Review of Rosa Zubizarreta’s New Book, “From Conflict to Creative Collaboration”

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I just finished reading NCDD member Rosa Zubizarreta’s new book From Conflict to Creative Collaboration: A User’s Guide to Dynamic Facilitation. I’m quite excited. I’ve known about “DF” for fifteen years, and I’ve never seen it described as clearly and compellingly as in this book.

It’s an oddity: DF generates a remarkably effective creative group conversation whose nonlinearity makes it seem very peculiar indeed. Many NCDD practitioners have found it hard to grasp or turn away from those who unduly evangelize it. But I want to say that it is definitely worth checking out – and that finally we have a book that makes real sense of it without overselling it and with good attention to contextualizing it within the larger field of group process.

Furthermore, like many other excellent books focused on one process – notably Juanita Brown et al’s The World Cafe: Shaping Our Futures through Conversations that Matter – Rosa’s book provides deep insights into group and facilitation dynamics that we would all be wise to attend to, regardless of which methods we love and use.

This particular unusual facilitation approach is built around a few deceptively simple practices like fully hearing each person, reframing conflicts as concerns, being truly open to every perspective and to the range of human emotions, and always inviting the best solutions from each and every person. I say “deceptively simple” because – like the deceptive simplicity of “following your breath” while meditating – the power of these practices comes from their persistent and courageous application. So, as with so many processes, it’s good to have access to a facilitator skilled in the practice.

Because when these practices are applied persistently and courageously – and with empathy and faith – I have seen them produce the seeming miracles for which I think Dynamic Facilitation is becoming increasingly appreciated. These practices have a pretty good record of transforming difficult and conflicted people into creative collaborators, and thorny resistant problems and disputes into breakthrough insights and effective new directions.

This alleged “magic” of Dynamic Facilitation is, like all magic, impressive because it does things we don’t believe are possible with actions that could not possibly produce those results. The nonlinear power of DF seems to defy logical understanding – a puzzle that, thankfully, begins to dissolve as we read Rosa’s book.

She makes it clear what’s going on and why, and how to perform these miracles ourselves. She also makes it clear that, while all the magician’s secrets are here and some people – the “naturals”, we might say – can perform them right out of the book, for most of us it takes practice. Practice… and authentic respect for people – genuine curiosity about what people think and feel and a faith in their ability to find their way together in groups when they’re given the right support. These are the qualities of the master Dynamic Facilitator – of whom Rosa, I quite seriously suggest, is one of the best. She’s also a dynamite observer, theoretician, and writer.

DF is filled with nuances and extraordinary phenomena and assumptions, all of which become vividly obvious to us in the gentle flow of Rosa’s prose. The subject unfolds in foreshadowed layers: She gives us a good glimpse of a vista and then takes us down for a more detailed examination of the landscape which, in turn, has its own smaller vistas and finer-grained details. Layer upon layer she guides and invites us. At each step of the way, she grounds us both in the simple overriding mechanics of the process and the underlying spirit of the whole thing. We learn about chart pads for people’s Problem Statements, Solutions, Concerns, and Data; reflecting back to each person their meaning and caring; asking for solutions and concerns; and many other techniques. We also learn that what we’re doing at every stage is making a space safe enough for the perspectives and problem-solving impulses of diverse individuals to evolve quite naturally into collective big picture insights, innovations and transcendence.

Rosa wrote this book especially for existing and prospective facilitators and for people seeking help with group work. And so, for us NCDDers, she offers a section clarifying the important differences between DF and practices like Open Space Technology, Focusing, and brainstorming. But aside from that one specialized section – which can be readily skipped by a lay reader (or they can look up these practices online), the rest of the book is nearly jargon-free. From my view straddling many methods and lay perspectives, Rosa says it like it is in ways that will allow most readers to gain a wholesome, satisfying understanding of this remarkable topic regardless of their facilitation experience.

From the history of Dynamic Facilitation to its technical details, from its unfolding stages to its proper application, this book covers the ground and covers it well. It ranks among the best books I’ve seen on group process and human – in this case collective – potential. I like to think that that its widespread use could make a big difference in the nonlinear and often troubling trajectory of our civilization. In the simplest terms, the innovative tool it describes could help us co-create our future with much more wisdom and effectiveness.

I am so excited that the curious magic of DF is now out of the closet and at everyone’s fingertips.

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