Awesome Charrettes: Part 2 – Language

The hardest part of any charrette is encouraging full and free communication without allowing degradation into negativity and restrictions. Somehow, each of us has learned to be realistic, and we have taken the intent to live in “reality” and turned it into false limits on our creativity.

Walt Disney said “if you can dream it, you can do it”.

We need to channel Disney, yet we also must understand that Walt’s quote says nothing about how we are to achieve those dreams. Don’t assume we can just wish them into being, or follow a checklist and hope all the items listed fit into the budget, or state loudly and clearly we want a healthy building without defining what that means to the team. A charrette does a couple of things. First we meet with a wide range of stakeholders to create the dream. Second, we work with those stakeholders and included subject matter experts to formulate HOW that dream can be achieved. This is the magic of the awesome charrette. The first step in tapping into that magic is working with language that inspires the participants and helps to focus the goals.

Yes, and

In a previous post I mentioned the phrase “yes, and” as a useful tool. This is likely the most powerful tool in the kit of a charrette facilitator. It takes practice to engage in “yes, and” without sounding stilted or false, because we all have been so deeply ingrained into “yes, but” mentality. Imagine someone telling you what’s for dinner and instead of saying “yes, but I don’t eat steak” you say “yes, and I’d like to bring a green bean salad to share as I don’t eat meat.” You have accepted their solution and made it work for you. This is an exceptionally simple example, and I ask you to try to play “yes, and” in your mind whenever you hear “yes, but”. Awareness is key and we also need practice. With “yes, but” you create the negative notion that compromise is the goal, and that someone, as a matter of course, won’t get what they need in the process. By saying “yes, and” we support and insist upon an outcome that is an optimized solution, greater than and inclusive of achievement of the individual goals.  

In a charrette this approach will re-engage people in solution finding. “Yes, but that won’t work” turns into “Yes, and perhaps that will work if we do x or y”. It opens the discussion for what did work in the past, it brings out reasons and explanations. “Yes, and” implies strongly that the groups expects a rationale. “Yes, I hear you saying that a multi-use space did not work for you in your last community center, and I want to hear more about what parts of it did work, and maybe why you tried a multi-use space…what were your initial goals?” 

Re framing

Did you catch the re-framing I did in the last paragraph? This is another important language and facilitation tool. Find the negative, acknowledge its presence, but re-frame it into a discussion that helps identify the useful bits in that experience. The useful bits can be the elements that went well, or could be traced back to the original goals and how the decision seemed to support those goals. Re-framing also comes into play if anyone starts to lay blame around. It is common for people to put blame onto the situation, the budget, or other participants or parts of a poor process. In essence, the facilitator needs to re-frame away from blame by identifying the failures or restrictions as valuable elements that can now inform the process. If the budget is “blamed” then discuss how that budget could have informed the decisions or clarify that the budget parameters are different in this current undertaking. Don’t let the blame become an excuse, instead assist it in becoming clarifying knowledge for THIS discussion, this project.

Reflecting back –

Another language tool is to reflect back what is being heard. I used this earlier by saying “Yes, I hear you saying…”. Also a powerful guidance tool, reflecting helps confirm the meanings in conversations. Communication consists of speaking and hearing, so every single moment is a partnership at least, and often a collaboration between many. This takes effort as well as a willingness to refine the meanings as you go along, especially if they are not completely understood. Participants are reassured that they are being heard. The goal is to create a tone of acceptance that gets even the most timid in the room to participate. There will also be times when reflecting back holds someone to task for their statements, and this is a time for a facilitator to be careful, so you don’t inadvertently create a situation of blame. If someone is seeking to truly undermine a specific approach, it is best to reflect back more broadly and ask for feedback from everyone instead of directly from the speaker. “I’m hearing that there is no way to include a pool in this project. What do you all think? Is it worth discussing further or should we truly cross this out of our planning?”

The ’round –

Now we engage in a ’round. A ’round is a tool to ensure all are participating and that the group as a whole is giving each person time to participate, even if it takes time for them to have their say. It can be uncomfortable, so explain the “rules” early in the meeting. A ’round can be an introductory moment, a check into the process or the leanings of the team on a subject, or a summary closing the meeting. Each person must say one thing about the question at hand, and they must keep it brief as ’rounds should not derail or slow the progress of the meeting. The facilitator needs to enforce brevity, perhaps with humor and compassion, and make sure everyone speaks. On the pool question, you may get everything from “we need a pool to attract the community” to “a pool is certainly expensive and I don’t think we have the budget” to “I’m not sure how I feel about the pool, I need more information on who would maintain it”. You may see a trending opinion, you may just use this to refocus everyone away from their e-mails, or you may identify a sore point that needs more discussion.

Some rules for ’rounds include:

  • Be brief.
  • Amplify other’s statements if you like, but you must add something new and not just repeat what they said.
  • No passing. You can however say “come back to me” and the facilitator must remember to come back to you in order to have a complete ’round.
  • Use positive language – Jim said a pool is a draw for the community. “Jim’s idea is stupid” is not appropriate. Even “I don’t agree with Jim” is borderline. Instead “I don’t believe the pool will be a draw because there is a public pool near the High School already” is appropriate.
  • Allow for some silence – this can be uncomfortable, but people do need to think and some need time to formulate their comments.

In summary –

One of my college professors said that creativity does not come from an unlimited budget and schedule with no chosen site and no client and no parameters for the design. It is only in recognizing and engaging with the existing limits that one can be truly creative.  A charrette seeks to identify the dreams that we can dream and to identify the path to achieve those dreams, a path that existing within the limits of budget, schedule, materials, and personal goals and insights of the team. In order to do this, a strong guide can use the tools of “yes, and”, reflecting back, re framing, and the round as fuel to expand creativity and engagement. 

Be awesome,


  Be the first to like this post (no login required)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

+ 54 = 63

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.