Methods and Tools – Part III

Lower the Water Line

This technique is a direct reference to the iceberg model shown above. The practice of lowering the water line is based on the view that there are often unseen and unspoken factors (assumptions, values, beliefs, fears, hopes, and more) that shape the direction and outcome of a conversation.

Techniques such as slowing down conversation, working with inquiry and powerful questions, and the facilitator’s own levels of listening make these aspects more visible and encourage others to do the same. In this way, we gather more insight about the choices facing the group and the possible solutions. We increase the experience of more voices being heard and increase the likelihood of commitment from all involved.

Some of the psychological impacts of conversations that ask participants to engage with climate change and its impacts on them or their communities are contexts in which there is likely to be a lot of activity beneath the water line and which might benefit from being brought to the surface or supportively acknowledged. Similarly, if there is a history of mistrust between groups or competition for resources or authority, it can be helpful to surface (as appropriate) some of those differences so they don’t hinder the group’s work going forward.

Additional Ways to Lower the Water Line

Balancing advocacy and inquiry

As facilitators and participants, we can notice if a conversation is finding the right balance between advocacy, which Isaacs (1999) describes as “speaking what you think, speaking for a point of view” and inquiry, which “means looking into what you do not yet know, what you do not yet understand, or seeking to discover what others see and understand that may differ from your point of view (p.188).” Sometimes advocacy is a useful direction. It is often the expression of what exists beneath the water line and places of strong advocacy can indicate that there are some strongly held beliefs, needs or values beneath the water line. Inquiry then allows those beliefs or needs to be heard, making more of the whole visible and connected, enabling the group – as a living system—to do its work.

Using powerful questions (See the reading on Powerful Questions for more examples)

A subset of balancing advocacy and inquiry is the use of powerful questions. This practice is deceptively simple, and also challenging, in a dominant culture that prefers the security of answers. As Brown, Isaacs, Vogt and Marguiles (n.d.) write,

“Perhaps our aversion to asking creative questions stems from our emphasis on finding quick fixes and our attachment to black/white, either/or thinking. Often the rapid pace of our lives and work doesn’t provide us the opportunity to be in reflective conversations where creative questions and innovative solutions can be explored before reaching key decisions. This dilemma is further reinforced by organizational reward systems in which leaders feel they are paid for fixing problems rather than fostering breakthrough thinking. Between our deep attachment to the answer — any answer — and our anxiety about not knowing, we have inadvertently thwarted our collective capacity for deep creativity and fresh perspectives in the face of the unprecedented challenges we face, both in our own organizations and as a global human community.”

According to Brown et al, a powerful question is:

  • Simple and clear
  • Thought-provoking
  • Generates energy
  • Focuses inquiry
  • Surfaces assumptions
  • Opens new possibilities

This also means that it is not answered easily with a yes or no and is unlikely to have a ‘correct’ response.

Engaging Otto Scharmer’s “Four Levels of Listening” (see the video in Required Reading)

In this model, Scharmer uses a framework that organizes the way we listen into four layers. The first is downloading, in which we listen to confirm what we already know or believe. The second is factual or data focused listening, in which we attend primarily to what we can perceive above the water line. The third level is empathic listening, in which we connect with the underlying experience(s) of the speaker and attend to what might be below the water line. We use not just our thinking mind, but our intuitive and emotional selves. The fourth level is described as generative listening. This way of engaging moves beyond a transactional experience of listener and speaker and supports a kind of listening that opens to who we want to be, who the others in a dialogue want to be and the potential that wants to emerge from a particular conflict or discussion. As Scharmer describes, this kind of listening occurs in an effective coaching conversation, when the coach is listening for the best in their client, or when a meeting facilitator is listening for what a group wants to create together. Often, when a solution emerges from a group and no one person can point to who suggested it, this is an indication of listening and working from level four.


The term harvesting comes from the facilitation and convening methods known as the Art of Hosting. As the metaphor suggests, it describes the phase of a dialogue when the group asks themselves so what did we learn, so what did we agree to, so what questions do we still have? And now what will we do?

While it is something that often occurs towards the end of a meeting, it is important to consider the what, why and how of the harvest at the outset. This links directly to a clear understanding of the purpose or convening question at the centre of your meeting or gathering. A harvest consists of actions (who will do what) as well as insights and new ideas (what can we see / understand now that we couldn’t at the beginning of this conversation).

Chris Corrigan (2012), provides a helpful overview of four elements that help to create a useful harvest from a dialogue:

“Create an artefact. Harvesting is about making knowledge visible. Make a mind map, draw pictures, take notes, but whatever you do create a record of your conversation.

Have a feedback loop. Artefacts are useless if they sit on the shelf. Know how you will use your harvest before you begin your meeting. Is it going into the system? Will it create questions for a future meeting? Is it to be shared with people as news and learning? Figure it out and make plans to share the harvest.

Be aware of both intentional and emergent harvest. Harvest answers to the specific questions you are asking, but also make sure you are paying attention to the cool stuff that is emerging in good conversations. There is real value in what’s coming up that none could anticipate. Harvest it.

The more a harvest is co-created, the more it is co-owned. Don’t just appoint a secretary, note taker or a scribe. Invite people to co-create the harvest. Place paper in the middle of the table so that everyone can reach it. Hand out post it notes so people can capture ideas and add them to the whole. Use your creative spirit to find ways to have the group host their own harvest” (p. 7).


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Strategic Dialogue and Engagement for Climate Adaptation Copyright © by Simon Fraser University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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