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From Brad Rourke’s Blog… Learning To Theme

BradRourkeNCDD member Brad Rourke had an especially interesting post on his blog the other day on the importance of cultivating the skill of “theming.” He makes the point that few organizations attempt to teach this skill, and he includes an exercise to help people experiment with theming.  Here’s part of his post:

“One of the most important skills in working with the public is, I believe, one of the most often overlooked. People whose work is public facing — community benefit organization leaders, public agency heads, journalists — need to be able to theme what they hear.

“Put simply, this means “making sense” of what they hear, but it’s a bit deeper than that.

“People don’t talk in sound bites. They don’t necessarily have coherent frameworks through which they view the world. In talking about difficult issues, their comments may be all over the map. Put a group of them together, and it can feel like anarchy.

“The great public leaders are able to take these divergent strands of conversation and theme them — to extract the handful of important themes running through the conversation. The truly great ones can do it on the spur if the moment, there in the room during the conversation. This can take the discussion to a whole new level, as people see these threads and can then build off of them.

“Much of my career has hinged on the ability to theme what people are saying. I listen in a focus group for the important elements to include in a discussion guide. In a strategic planning session, I listen for the places where the group thinks they have agreement but really don’t. In a marketing meeting, I listen for a clients needs — both the ones they acknowledge and the ones that, perhaps, they don’t.”

Read the full post at http://blog.bradrourke.com/2009/09/22/learning-to-theme/.

In the exercise, Brad tells people to look for and jot down the following things from a discussion:

  1. Where people get stuck
  2. What people’s starting points are
  3. What values are underlying their statements
  4. Trade offs they would be willing to make
  5. Where there is agreement
  6. What people are not saying

In Dynamic Facilitation, facilitators use four flip charts to capture the discussion under the themes Solutions, Problem-statements, Data, and Concerns. A fifth chart of Decisions is added as group conclusions emerge.

What are some other frameworks practitioners use to capture themes in discussion?  I’m going to start a discussion about this on the main NCDD listserv now, and I’ll add comments here if people share other frameworks with the list.

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Sandy Heierbacher
Sandy Heierbacher co-founded the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD) with Andy Fluke in 2002, with the 60 volunteers and 50 organizations who worked together to plan NCDD’s first national conference. She served as NCDD's Executive Director between 2002 and 2018. Click here for a list of articles and resources authored by Sandy.

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  1. John Miller says:

    Good point.

    If I am rushing the group and they don't really need to think too hard about the particular topic in front of them, then OK, maybe I would identify themes on behalf of the group. They might even thank me for helping move things along.

    However, I would like to add that providing themes FOR the group is a lost opportunity for deeper dialogue, valuable listening, letting go of old assumptions, and even creating new wisdom. If it's an important topic then providing themes FOR the group is undesirable. They still might thank me … for me letting them off the hook instead of really dealing with the topic themselves.

    I have seen facilitators provide themes FOR the group as a habit, perhaps intuitively, perhaps as a learning style preference, or maybe they learned it somewhere.

    I have seen professional facilitators completely not understand the difference between what I would call "sorting into pre-existing categories" and a "creative gestalt of new themes".

    So what?
    If I provide the themes then the results are more mine than the group's. If I put the group in a position to create their own themes then they own the product completely.

  2. Here is part of Peggy Holman's response to the post about this on the NCDD listserv…

    Interesting and important question!

    In practices that are emergent in nature, such as Open Space Technology, the World Cafe, Appreciative Inquiry, and others the work is less about a facilitator summarizing on behalf of the group and more about creating conditions for people to make meaning themselves, to name what is emerging.

    Appreciative Inquiry does this through creating provocative propositions.

    The Art of Hosting describes this as the Art of Harvesting: http://www.artofhosting.org/thepractice/artofharv

    The World Cafe also involves a harvesting of what is emerging.

    In Open Space, it involves re-opening the space for what is emerging.

    I've been experimenting with different approaches to finding collective meaning over the years. There's a process that I've used successfully of late that works with groups of several hundred. It is like a face-to-face version of how online sites enable the strongest ideas to bubble up. It's called Thirty-five: http://www.thiagi.com/pfp/IE4/march2008.html#Fram

    When I dive into what is going on to enable groups to surface collective meaning, I think in terms of three closely related practices: reflecting – sensing patterns that are emerging; naming – calling into being that which can now be named; and harvesting – sharing stories in multiple modes (words, images, video, music, etc.).

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