Leading the witness

Back in 2003 I travelled to Forest Green in Surrey to the Parrot Inn where I spent four enjoyable days learning all there is to know about narrative, complexity and hexagons. On what was then still called the ‘cynefin’ training course, but now ‘Cognitive Edge’, Dave Snowden, Tony Mobbs and their team carefully lead us through a series of learning experiences designed to maximise the self-realisation aspect. One fundamental element in the training was that a ‘complex-facilitator’ should minimise their involvement in the context of the issue or subject being addressed.  In my own workshops I began to rephrase this as not wanting to ‘lead the witness’ which amusingly has a legal definition here which says

suggesting an answer or putting words in the mouth of the witness

This dedication to the cause has quite often put me into a situation of conflict with other ‘more traditional’ facilitators like my ex-colleague Pamela back at Natural England. When I was facilitating she would always be whispering about how and where I should be intervening and I was aghast when she was facilitating and she would take the pen and summarise the thoughts of the group in her own words.

Well, I was refereeing a research paper recently and was pleased to see lots of comments about how the method was designed to avoid leading questions and minimise researcher influence when I came upon one outstanding sentence:

We had an idea of what themes might emerge based on recollections of interview responses.

It looked as though this might have been written by the sub-concious because it was so opposite to, yet very revealing of, the independence of the rest of the paper.

In my years of experience adopting a completely context-free position I strongly believe it adds greatly to the ownership of the issues, solutions and actions. It is also absolutely vital when analysing data using SenseMaker which Tony Quinlan valiantly corrected us recently, as I ran off illuminating all my pre-conceived stereotypes and biased opinions and providing patterns to support them.

Being ‘context free’  does have its risks in workshops though, with the facilitator having no long term tie-in to the subsequent actions, making the role of facilitator look too easy and an inability to keep time because pulling together a timely conclusion is often not a natural act.

Finally in an interesting example of serendipity I downloaded the just published PDF on “Making sense of safety”  by Giuseppe Sardone and Gary S Wong on the Cognitive Edge website which includes the views of Cynthia Kurtz in 2009:

Stories are preferred compared to conventional questionnaires or surveys. They avoid the bias that analysts inject when, in the process of designing the right questions to ask, analysts inadvertently look for confirmations to a set of hypothesis already set in their minds;


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