Uncertain? Welcome to the club!
Our work supporting researchers and partners to build relationships with communities for the purposes of developing empowering research projects and engagements often involves facilitating groups of people to understand how they will collaborate. Even with careful preparation and facilitation plans, we find that uncertainty can present a powerful but sometimes unacknowledged ‘player’ or elephant in the (digital) room.
We readily accept that our abilities to support groups to deal with uncertainty may be reflected in our facilitation craft, such as helping people to have a constructive conversation to see how they might collaborate when they are not initially sure what they can expect from each other – for example in terms of commitment, support and contributions. As a result, we are always reflecting, learning and changing our practices. However, since uncertainty does seem to be a common “that happens to us too” conversation topic in our engagement community, we think it may be helpful to share what we are learning to raise awareness of it and to let you know that if you encounter it too, you are not alone!
This blog shares some of our learning about how we encounter uncertainty and our ways to deal with it in terms of theoretical approaches and practice – or praxis. Whether you are new to public/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 experiences tell us that safety needs to come first in terms of our roles as facilitators to appropriately support people to manage uncertainty in ways that help to nurture their psychological, emotional and physical wellbeing. We find that helping people to build a safe space is an important part of safeguarding wellbeing so that they can work together constructively. We find this especially so when engagements require people to collaborate across difference. For example, when co-designing a conference with young people in Glasgow, we supported groups to understand how our organising team and the event itself could be safe for young people and adults with diverse and intersecting differences. We encountered different knowledge and expertise, diverse protected identity characteristics including race, LGBTQIA+ and age, as well as social class, neurodiversity and a range of experiences of mental health, poverty and care.
Happily, there are a number of resources that we find helpful for thinking about how to facilitate safe spaces. Two examples spring to mind. The International Futures Forum’s Transformative Innovation resources1 include how to help a group map their uncertainties (including best hopes through to worst fears) and supporting a group to develop a strategy for enhancing, coping with them and recovering from them. Wendy Faulkner and Claire Bynner’s handbook on How to design and plan public engagement processes2 sets out a staged approach to engagements that can be used to help identify and tackle uncertainties at the most pragmatic moments.
Facilitation can be described as a process that supports a group to make its own choices in ways that enable individuals to participate and bring the best of themselves to their task3. To do this, facilitators help a group identify and take responsibility for its purpose and outcomes. Facilitation can therefore be a helpful process to support everyone involved in engagements to give their best, honour each other’s contributions and make decisions together.
This description of facilitation sounds so clear and logical, right? What often does not sound so clear is what it is like to facilitate a group through uncertainty. What does this process look like? What does it feel like for everyone involved? In our work, these questions can be important to address because how people perceive and experience uncertainty can shape how they may, and may not, be willing to work in the future. Reputations and relationships can be at stake. That includes facilitators as much as participants!
Engagement as a journey into the unknown
Public and community engagement typically means bringing communities and groups of citizens together with research/project teams to build a relationship that develops a common understanding of, and acts on, mutual benefit, needs and ambitions4,5. In our experience, there can be lots of uncertainty in this process because we find that there can be a complex range of factors at play in any given group of people at any point in time.
Here we explore some of the main issues we encounter when supporting groups to work through uncertainty. Since our own practice evolves and since supporting groups of people is so context specific, offering off-the-shelf solutions is not appropriate. Instead, we discuss what we are learning from our experiences so that they may give useful insights to anyone supporting groups of people in public and community engagement activities.
One of the main issues we encounter is supporting groups to tolerate uncertainty as they simultaneously journey through it by identifying their task at hand, agree on goals and complete their work. Tolerating uncertainty may mean coping with a sense of mess and feelings of awkwardness. People can have many different views on uncertainty and different ways of coping with it. Such potential variation in ways of coping means it can be important to design facilitation processes that support groups to understand how they will manage uncertainty as a collective.
Here are some examples we have encountered and how we have supported groups:
One person’s sense of uncertainty can be another person’s certainty: when co-designing an intergenerational and participatory conference with young people, we found that the young people had ideas to contribute that stemmed from their expertise in engaging other young people. However, some of the stakeholders with less experience in engaging young people were uncertain whether these ideas would work in practice. Their uncertainty manifested in dominating the planning meetings by speaking at length about their doubts while young people around the table found they had little opportunity to voice their views. This highlighted unequal power dynamics which needed to be addressed. With the support of the younger participants, we introduced “stop talking’ and “I want to speak” cards from the IRISS co-production planner. All participants were given a set of the cards and encouraged to use them throughout the planning meetings. Using these tools helped to restore the balance of voices around the table and drew focus to how the whole group was listening and valuing contributions. Young people reflect at the end of the process that “80-90% of the things [we] suggested actually happened” – to the young people this wasn’t a surprise because they had done similar work before, but to the adults involved in planning the event, it was a surprise.
One person may be willing and able to with work uncertainty in one context but perhaps not in another depending on what they are able to influence and the contexts they face: during the GoWell project, we worked with community activists who managed to support and protect their refugee neighbours from significant uncertainty and danger caused by Home Office-instructed dawn raids. However, these same activists faced continued and unresolved uncertainty about local regeneration activities. So, they joined the GoWell Panel which collectively explored what community empowerment required and looked like in regeneration and research contexts by visiting each other’s neighbourhoods to learn about community practices across the city.
Uncertainty to one person can mean a risky venture fraught with uncertain outcomes that may be dangerous while to another person uncertainty may mean a challenging opportunity to achieve new results: we often commission agencies and artists for their skills and experience in creative engagement. Broadly speaking, among their diverse, creative talents can often be a learned and carefully crafted competence in working with uncertainty by starting with a brief or idea and then committing to a creative process. A final piece or event is anticipated but its form or quality can be uncertain. To other kinds of disciplines, including some kinds of research, this process could be intolerably uncertain!
These are very brief and oversimplified examples to make the point that within any group there can be different views on certainty that lead people to decide what tasks should and should not be undertaken as well as what can and cannot be achieved. Yes, there are many methods and tools at facilitators’ disposal they can use as well as their hard-won experience. However, given some of the factors we have briefly described that can make people’s understandings and experience of uncertainty so complex (and that’s just the tip of the iceberg), facilitating groups to navigate their options can be challenging.
So, what do we do? Helping a group to name and understand the types of uncertainty they face at the get-go can go some way to building an understanding of what can be tolerated, what cannot, and what assumed uncertainties may become certain. Conversely, what may the assumed certainties that upon greater examination are potentially very unclear and doubtful?
The extent that a group achieves its goals often carries degrees of uncertainty. However, the extent that a group is a safe space (virtual or in person) for grappling with uncertainty can be designed from the start and supported throughout. We regularly find theories and empirical studies about creative and reflective processes helpful for crafting ways of supporting people journey through uncertainty. Such methods have been shown to support psychological safety, as well as, positively impacting on both individual and collective wellbeing. We explore some of these methods in part two of this blog.