The facilitator frames an issue to a spatial continuum (possibly represented by a rope) and asks the participants to position themselves anywhere along this continuum according to their perceived closeness to one of the 2 opposite extremes of it. Once everybody is still in the chosen position, the facilitator can pick some comments from participants who are in a remarkable - literally - position and optionally ask the participant to reposition themselves after having heard the comments, to check whether they've changed their mind.
I came across this method thanks to a training on nonviolence methods and approaches with the PBI but I know that it has a long tradition. Also known as Human Spectrogram, “Land or Sea” and by other names.
This method ie aim of this method is to quickly grasp “who” your group is with regards to some specific relevant issues.
It can be easily tailored to serve various needs, from simply surveying people attitudes, to evaluation, to decision making, to conflict management (see examples below).
Being so simple, easy and quick, and yet very powerful, it can be used quite swiftly without a lot of preparation/instruction on the participants' side.
Another advantage is the high involvement of the participants, who are required to quit the comfort of their chairs and be part of the activity with their whole body, not just the head. This also implies that you “fluidify” the setting, as the participants will have more chance to exchange with many others than if you had them stay in the same position or group, and identify those that are like-minded, so that new collaborations can follow.
Let's pick a simple case, like an evaluation at the end of the day: you, the facilitators, have already thought on which dimension you want your group to evaluate the session. So you ask: “If you think that this workshop as been incredibly useful for you and it will change your life starting from tomorrow, then move towards this end of the rope” then you physically move towards the other side saying “Well, ok, it was fun but not that mind blowingly useful…” up to “Completely useless! I knew it all already!” on the other end of the rope.
Once everyone has decided her/his position, you pick someone who stands out in your subjective perception, no big thinking, just it looks intuitively salient to you, and you ask her/him to explain to the group why s/he is where s/he is.
In a decision making process, this method can be very powerful, since by turning the pro-or-against vote-like dichotomy (as in raising hands counts) into a continuum, you are allowing for a richer analysis of the matter, one that respects complexity.
The facilitator, by wisely rephrasing and merging comments, and iteratively asking for repositioning, can progressively accompany the group to build a consensus on the way to go. Such a process might appear longer and uselessly time-consuming, but it has the great advantage that once the decision has been taken, is much less likely that the minority/opposition try to sabotage the majority.
Where a consensus is still hard to reach, the facilitator can acknowledge that explicitly and:
a) ask to the group if they agree on using the traditional vote method to make the decision;
b) ask to the group if they agree in postponing the decision - whenever possible - to allow for missing elements to be gathered and then reconsidered all together.
WARNING! Be well aware that conformism plays a big role in this game, so don't take this line-ups as statistically significant distributions! In fact, it is important to quickly understand who are your folks, whether they like conformity or being unique and distinctive, whether they are polarized or blended, etc.
Be also careful at not becoming mechanistic in your choice when you pick the comments up, i.e. don't always pick the isolated extremist, otherwise s/he will put himself in such a position just so that you call on her/him and s/he gets a chance to talk.
The use of a rope is completely optional: it can be laid down on the floor just to raise curiosity and have a physical cue for the continuum the first time you use this technique, but it will soon be ignored, so it's all but fundamental.
The most recent application of this method I did, was at eLearning Africa in 2008, in Accra, Ghana, in a session on ICT for Education titled “Common problems, Solutions in common”
Here a video excerpt of that event (we didn't have a proper cameraman, thus the video quality is rather poor, apologies!):
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