Action research and evaluation on line
Session 3: Entry and contracting
This is Session 3 of areol, action research and evaluation on line, a 14-week public course offered as a public service by Southern Cross University and the Southern Cross Institute of Action Research (SCIAR).
...in which entry and contracting are identified as crucial early steps in an effective action research project, forming good relationships is identified as part of this, and some suggestions for communicating well are given
How influenced are you by first impressions? What sort of first impressions do others form of you? If you have been involved in recent projects, how have they begun, and what effect did that have on the rest of the project? As you read this, I invite you to think about recent beginnings that you have experienced
In this session:
- Entry and contracting
- Forming relationships
- Setting goals
- Negotiating roles
- Renegotiating the relationship
- Archived resources
This and the sessions following are closely related. The combined topic is participation and involvement -- for action; and for research.
Participation isn't just a matter of who you talk to. It depends, too, on the quality of relationship you can create at the outset, and maintain. And it is influenced by the style of communication you use and the processes for decision-making.
Action researchers are change agents. Their most important tools, I believe, are their own skills and processes; that is how they impact upon others. And that is often determined in the early minutes or hours of contact with a client.
So that's where we'll start: at entry and contracting.
(The next session will then examine some of the ways in which relevant people can be involved in action research. This will take us into a more detailed consideration of the possible roles of researcher and client; and then, in the session after that, into mechanisms for participation or representation.)
Entry and contracting
In many of the change programs I have been involved in, problems have occurred. In almost all instances some of the seeds of the problems could be traced to the initial contracting. I did something or omitted something which created false or unreal or unconstructive expectations.
It's clear enough, I suppose, that beginnings are important. It is then that expectations are formed. It is then that impressions and relationships are most influenced by single actions and events.
It seems that there is almost never enough time to contract thoroughly. It is too difficult to anticipate all of what might happen. What I leave out returns to make my life difficult. But I can't always tell what can be left out and what can't.
I now use a twofold strategy to deal with this. First, I try to concentrate on the most important aspects of my relationship with clients. (I don't expect that I will always get this right.)
Second, I try to ensure that we have the sort of relationship that can weather the issues which nevertheless arise. In this, trust and openness and flexibility are important.
I assume that there are a number of steps to contracting. First I gain access to the "stakeholders", the people with a stake in the research. Second, I do what I can to form effective relationships with them. Third, I negotiate goals, and my role(s) and theirs.
In all of this, my aim is to create the relationships -- personal relationships and working relationships -- which will best enable me to achieve my desired outcomes. My wish is for the clients to achieve their outcomes. For present purposes I'll assume that is your wish too.
Let me tell you about my favourite metaphor for change agents. (Action researchers and evaluators are change agents.) It is court jester.
In medieval courts telling the truth to royalty was dangerous and often fatal. However, the court jester was an exception. Change agents, like court jesters, can often best do their job by speaking truth to royalty -- by telling unpalatable truths to those people who have most to learn from those truths.
(As with court jesters it is often important to be accurate. Sometimes it may not hurt to soften it with a little humour; but only if that doesn't cloud its accuracy.)
For me, the most important outcome of effective contracting is that I negotiate for myself a licence to tell the truth. I also provide as much encouragement as I can for the clients to tell me the truth.
This only works to the extent that I have also formed a personal relationship. This has two important aspects:
- Until they accept that I have their interests at heart, they will find it very hard to trust me.
- Until they believe that I can look after myself, they will find it very hard to tell the truth to me.
I also find it helps to define goals before roles. If I know what outcomes are wanted, I have a better chance of knowing what I can do to help achieve them.
To summarise so far... The sequence of contracting that I use becomes, in broad terms:
- establish rapport and relationships;
- define roughly the desired outcomes from the overall process of change or evaluation;
- negotiate roles for researcher/evaluator and client(s).
As usual, these stages are not as clear cut as I have presented them. In practice they overlap. They are ongoing, especially relationship-building.
Further, the power of action research depends largely upon its flexibility and responsiveness. So above all I think it is important to develop relationships and define goals and roles in such a way that flexibility is built into them. It is often highly desirable that you and they can change your minds later.
I now take up these elements of contracting in turn.
Rapport is that state of interaction where you and the other person are "in tune". The initial step in building rapport is to give all your attention to the other person.
There are techniques which can be used to build rapport. My experience has been that such techniques work best when they are highly practised and automatic. It takes time to acquire such a level of skill. Failing this, consciously-controlled non-verbal behaviour can appear stilted and non-genuine. It can have the opposite effect to that intended.
There is a simpler way. Be interested in what people have to say. Give them all your attention. Most probably you will then automatically do enough of those things that build rapport. This may also be enough to gain their attention. If not, you may have to control the timing and place of your approach to minimise distractions.
It is when people experience you as a person that they are most likely to develop empathy with you. Being frank and open about yourself will tend to build better relationships.
However, disclosure which goes well beyond other people's expectations may disturb them. Self-disclosure pitched just beyond their level may encourage them to disclose a little more. When they do, you can take another step into further disclosure.
Sometimes the presenting client will have little idea of what she wants. This simplifies matters. I can offer the client a two-stage process:
- Some initial diagnosis, perhaps using interviewing (a later session describes a particular form of interview that I find useful). I can report the results of this, and offer a more detailed proposal for the next stage
- I can implement the process identified at stage 1 as most useful. (And in the meantime, the client group and I have had a chance to get to know each other a bit better.)
I prefer to do this in conjunction with a small working party or project team set up within the organisation or community. In this way we can begin to work towards a more participative approach as we work together. The client group also has a better change to improve their skills at action research and change management.
On occasion the presenting client will have too clear an idea of what is required. In two respects at least, that can be problematic. You usually have no real way of knowing how appropriate her goals are. Usually you can't tell if those goals are shared by other stakeholders.
But if you debate the matter you may just help the client lock herself into her present position.
With such a client I find it more useful to focus on long-term outcomes and stakeholders. With this as background, I can then discuss ways of getting there."If I do this, and it works well, what would you expect to be the end result, say in 5 years or so?
"If you achieve those end results, who will be affected? Who will be better off? Who will be worse off?
"I can suggest a number of ways of achieving those good results for those people. And perhaps some ways of removing the negative results. Are you interested in talking about those options?"
As a bonus, this approach also demonstrates to your client that there are processes which offer an alternative to debate, and that you can use them effectively.
The role of the action researcher is influenced by the relationships formed and the goals identified. Beyond this there are many other important decisions to be made.
- Who will be involved in the research?
- What level of involvement will they be offered?
- Within what constraints will the research operate? There are likely to be constraints of time and money, for example. And in many settings, there are constraints on access to those who have an interest in the research, and more ...
- Whatever the roles and processes negotiated, how much flexibility exists? One of the major advantages of action research as a research paradigm is its flexibility and responsiveness to the situation. It would be a pity to undermine this advantage by being too firm about the roles and the processes to be used.
To my mind, these are issues which do much to determine the later success of the research. The following session in areol is therefore directed to these questions.
For now, let me just make just two points about participation. First, in my view there are many levels of participation, and therefore many choices. Second, for me it is important that the clients help to choose the level of participation. To me, this is more important than achieving some particular and predetermined level of participation in the research.
(And, as before, let me say that these are my own views. They work for me. You are, as always, free to make your own judgments and choices about these matters.)
Renegotiating the relationship
I said above that flexibility and responsiveness are important to me. To a large extent, the flexibility in the research is determined by the flexibility in the relationship between researcher and clients.
At the very least, I much prefer to have regular meetings to reconsider the research: its goals, its process, those involved, the level of their participation, and so on.
To negotiate your entry to a client group, and to agree on your role and theirs, requires a certain level of communication skill. Most people have enough for the purpose. Some don't always make good use of it.
(Those who don't have adequate skills can acquire them through appropriate training or experience. My natural communication talents were fairly meagre; if I can learn communication skills, most of you should have little trouble doing so. And if you work very participatively, it is possible for you and the client group to help each other in this regard.)
There is an extensive literature on communication, much of it practical. In addition, I've also written some material for the archive. For now, let me focus on a few guidelines which seem to be of help to novice action researchers:
Establish a high-quality person-to-person relationship with your clients, and most other issues can be resolved with relative ease.
If in doubt, tell the truth. Tell it about yourself, and about the client. Tell it simply and clearly, without blame or criticism or demand and (more often than not) without apology.
I've observed, often, a great irony. Novices frequently undermine their credibility by trying to protect it. In attempting to preserve a client's liking they soften what needs to be said... and end up confusing everyone. In seeking to maintain a client's respect they attempt to conceal their ignorance... and too often the attempt is seen for what it is, and achieves the opposite of what was intended.
There is a power in relationship-building and in truth-telling which can be used to the benefit of yourself and your clients. This, at least, is my experience.
I've placed an overview of relevant communication skills in the arlist archive. Its title is communicn. It briefly describes ways of stating your own point of view, and ways of getting information from others. It also deals briefly with managing the process of an interaction.
My approach to communication skills builds on some of the models and processes of Chris Argyris. There is a summary of Argyris' core model on the arlist archive. Titled argyris, it is by Liane Anderson (an extract from her thesis).
These are available as both text and web versions at Southern Cross University, URLs as follows:ftp://ftp.scu.edu.au/www/arr/communicn.txt
The readings which are suggested here are a small selection from a wide literature. You may have easier access to other books and papers which will serve the purpose as well.
Techniques on rapport building are mostly to be found in the literature on neurolinguistic programming, also known as NLP. If you decide to peruse this literature, I suggest chapter 2 of:Laborde, G.Z. (1987) Influencing with integrity: management skills for communication and negotiation. Palo Alto, Ca.: Syntony.
Effective contracting depends upon effective communication skills. For an overview which is reasonably consistent with the present approach, you could do worse than:Narciso, J. and Burkett, D. (1975) Declare yourself: discovering the me in relationships. Englewood-Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
There are later books; but few have the same immediate appeal and applicability.
If you wish to go deeper than that, it is worth pursuing both expressive and listening skills. You might begin with something on assertion. Again, I prefer one of the classics:Lange, A. and Jakubowski, P. (1976) Responsible assertive behaviour: cognitive/behavioural procedures for trainers. Champaign, Ill. : Research Press.
You can follow it up with something that emphasises the listening aspects of communication, for example any of the effectiveness training books by T. Gordon.
There is some neat material on communication in Viviane Robinson's book about the use of an Argyris and Schon style of action research in two case studies:Robinson, V. (1993) Problem-based methodology: research for the improvement of practice. Oxford: Pergamon Press.
Conflict can arise suddenly. So it helps if you have some conflict management skills. I recommend either of the following books:Cornelius, H. and Faire, S. (1989) Everyone can win: how to resolve conflict. Brookvale, NSW: Simon and Schuster.
Fisher, R. and Ury, W. (1987) Getting to yes: negotiating to agreement without giving in. London: Arrow. [Or any of Roger Fisher's later books on the topic.]
There are two books on a gestalt approach to consultation which I have found very useful. Though their book is not recent, Hermann and Korenich offer very practical advice on developing a healthy relationship. Nevis describes a style of relationship and presentation which can have high impact.Hermann, S.M. and Korenich, M. (1977) Authentic management: a gestalt orientation to organizations and their development. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley.
Nevis, E.C. (1987) Organizational consulting: a gestalt approach. New York: Gardner Press.
ActivitiesA thought experiment
Choose some relationship which is ongoing, and in which you and the other person have very different roles.
Recall, in as much detail as you can, a recent situation when you interacted with that person. It is best if it is a situation which often recurs.
Now play it through in your mind but with reversed roles. Imagine yourself saying and doing whatever the other person actually said and did. Imagine the other person using your words and actions.
Notice the times when you would be offended or amused or surprised, especially by what the other person said or did in your reverse-role scenario. Analyse the likely reason for the offence or amusement or surprise.
What have you learned about roles and power from this thought experiment? What implications does it have for your role as a researcher or evaluator?
An individual activity
In the Southern Cross action research archive is a workbook exercise which you can use to analyse an interaction in greater depth. If you have some recent experience where you were a researcher or evaluator, and where you were not entirely satisfied with what you did and said, use that as the situation to analyse.
Help each other analyse, for your chosen project, the issues which are most important in establishing and maintaining your relationship with your clients.
This session has offered the view that beginnings are important in creating flexible patterns which persist. Good relationships are a crucial part of this. Then there are goals to be identified and roles to be negotiated.
And a final thought... This doesn't occur only at the beginning of a research or evaluation project. All of it has to be done with each client. And then it has to be revisited from time to time during the project.
In the next session, we'll consider the issues of stakeholders and their involvement more closely. See you then -- Bob
Let's practice action research on areol. What ideas do you have for improving this session? What didn't you understand? What examples and resources can you provide from your own experience? What else? If you are subscribed to the email version, send your comments to the discussion list. Otherwise, send them to Bob Dick
Copyright (c) Bob Dick 2002. May be copied provided it is not included in material sold at a profit, and this notice is shown.
This document may be cited as follows:
Dick, B. (2002) Entry and contracting. Session 3 of Areol - action research and evaluation on line.
Maintained by Bob Dick; this version 11.03w; last revised 20020712
version of this session is available at