What is ToP Facilitation?

I keep getting the question. The furrowed brow. What? ToP?

Here it is. Its long name – hard to say – is The Technology of Participation. A body of facilitation methods based on a simple, but profound philosophy – that of ‘unleashing human potential’ – approaches developed by our forebears in the Ecumenical Institute in the 1950’s and 60’s as they grappled with how to enable people to gain, and then realise, self-responsibility in the face of testing circumstances.

Today this humanitarian, world-wide organisation is known as The Institute of Cultural Affairs.

As a young woman working at the Ministry for the Environment involved in the crafting of the Resource Management Act 1991, I found myself increasingly concerned with how communities were being engaged on law changes that were to have a profound impact on their lives and livelihoods.

I was lucky to be mentored by people such as Denise Church who took seriously the engagement of those potentially affected by a policy or decision in the process of crafting the changes.

In 1992, I had the opportunity to attend one of the first Technology of Participation training courses to be held here – in Hawke’s Bay – for officials involved in land and water management. It was called the Landcare Facilitation Training and run by Kevin Balm – a man who has become a lifelong colleague and friend.

The course was transformational, igniting in me a passion for effective community engagement, and as a core component of achieving this, effective group facilitation methods.

They were life methods. I began using them, not just when facilitating, but as a diagnostic when participating in a meeting was going ‘off track.’ I used them to structure my thinking about projects. They held me in good stead when I left the Government and joined the private sector, initially as a consultant with Agriculture New Zealand and then when myself and Dr Helen Ritchie set up our company Participatory Techniques Ltd.

Thirty years later, I remain even more firmly committed to what I see as the true promise and potential of the Technology of Participation.

OK.. it’s a philosophy and some methods.. but what IS it?

Drawing on the writings of Paolo Freire (1970), Soren Kierkegaard (1969), Jerome Bruner (1963), Thomas Kuhn (1962), Kenneth Boulding (1956) and many others, the pioneers of ToP experimented with different ways of working with people and groups facing challenges to find out what might work to help people understand their situation, and then feel able to do something about it.

Over quite some time and quite some experimentation, they built up a body of methods around a concept called ‘imaginal education.’ Put simply, this was the idea that people and groups have an image of themselves; if we can learn the means to shift that image, we have the means to change ourselves, and our circumstances.

ToP was coming into being.

Group facilitation, using ToP, whilst inherently flexible is also highly deliberative. At its core it encapsulates two journeys: a journey towards consensus, and a journey towards action. Both important, and neither counting as a success without the other.

How many meetings or workshops have you been to, which have resulted in many good ideas, a sea of sticky notes or mind maps.. and then no action?

ToP is the antidote to that.

Core to the ToP journey is a slowing down of four steps in a natural human thought process.

  1. We observe. Take in facts.
  2. We reflect. Have an emotional response.
  3. We assess. Make sense.
  4. We decide. We act.

When we take the time and care to slow this process down with a group, to take care to bring everyone along on the journey, we enable deeper, more thoughtful and creative dialogue about the matters at hand.

In this way, we are able to make far better use of precious time in meetings, and create solutions that tend to be more robust, and more ‘stickable’ than the quick, hurried way too much of our business is conducted – to the detriment of our organisations and communities.

Amongst other things, it was this desire to stop seeing people discouraged by unproductive meetings, community time wasted in poorly designed consultations, and cynicism bred by workshop results never being used, that drove us to commit, in 2005, to bring the ToP training to Aotearoa New Zealand.

In our two decades of teaching ToP here, under the auspices of the ICA Australasia’s Facilitative Leadership Program, we’ve witnessed our course graduates embracing this simple philosophy to create innovative, productive and transformational meetings and workshops for teams, partners and collaborators needing to unpick issues, or create a new future together.

ToP works.

If you want to learn ToP methods, we offer a range of learning solutions suitable for beginning and experienced facilitators: check it out.