Facilitating participatory modeling

By Rebecca Jordan

Rebecca Jordan (biography)

Facilitate: “To help (something) run more smoothly and effectively” (Merriam-Webster online dictionary).

Like many practices in life, there is an art and a science to facilitation.  Certainly, best practices in facilitating processes within participatory modeling mirror many of those practices highlighted in guides to other participatory approaches.  It is of critical importance that the expectations around the word “effective”, as taken from the definition above, are identified and negotiated. How can an individual or team of individuals help the process if expectations are unmatched?

Given that resources exist to encourage facilitation, the question that I struggle with is how is participatory modeling different?  What does the addition of a model (i.e., an abstract representation) mean for facilitating participation?  I argue that the benefits of using a model as a boundary object (i.e., a static representation that is jointly created but differently interpreted) about which stakeholders can discuss, are manifold.

Models provide:

  1. A common space for negotiation, often regardless of expertise
  2. A means for individuals to offload difficult thinking tasks
  3. An opportunity for computation, simulation, prediction, etc., and
  4. A representation for communication.

While these benefits can be great, extra attention to facilitating the process of evaluating these dimensions is necessary.

The introduction of the model to the participatory process needs to be handled in a manner that moves the process forward. If mishandled, the model can serve as a source of frustration or worse, alienation.  I try to ensure the model space is one that is open, accessible, and safe for honest discourse.

I acknowledge that the background of the involved participants is important in guiding their initial and continued perceptions of the model and its value in the process. Understanding the affordances and constrains of the specific modeling approach is critical at this juncture. The better the facilitator comprehends the approach and its mechanics, the better the introduction of the participants to the process.  I continually remind myself that the way experts approach a novel context is very different from how novices may approach the context.

Is there an art to how one accomplishes successful facilitation?  I believe so.  Is there a common understanding of this art? I believe not.  For me, the central element in any context is empathy.  If we are genuine in wanting to help, as the definition above implies, then taking the time to gain perspective on how others might feel, think, or interpret the world around them is paramount.

This said, empathy can be one of the most difficult pieces of the facilitation puzzle.  Putting yourself in another’s shoes can be extraordinarily tough, especially when you assign reasons behind others’ actions.  These attributions can be false, and play a significant role in miscommunication, which can stymie the participatory process facilitation, and overall learning.

I recommend approaching the facilitation process as one where you regard others as legitimate and valuable contributors to the development and growth of the model and associated processes and outcomes. How do you approach facilitation? Are there other key principles that you employ?

Biography: Dr. Rebecca Jordan is Professor of Environmental Education and Citizen Science in the Departments of Human Ecology and Ecology, Evolution, and Natural Resources at Rutgers University. She is the director of the Program in Science Learning, where she devotes most of her research effort to investigating public learning of science through citizen science and participatory modeling. She is a co-Principal Investigator of the Participatory Modeling Pursuit funded by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC).

This blog post is one of a series resulting from the first meeting in February 2016 of the Participatory Modeling Pursuit. This pursuit is part of the theme Building Resources for Action-Oriented Team Science through Syntheses of Practices and Theories funded by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC).

4 thoughts on “Facilitating participatory modeling”

  1. I’m no expert but one thought comes to mind following Rebecca’s post. Could having some time and space that brings the participants together, but outside of the “room and focus of the modeling effort” be part of the facilitation solution to creating better collaboration? I have seen some facilitators do this; fairly unobtrusively; for example by putting a field trip on an agenda, or a game of some sort.

    • Thanks, Pierre! I think that building collaborative capital through outside of the work activities is a great idea! Of course, encouraging participants to get on board is sometimes a major challenge!

  2. Thanks, Bob, for your thoughts and for the interesting link regarding delphi. I think we have much to learn about the science and practice of facilitation. The difficulty lies in enabling those who work with participatory modeling to collaborate with or learn from those who have developed expertise in facilitation. Indeed this seems to be a greater challenge (and opportunity!) of transdisciplinary research–how do we foster multiple traditions of expertise within limited sets of individuals? Thanks again for your comments!


  3. Participatory modelling is not something that I’ve done. It seems to me it’s an example of participatory decision making, where I do have some experience. That’s how I’ll treat it in the rest of this dicussion.

    Thanks for your account of participatory modelling, Rebecca. I found it very interesting, and agree with much of what you say. In my experience there is “an art and a science” to facilitating decision-making. I agree that the science is better understood than the art.

    But then, that’s what I’d expect. The art comes with experience. For many (all or almost all?) facilitators I’d expect much of it to be tacit. In complex situations there often isn’t time to be intellectual about what to do next. The experienced facilitator doesn’t follow a “recipe” compulsively. (S)he responds, in the moment, to whatever happens.

    In any event, that’s true for me. And I think I’m more intellectual about my facilitation than most other facilitators I know well. By nature I’m a theorist. I became a practitioner by accident.

    In participatory modelling I would expect that many models would be multidisciplinary. As I understand it, one of the problems with models is the difficulty of identifying and incorporating all of the relevant variables.

    If I’m correct, effective models would depend upon the inclusion of input from diverse people. Each would bring different fields of expertise to the task.

    Rebecca, you say that empathy is important. You also say it is “one of the most difficult pieces of the facilitation puzzle”. That’s my experience too. I agree that misattributions can undermine communication, and often do.

    I don’t know how aware you are that there are strategies for dealing with that issue. There are processes and practices that help to develop a climate of cooperation. There are activities that help participants to form close relationships with one another.

    The early stages of a participatory decision making process are influential. It’s possible to give instructions to participants to encourage and elicit constructive ways of working together. Similarly, it’s possible to discourage unconstructive ways.

    Part of this is the “art” of facilitation. However, some is the “science”. Rebecca, I wonder if you underestimate the extent of the science. Facilitation is now a well developed practice.

    I’ve been trying to imagine what it would be like to facilitate a modelling activity. It occurs to me that having a model as a tangible product may offer some important advantages. The model can serve as a tangible product to which participants contribute. It captures and incorporates their ideas as the process and the model develop.

    In this regard I’m reminded of the delphi process. It pools the expertise of a number of participants who bring different backgrounds and experience to their collective task.

    The most common use of delphi is in forecasting. That’s true in the literature too. However, I think of it as a decision making process. I find that a valuable way of conceptualising it.

    Delphi is also usually done by mail or email. The participants don’t meet. Often they don’t even know who else is a participant. That helps to remove some of the ego from the interactions. It lightens the facilitator’s load.

    However, I have used delphi with face-to-face groups. I’d expect it to illustrate some ways in which participatory modelling might be done.

    There’s a document about delphi on the web. You’ll find it at http://www.aral.com.au/resources/delphi.html

    Cheers — Bob


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