing the concern is demonstrating that they care
about having an outcome that works well. If they didn’t care, they
would not go through the trouble of voicing their concern! At the same
time, we ask the participant to tell us about their concern, so that we
can reflect it back to them and make sure we have understood it. We have
usually already talked about this at the beginning of the session in
our agreement-setting preliminaries; however, we don’t hesitate to
actively remind people about this whenever it comes up, as we see
protecting creativity as a key part of our work.4
Our primary intention in welcoming concerns is twofold. We really
want to listen to the person with the concern, and help them “feel
gotten” by reflecting and recording their valuable concerns. At the same
time, we want to offer the person who generated the original creative
idea the opportunity to sit back and “overhear” the concern that is
being put forward. We sometimes remind the concern bearer that the idea
generator will be able to hear the concern better if it isn’t
being directly addressed to him/her. By being off the hook in this way,
those who generated the idea, as well as those who support the idea, are
more likely to remain in an open and creative state.
Yet it doesn’t stop here. Just as we offer empathy for the
concern, we also want to draw out the concern bearer’s own creative
energy. So whenever that person feels that his/her concern has been
fully understood, we proceed to ask how he/she would address the
situation. We then reflect back our understanding of his/her creative
solution to see if we have “gotten it”; thus, we are inviting him/her
also to step into the creativity incubator.
In sharing with you how we work with empathic understanding in our
facilitation practice, my hope is that you will feel free to experiment
and adapt these practices for your own use. For example, in a group
without an external facilitator, it’s often possible to ask those who
are least involved in a particular conflict to serve as temporary
empathic listeners who can help each “side” feel heard, as well as the
others in the circle. As the situation starts to feel less stuck, do
remember that these participant-facilitators also have their own
perspectives that need to be heard, and have someone else volunteer to
step into the empathic listener role.
One key point here is the distinction between using “active
listening” as a technique and practicing empathic understanding with
clear intention, self-awareness, and integrity. By definition, if we are
using active listening techniques in a rote manner, they cease to be a
genuine expression of empathy. We are no longer offering someone else
the possibility of authentically “feeling gotten.”
Even worse is when active listening is used in a manipulative way
to accomplish an ulterior motive. For example, if a facilitator uses
active listening with the intention of getting a participant to settle
down in order move on with the agenda, it is unlikely that the
participant will feel truly heard and valued. In situations like these,
the technique does not cover up the underlying experience of disregard
or manipulation. Instead, people are likely to become “allergic” to
hearing their words reflected back to them!
It’s a sad truth that active listening, the format for
communicating empathy originally inspired by the transformative work of
Carl Rogers,5 has often been misused and abused. Yet we
humans still want to feel heard and understood. If our intentions as
listeners are clear and appreciative, it’s usually safe to let the other
person know that we want to check our understanding and to ask if it’s
okay to reflect back some of what we have heard. Our willingness to be
corrected is often the key test of our sincerity—after all, it’s not
about whether we are “getting it right” but, instead, about offering the
other person the opportunity to “feel gotten.”6
At the same time, we also know that empathy does not always need
to take a verbal form in order to be effective. Indeed, Nancy Kline’s
brilliant research on creating “Thinking Environments” shows that human
beings think more effectively when receiving silent yet appreciative
attention than when not receiving any attention or receiving negative
attention.7,8 In fact, learning to listen with presence and
awareness, and without saying anything at all, might be the best initial
training for later learning to offer unobtrusive and attuned
One of the underlying assumptions that frames our work is
understanding communication as a relational process. Instead, our
default cultural assumption is to see communication as transactional.
From that perspective, we tend to focus on whether each person has had a
chance to speak. From a relational perspective, we realize that having a
chance to speak is not at all the same thing as feeling heard.
Similarly, from a transactional perspective, the focus is on
facilitators’ impartiality. Of course, we don’t want to take anyone’s
side over anyone else’s side. Yet from a relational perspective, it makes much more sense to see our work as taking all sides, a stance that is sometimes referred to in the field of family therapy as “multidirectional partiality”9
or, more simply, “multipartiality.” While we are not doing therapy,
when we take each person’s perspective in turn and offer that person the
opportunity to “feel gotten,” we are generating a field where
participants can tap into their own creative energies, rather than
getting stuck in defensive routines.
Once participants have the opportunity to experience the value
that their different perspectives can bring, and to experience those
different perspectives as different forms of caring rather than as
threats, we often find that things begin to shift. Participants often
begin to spontaneously listen to one another more deeply, to become
curious when they encounter additional differences, and to offer one
another reflections to check their understanding. At this point, our
role as facilitators is to move into the background, where we can be
available to step in as needed.
Of course, the larger context also plays a key role. In a majorly
unstable or abusive situation that is chronically triggering
fight-or-flight, it may not be possible or appropriate to create a
sheltered space for working creatively with differences. However, what
is most often true is that everyone is well intentioned, yet the lack of
sufficient listening has created a polarized situation where no one
feels understood. The good news is that it’s usually quite possible for
such a situation to shift toward the better.
Rosa Zubizarreta can be contacted at email@example.com
1. David Rock, “SCARF: A Brain-Based Model for Collaborating with and Influencing Others.” Neuroleadership Journal No. 1 (2008): 1–9.
2. Barbara Fredrickson, Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do, and Become (New York: Penguin Books, 2013).
3. Edward De Bono, Serious Creativity: Using the Power of Lateral Thinking to Create New Ideas (New York: Harper Business, 1992).
4. Rosa Zubizarreta, From Conflict to Creative Collaboration: A User’s Guide to Dynamic Facilitation (Minneapolis, MN: Two Harbors Press, 2014).
5. See, for example, Carl Rogers, On Becoming a Person (London: Robinson, 2004).
6. For those who wish to explore the nuances involved in offering
listening responses that help someone to connect more deeply with their
own experiences, we highly recommend Gendlin’s chapter on “The
Experiential Response” (1968). While written in academic language for
therapists, anyone whose professional work involves listening can
benefit greatly from it. Eugene T. Gendlin, “The Experiential Response.”
In Use of Interpretation in Treatment, edited by Emanuel Hammer, 208–227. (New York: Grune & Stratton, 1968). http://www.focusing.org/gendlin/docs/gol_2156.html
7. Nancy Kline, Time to Think: The Power of Independent Thinking (London: Octopus Publishing Group, 1999/2014).
8. Nancy Kline, More Time to Think: Listening to Ignite the Human Mind (London: Octopus Publishing Group, 2009/2015).
9. Ivan Bozormenyi-Nagy and Barbara R. Krasner, Between Give and Take: A Clinical Guide to Contextual Therapy (New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1986).
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