Inspiring People. Growing Organizations. Strengthening Communities.

News Updates

New Publication! Facilitation And Evaluation

I co-edited this issue of New Directions in Evaluation to bridge the views of these two fields. More

How will we write the next chapter of the story of race in America?

Using Art of Hosting and Conflict Transformation: An event in Houston, Texas.    More

New Results on Girls' Lives in Afar

Why is it hard to change attitudes about girls' education? Because in poor countries, it's more complex than you may think. Check out the results of this study funded by Girlhub Ethiopia More

Photo courtesy of Girlhub Ethiopia ©2013

Arts in Evaluation

My webinar on the use of Arts in Evaluation is now available online.  More

'Dancing with Dynamic Tensions: Enhancing Evaluation Through Effective Communication and Interaction' from Fierro Consulting: Inspiring People. Growing Organizations. Strengthening Communities.'s Blog

Dancing with Dynamic Tensions: Enhancing Evaluation Through Effective Communication and Interaction

Mar 31, 2019
Category: Africa  Group dynamics  Racism  Power Dynamics  Evaluation  Participatory Leadership  Trauma 
Author: Rita Fierro, Ph.D.

In her keynote speeach, Dr. Fierro shares her personal journey and initial struggles as an independent evaluator and how facing those struggles motivated her to improve her communication and facilitation skills. By identifying the dynamic tensions that are at play in group conversations, including our own biases, she explains how active facilitation can improve conversations and the outcomes of meetings.

Michigan Association for Evaluation

May 10, 2018


We live in critical times. With an increase in mass shootings, in hate groups, and war, more people live in fear. Consider our military capability. Current weapons of war are daunting in their power. We have perfected how to maximize death and minimize risk. Drones are employed to kill hundreds of people from afar, without any risk. We never have to hear the other side of the story, never have to see a tear on a face or blood on a severed leg. We keep on without understanding the true impact of our actions.

As a planet, our capacity to destroy each other while avoiding one another is much higher than our capacity to be honest while looking each other in the eye.

It’s no surprise that attacking other people on the internet, from behind a computer, is so popular. It’s a reflection of how we fight: farther and farther away. We dismiss the impact of our words on the human being on the other side of the screen.

Yet while we fight harder, we feel more alone than ever. A 2016 poll showed that almost three-quarters (72 percent) of Americans experience loneliness.

This is why communication is critical now. We are more miserable more of the time. Our public good, the survival of our species, the thriving of our species depends on it. Yet being human is a messy thing. Put any two humans in any room, discussing any topic, and high chance of miscommunication. Communicating face-to-face involves risk. It’s common for conflict to ensue. When we communicate, we are vulnerable, our hearts are on the line. My eyes meet yours; my humanity meets yours. You see my warts, I see yours. When we are vulnerable, we are uncomfortable. We often react to what people say and how they say it.

Evaluation, as a profession committed to the common good, pays attention to shared interests above individual interests. Yet good communication begins with the individual.

I’m going to describe a 12-year journey I’ve been on towards better communication in my professional and personal life. I’ll share why great communication is critical to evaluation. I’ll describe what it looks like, and how to cultivate it. If you’re a person who worries about “saying the right thing at the right time,” as I am, you’re in for a treat. A lot of what I’ll share carries over to our personal lives, too.

Just to be clear and honest, I don’t work on my communication because I’m good at it. I work on it, because left to my own devices, it sucks. Yet I have learned the best communication within the context of my own personal story.  



I’m bicultural. I was born in New York to Italian parents who had been here at most for six years. My family dynamics were laden with the pressures of most immigrant families. In my developmental years, my Mother’s English was extremely limited. My Dad, who completed only third grade in Italy, picked up English on the job as a tailor, learning the minimum to get by and provide for his family. Dad worked seven days a week; Mom missed him. My brother and I fought most of our childhood, taking out on each other the frustrations of a home in a constant state of stress.

As you can imagine, our household was a place where conflict was the norm. When it came to communicating, there were only two ways: withholding and bursting. My father could hold a silent treatment on my mom for a whole month, living in excruciating tension under the same roof. My mother could start yelling at the drop of a pin, and often did, several times a day. There was no middle ground, just silence or outbursts.

I had a rocky start as a consultant because I carried this into my professional life. I learned to keep everything in. I thought that keeping it in, like my Dad, and not bursting like my Mom was “professional.” In my early years, I lost several clients to miscommunication. Sometimes we didn’t use words in the same way; or we had a mismatch in expectations; or the client asked me to not say what I knew needed to be said. Or, I refused to take critical feedback out of a report.

Turns out, silence or outburst is a terrible communication model for our profession. I came to realize that having hard conversations is the foundation of being an evaluator. I knew I had to learn, and so I went on a journey.

I will also say this about my boisterous Italian Family. Even with all the bad communication and miscommunication, we have tremendous love for one another. My mother is a fierce communicator; she will say what she has to say, no matter what. She expected the same of us, and I learned from her more than I can explain. Here’s an example. One day, after a bad fight she and I had, Mom cooked for 7 hours straight, from 6am to 1pm—Italian lunch-time.

“Mom! We’re three people! You cooked for an army!” I said.
“You can say that you came from a dysfunctional family, but you cannot say that I don’t feed you!”

The biggest lesson in my conflictual family: no matter what happens, no matter what, we always come back to the table, at 1pm next day, eating lunch again.

This lesson allowed me to trust that humans can create beauty, connection, and love from ANY conversation.

If you think that good communication is neat and tidy, I invite you to give up that up. Good communication can be extremely messy.

Good communication is real, authentic, profoundly alive, and human. Human emotions are messy. Yet the messiest conversations can yield the sweetest result. Sort of like tangled phone lines. They look messy, but they still connect people who want to connect.


Good or Bad communication

So, if good communication can be messy, what exactly makes communication “good or bad?” I’d like to tell you to give up judging communication. But since I’m writing for evaluators, I‘ll give that up.

Here’s a helpful metric: judge communication not by how it is delivered, but the impact of its delivery. If the communication fosters what you want to create, consider it good. Otherwise, it isn’t.

When communication is good, there is:

  • * flow of information.

  • * people feel free and open toward one another.

  • * people gain confidence as a result of the conversation.

Sometimes, like in my family, folks can yell at each other, but get closer to each other too.

So what makes communication “Bad?”

It’s quite simple. If you feel more disconnected after a conversation or lack thereof, or if the results you’re trying to create don’t come to fruition, you are experiencing bad communication.

Kinsey says that, in business, bad communication generates low confidence, low morale, mistakes, low productivity.


Nommo: Words and Life

Here’s why creating good communication is so essential.

In West African axiology, things have no life until someone gives them a name: Nommo is our human superpower. We can create things in language. We create through conversation.[1]

The Dogon had one word for Water and Word: Nommo.[2] As in the Christian Bible, for the Dogon, the word came first and was the beginning of the universe. Things are dormant before words bring them into being.

In Muntu, a book about African philosophy, Jahn writes: “The driving power that gives life and efficacy to all things is Nommo, the word. Nommo—the spoken word, the sound of the drums, the laughter of the throat, the poem, and the song, constitutes the “magical” force” that activates and enlivens all other forces.” Only humans have this power.

* Words have the power to create anything.

* Peaceful words generate peace-making

* Tolerant words generate toleration.

* Cynical words generate cynicism.


The cost of bad communication

The cost of bad communication is extremely high.

  • * 57% of work projects go badly because of poor communication.

  • * The U.S. Meltzer Commission (2000) found that more than 50% of the World Bank's various projects fail.

  • * The Independent Evaluation Group (IEG), in an independent rating, claimed that in 2010, 39% of World Bank projects were unsuccessful,[3] 50% of the ones in Africa.

  • Why? A detailed report talks about all the specific limitations: structural, planning, contextual, management.[4] I can relate more than half of those topics to communication.


The fear

What most often drives the conversations is the fear of failure, the fear of the negative impact of communication. We all have horror stories of conversations going from bad to worse, and that fear drives the way we interact.


The loop

There is a loop that is created in most dialogues that has them repeat over and over. In this loop, we talk more yet understand less.

The loop is determined by two things: What I think about myself, and what I think about the other person. These pre-existing beliefs impact how I interact with someone else. Nothing new can happen from here. Just the usual blaming and shaming. Inside the loop, nothing gets created. I keep on repeating my low expectations, over and over.

The evaluation profession has special traps.

Most new client conversations are based on unspoken assumptions.

Often, our clients hire us with this this simplified logic model in mind:


If that’s how the relationship begins, it’s unlikely to get better. Evaluators, if you listen to your project manager as someone who disregards your evaluative opinion, nothing your project manager says will modify your approach. If you listen to your evaluator as someone who asks for too much, nothing they suggest will make sense to yo

So it’s no surprise conversations end up like this:

Again, in the loop, we talk more and understand less.

How do we break out of the communication loop?



The biggest myth about communication is that it has to do with how we talk.

Rather, great communication is actually about how we listen. Bad communication is perpetuated by how we listen.[5]

What we hear is grounded in what we decide to hear.

If you listen to your husband as a lazy man who never contributes, nothing he does can prove you wrong. If you listen to your wife as a woman who rambles and has nothing interesting to say, nothing she says can be interesting to you.

The way we listen is about one thing and one thing alone:


Who we listen to, and who we ignore, is a matter of power. In Western societies, domination is exercised through not listening. Look for the connections between how you listen in your personal life and in your professional life. These are connected.

In my Southern Italian culture, it’s common that men don’t give much weight to what women say. It’s part of their patriarchy training. Men in my culture don’t listen to women because they don’t have to. They hold formal power, so if they ignore women, the consequences are limited. In the West, this power dynamic is everywhere, not just between men and women. Parents tend to listen less to children, the elderly to their grown children, whites to people of color, first-world leaders to people from developing countries and indigenous folks.

The philosophy of domination that led to colonialism and imperialism is grounded in this assumption.

In 1493, Pope Alexander VI stated his desire that the "discovered" people be "subjugated and brought to the faith itself." When Europeans chose to “subjugate” we didn’t ask what it was like for native people. We ignored their wisdom and their input, to claim our authority. We said: “I reserve the right to subjugate you and take your land, because you have nothing that I need to respect (no soul, no rights, no voice, no laws).” Of course, this “Doctrine of Discovery” was not grounded in truth, but in self-interest.

This did not stop in the 1400s. How often have you heard a program manager say that their participants did not participate in the measures for success because they are “not interested,” “won’t come,” or have “nothing to say?” If any of us has used these excuses, we must seriously consider that we haven’t created the conditions to really listen.

Here’s a project example.  

Lake Turkana in Kenya is a large lake surrounded by a hot desert. Here a fish processing plant was built, funded by the Norwegian government at the cost of $22 million. The project began in 1971 to provide jobs to the Turkana people through fishing and fish processing for export. Wasike, a government fisheries officer for Lake Turkana, explains: "The lake was identified by outsiders as a resource but they never consulted the Turkana people, never asked them what they thought of fishing it." In fact, the Turkana are nomads with no history of fishing or eating fish. The plant operated for a few days, but was quickly shut down. The cost to operate the freezers and the demand for clean water in the desert were too high.


It’s pretty obvious that this problem could have been avoided by seriously listening to the locals. It’s all about bias.



Biases can be based on cultural preferences or cultural ignorance.

Those of you who are conflict averse might say that my upbringing makes me positively biased towards conflict, while others may be biased against it.

Biases are insidious, I admit. We never fully overcome them; what we can do is learn to get better at recognizing our biases. We can cultivate a community of people who help us, as well.

As an Italian American woman who lived for 15 years in Italy, I have a positive bias for directness, passion, physical closeness, eye contact, and food. As a white woman, I was trained to see white men as the authority and dismiss the contribution of people of color as irrelevant and simplistic. I was trained to be an expert—to generalize my experiences, offer advice, focus on me instead of “we,” and speak as if I know what I’m talking about, even when I don’t. Also as a white woman, I’ve been trained to be “nice,” not to “rock the boat,” and not take up too much space. This is how I was trained to be a woman, by my family, my friends, and my society.

All of these characteristics uphold the status quo and undermine the contribution I can make in the world. In my evaluations, if I act from these unconscious biases, I will have no contribution to make. I’ll dismiss the opinions of people who don’t think like me and/or be a wall-flower myself.

As highly educated professionals, our academic environment encouraged certain blindspots in relation to communication.

  • * We are trained to debate, not to build consensus;

  • * We are trained to be right in conversation, not to join ranks;

  • * We are trained to suppress unspoken voices, not uplift them;

  • * We are trained to be the gatekeepers who keep out voices of dissent, opposition, and discontent.


Our Opportunity

Let’s try shifting our lenses away from being right or predicting the worst way a conversation can end. Envision each conversation as an opportunity for the best positive outcome, at ANY given time.

This is a brave position. We can promote the role of evaluation in having every voice valued, heard, and upheld, for the common, public good of a society that works for all of us.


Break the loop

The creative power of communication lies in its power to break the repetitive loop and create something new.

Here is what this will take:

It’s not about you

Take responsibility for the way you listen. What opportunities can you create instead of your old assumptions?


Dynamic Tensions

At the core of every sticky conversation is a dynamic tension, a difference between two viewpoints, approaches, or belief systems that are perceived as being in competition. In a group, folks may speak up, yet each one gets louder, talks longer, or withdraws harder, because their thoughts are in contradiction to someone else’s. Hence the tension.

When tension is static, people listen silently, thinking, “they’ll never understand.” They may get louder, thinking “I’ll tell you this one more time so you can get it.”

As long as both parties insist on being right, the conversation becomes stuck in right/wrong, and domination/avoidance of domination.

Tension can become dynamic when there is deep listening around each other’s viewpoints and positions. It’s dynamic when it results in creating something new.

Most disagreements happen when things are handled as right versus wrong. In fact, different views are actually polarities, meaning there is no absolute right or wrong; one can only work towards balancing the two.Here are some:


On all of the examples above, the solution is never one over the other, but a balance between the two. How can we use disagreements to find a balance between polarities?


Listening from a new place

It all breaks down to this basic assumption: See differences as an opportunity, not a threat. An inclusive conversation[6] is one where differences are seen as a resource, not a threat.



Balancing opposites conjures images of compromise and disappointment. Let’s be honest—we all hate compromise because in compromise, we lose half of what we wanted in the first place. Yet a true balance between polarities is not a compromise. It’s a new option. This more creative option satisfies all involved.


The key to fruitful conversation is the not the debate in and of itself, but the degree to which people are listening for the common wisdom.

As Evaluators, instead of aiming for objectivity, we can aim for neutrality. This means taking the time to explore all sides and perspectives. In this, we look for the common wisdom.

This solution can only come after both sides have been fully heard and danced with each other, trying the other’s perspective on for size. It means being honest about differences in perspectives.

Emergence is a different facilitation approach that most people use. Peggy Holman defines Emergence[7] as “order rising out of chaos.” It is less about facilitating, about pushing and pulling the conversation, and more about building trust that everyone can contribute. It’s about allowing the conversation to be messy, and directing it in the most subtle of ways, with an inquiry question. Under that umbrella, all is allowed, from personal or professional life, from art to intellect, from heart and mind. Everything is welcome. People are encouraged to draw, think, and build upon each other’s perspective.

People have to have an “open mind, open heart, and open will” for emergence to be a “magical” power –as the Nommo can be. Two brains really are better than one.

In Theory U[8] Otto Scharmer explains how leading groups through this “open heart, open mind, and open will” process can open a whole new field of possibilities, or understanding, of solutions. The process follows the shape of the letter “U.”

Generating this magic requires a lot of pausing and listening; it means suspending judgement of the “opposition.” It means observing and listening for creative ideas that address common concerns and sensing into what’s next. It’s the first part of the “U” journey, the going deeper.

Then there is the magic moment, where disagreements turn and the group coalesces. It’s the bottom of the “U” the place where tides turn and the group begins an ascending journey together, common understanding, solutions, possibilities.

It’s gorgeous work! It can leave you more satisfied and alive in your personal and professional life than you ever thought possible.


An example: Police-Community work

For the last three years, I have been evaluating Trauma to Trust, a trauma training for police and community in Newark, NJ. This city’s police force is under consent-decree, meaning that when the Department of Justice investigated the police department, they found it guilty of abuse of force in communities of color in that city.

When we first formulated how to evaluate the training, (deciding the standard of success against which to measure its results) we thought of typical measures: how training participants (police and community alike) improve their knowledge of trauma, attitudes about trauma, and behaviors in referring trauma-survivors to resources.

We chose a community visioning event to launch the evaluation. For a few hours, community members and officers engaged in a tug of war over everything the other party should do differently to improve the relationship between police and community.

In other words, we used facilitation technologies that didn’t resolve the contrasts, but heightened them even further. Officers and community members were caught in the same dynamic tension, despite their very different perceptions.

This dynamic tension was between accountability and appreciation.

Officers were accountable to their power structures to follow procedure; they also felt unappreciated by the community regarding the amount of trauma and stress their work entailed. They also blamed the community for the level of violence they had to engage in daily.

The community blamed police officers for not being accountable to law enforcement’s “covenant” to “protect and serve.” Given the centuries-long abuse of force in their communities, the Newark community placed responsibility for their own lack of trust back on the officers. Also, the community felt that officers failed to appreciate their valuable neighborhood assets, from the grandmothers on the block, to the local leaders who were far-too stretched in trying to reign in the violence.

As we explored these dynamic tensions, the common ground everyone shared became clear. Both sides wanted a mutual understanding of what it’s like to be in the others’ shoes. Officers wanted the community to understand the complexity and intricacy of their service. And community members wanted officers to understand the historical context of oppression they were operating within.

This foundation of mutual understanding was not a compromise, but a shared priority. We refocused and re-aligned the training to deliver on what was most important to both parties. The lens of chronic trauma became the opportunity for the community to understand the officers’ world. The lens of historical trauma became an opportunity for officers to understand community members.


Critical Friends – Getting comfortable with discomfort

As evaluators, we are in the tricky position of being “critical friends” to the people who have hired us.

This means that we are often in the position to:

  • See opposing perspectives (not everyone in your program agrees with you);
  • * Truth-tell (Your results do not match your perception of the program);
  • * Uncover assumptions (Your program assumptions have been debunked by research);
  • * Disrupt comfort (We are exactly where we need to be and everyone is uncomfortable);
  • * Deliver bad news (We did not meet our measures;, it’s time to regroup and reflect about what’s next);
  • *Include excluded voices (You have been avoiding the input of the most important group in your process).


These are all hard conversations. Our profession demands we learn to have these conversations in a relaxed, serene way. It is risky, no doubt.

My invitation is to build our capacity to have hard conversations, by learning how we listen, and by learning to leverage dynamic tensions. There’s a lot you can read, but these are skills we must learn in workshops, by having conversations, through practice.

Should we avoid hard conversations with our clients, we abdicate our evaluative role and become simply professional figures who do complicated studies to sanction the status quo.

Hard conversations carry a risk; we might not be hired again.

But the risk we run by avoiding hard conversations is far more severe. It’s that our profession could lose its credibility for neutrality and independence, and become simply the arm that sanctions the status quo, what already is, to the detriment of the voices that are not heard already.

Think about it. In every project there is someone who has not been heard. The anonymity and trust you can offer may be their last opportunity to be heard. And the wisdom they carry can make the difference between a project being successful and sinking forever.


Our Learning Journey

As I mentioned in the beginning, we live in critical times. We are either on the brink of a world that works for everyone, or the brink of extinction. In this time of extremes, the middle path is dying. I invited you to break the loop of repetitive conversations, by shifting how you listen, recognizing your biases, and leveraging many perspectives. I also shared that deep, creative, generative listening, can lead us to not only survive, but thrive on this planet.

So how can we walk in our lives to make the impact we desire? Commit to listening, heart, mind and soul. Listen for what is said and what is not said. Commit to listen even when you are not listened to.


Take on your own learning

1)    Build your capacity to have hard conversations through reading AND WORKSHOPS;

2)    Practice your skills your personal relationships;

3)    Practice with your colleague;

4)    Bring boldness AND grace (another polarity!) to your practice;

5)    Cultivate a community of people who can point out your blindspots; who help you see power dynamics when you miss them.


The following questions serve as a guide to reflective practice:

  • Who do you avoid talking to because they don’t think like you?
  • Who’s the authority on this topic?
  • What voices have not been mentioned?
  • Who is this work having an impact on? What do they think?
  • Where in my work do I ignore, fail to listen, override?
  • Who is this project being accountable to? The funder? The staff? The local community?


As you continue to ask these questions, find a colleague who is doing the same, and create a listening accountability partnership.

After all, this community work must be done in community. Find a community who will hold you accountable for listening like your life depends on it.

Because it does.

[1] Jahn, J. (1990). Muntu: African culture and the Western world. New York, NY: Grove Press.

[2] Griaule, M. (1965). Conversations with Ogotemmêli : an introduction to Dogon religious ideas. Oxford : Oxford University Press.

[3] Chauvet, L., Collier, P., Duponchel, M., 2010. What explains aid project success in post-conflict situations? The World Bank Policy Research Working Paper, 5418.


[5] Rosenberg M. B. (2003). Non-violent Communication: a language of life. Encicitas: PuddleDancer Press.

[6] See my blog series on inclusive conversations at

[7] Holman, P. (2010). Engaging Emergence: Turning Upheaval into OpportunityBerrett-Koehler Publishers.

[8] Scharmer, O. (2007). Theory U: Leading the Future as it Emerges. The Society for Organizational Learning: Cambridge, USA.

Share This Post

Share Your Thoughts

comments powered by Disqus