Many organizations operate in a virtual hamster wheel intent on finding problems, processing information, proposing solutions, and executing actions plans. Rarely do we question the context from which these problems arise and within which they are defined. As facilitators, we know that building contexts for engagement and clear communication can lead to improved solutions through collaboration. But what might happen to our problems if we were to actually turn our attention from the problem to the context of the problem? Or going even further, revising the contexts in which a problem exists? Let’s start by reviewing the definition of context.
What is context?
The surroundings, circumstances, environment, background, or settings which determine, specify, or clarify the meaning of an event. –Wikipedia–
Now let’s look at a couple visual examples of context:
- Click here and consider what this image means to you before reading on.
- If I tell you that this man is flipping through a family photo album he found in the rubble of his old house, now what does it mean to you? Meaning changes when context changes. Sometimes acquiring new information or new interpretations of a situation changes your view of it. And when your view of something changes, how you relate to it changes. When your relationship to something changes, your menu of responses changes as well.
- Now click here, look at this image and tell me what it is.
- What is it? On one hand it looks like rows of green shrubs or simply an incongruous green mass. But if that’s all you see, I invite you to go back and “look at it differently.” Look at it with “soft eyes.” Let your vision relax a bit and look beyond appearances. Now what do you see. Perhaps you begin to see something that was there all along. But was it really there for you until you looked at it differently?
Imagination creates reality… Man is all imagination.
-– Neville (1905–1972), visionary and mystic —
How can we use this idea of context as facilitators?
Revealing or re-viewing contexts can actually change the frame of reference with regard to the solutions or opportunities we’re facilitating. The source of each problem and the seeds to each solution arise in contexts that are all to often unexamined. Conversely, some problems change all together when we choose a new context through which to view them.
Identifying and shifting contexts can be a transformative intervention that literally changes the field in which we’re playing to reveal a wider range of choices and possibilities. So how do we facilitate or shift contexts?
Facilitating Context to Transform Situations
Following the definition above, we can shift context by changing the surroundings, circumstances, environment, background, or settings which it comprises. This term is actually used by author Lefkoe Morty who speaks of context shifting as a training approach.
Context shifting is an approach to training that aims to transform the participants’ point of view, allowing them to create a new context in which to perform their jobs, a new way of defining their roles that motivates them to exhibit skills and use information.
How can we shift or re-view contexts to help our groups?
1. Shift from focusing on the circumstances around the problem to focusing on possibility. Appreciative Inquiry is a facilitation approach that relies exclusively on this shift.
Impact: Enhances attitudes, energy, openness and creativity
2. Shift the surroundings or environment. This could involve convening outside; convening in a different building; adding creative artifacts to the environment; or asking participants to engage in a creative mode involving drawing, painting, movement, or music.
Impact: Changes perspective to create new possibilities
3. Shift the reference frame. This involves purposely redefining well established causal relationships or problem definitions.For example, Peter Block using an intervention he calls “Inverting cause.” One application would be to invert the popular idea that the quality of our society depends on its leaders and decide instead that: The citizen creates its leaders. As Block asserts, “Our thinking doesn’t change the world, but creates a condition where a shift in the world becomes possible.”
Impact: Changes the apparent cause to empower the apparently subservient.
The chicken is the egg’s way of reproducing itself.
— Peter Koestenbaum —
He goes on to illustrate the possible implications of such an inversion:
Reduce our disappointment in leaders.
- Media would change its opinion about leader stories.
- Citizen efforts to improve the community would become real news.
- Cost of elections would decrease as question of whom to elect would become less critical.
- Our leaders would become conveners or facilitators for citizen collaboration instead of role models and containers for our projections.
Block offers some other examples of inversions that we might explore:
- The student creates the teacher and the learning.
- A room and a building is created by the way they are occupied.
- The listening creates the speaker.
- The audience creates the performance.
- The subordinate creates the boss.
4. Recast the problem as a solution. Here we are in effect changing the meaning of a problem. In other words, what we call problems are in some ways solutions for something unnoticed. Consider the “problem” of illegal aliens. If this problem was “solved,” the price of a huge number of our goods and services would explode. Not many people really want that, so at least in some ways, this problem is a solution those who define the problem may not want to see.
Impact: Shifting the meaning of a problem can transform situations by revealing their payoff or root cause.
5. Shift definition of roles and relationship. Consider how you might respond to a co-worker’s action as a co-worker, as a friend, as a coach, as a mentor.
Impact: Changing your role definition offers a broader range of perspectives and responses.
6. Shift view of yourself in the environment. Facilitate a revision of how individuals see themselves in a given context. For example:
- Are you a inhabitant of Madison or a member of a community?
- Are you a lone ranger or an integral part of a high functioning team?
- Are you trying to get it right or are you engaged in creative play?
Impact: Shifting your filters shifts your experience.
How might you facilitate a shift in context in your groups or in your own life this week? We’d love to hear what you come up with. Please tell us what this article inspires in you in the comments section below.