Toolbox: Spectrum lines

Episode 12 of the Resist + Renew podcast, where we lay down some spectrum lines: what they bring, issues and benefits.

‘What’s really valuable about them is their way of drawing out and making visible polarity’ – Sami

Show notes, links

Spectrum line: a line from "Agree" to "Disagree" for people to stand on. Participants stand according to their stance / opinion on the subject.

The perenially-useful Seeds for Change have a description of spectrum lines on their tools page.

Training For Change have a video 10 Ways to Use A Spectogram Online. (“spectrogram” is another term for “spectrum line”), which includes a how-to guide for making your own spectrum line slides in Google Slides.

See our “What is facilitation?” podcast episode page for more general facilitation resources.


Ali: This is Resist + Renew.

Kat: A UK-based podcast about social movements.

Sami: What we’re fighting for, why, and how it all happens.

Ali: The hosts of the show are:

Kat: Me Kat,

Sami: Me, Sami,

Ali: and me, Ali,

Sami: I’m recording this now baby

Ali: Shit it’s a podcast.


Sami: Hi, everybody, and welcome back to the Toolbox. So today we are talking about spectrum lines. The reason I’m doing the introduction is because spectrum lines, I have decided, are my favourite facilitation tool. And what they are, is it’s a tool used to kind of show a spectrum or a continuum of positions on a thing, often they’re framed around a question. And which you can sometimes it will be like, often the IRL version will be like two ends of a room. So it will be go towards this end of the room if you feel this way about something and go to the other side of the room if you feel the opposite way about something. And so could be like how much you agree with a question. And then like from not at all to loads. That’s a classic spectrum line. And, and online equivalent versions that people do are things for example, where they’ll like put a little line on like a slide tool that everyone can edit. And then everyone like put a dot somewhere on the line, things like that. So that’s what it is. And and very quickly. So what it’s good for generally, it’s a it’s used as a thing where you can kind of it’s used as a tool to highlight differences in response to something that’s a very broad answer. Maybe Ali, if you can give a specific example. Yeah, let’s make that concrete.

Ali: Let’s make it concrete. Okay, so sometimes I run workshops on things around sci fi, and like utopia and dystopia. And I’ve used spectrum lines in the beginning of those kind of workshops, asking kind of questions like that one in the room would be I think the world is getting better. And at the other end of the room, I’d have I think the world is getting worse. And people stand on the line in that position. And I think it’s, it’s, yeah, I’ve enjoyed doing these spectrum lines, because it draws out like a whole range of opinions and perspectives around the world, like, how can anyone objectively say which it is like it’s too difficult, you can always draw examples of things which are good in the world. And you can always try examples of bad things that are bad in the world. And I find that optimists and pessimists struggle to talk to each other, like they’re so wrapped up in their particular worldview. But like with this spectrum line, I found that it was like, a powerful and quite emotional way of getting those people to talk to each other and see, like, the complexity and the ‘both and’ in that situation. So it is really shift in some places and certain situations. And it is really amazing in certain situations, and often in the same place, it can be both things. And I think that’s a cool tool to bring that out and have those conversations and hear each other.

Sami: And I think as a facilitator, a reason that they’re often very useful as a tool is, so you can easily get a read of a room around a specific question. So often when I feel like when I use them, I use them quite near the start of a workshop, especially if it’s an open workshop for a group of people, I don’t know. And that wasn’t possible to find out information about in advance. And so a classic one that we’ll do, in a lot of situations will be like, what’s your like, how confident you feel around something. And so if you’re going to be doing a training around I don’t know, facilitation, maybe some people will be bringing a lot of experience from facilitation, some people won’t be bringing much. And it’s useful to be able to know that to be able to know how to pitch the kind of things you’re going to talk about in the workshop. That’s a classic, classic spectrum line. But as with all tools, it’s not all not all gems. So where can I go wrong?

Kat: So I guess I’ve seen some uses of spectrum lines that have been really divisive in an accidental way, where the framing of the polarity of each end of the spectrum has basically ended up with one side being clearly good and one side being clearly not good. And people form a spectrum line and then those that end up in there clearly like not good end have a really hard time. And I think that can end up being really divisive, and sometimes can be quite harmful for the people in the room who might experience a shaming or an outing, but they weren’t necessarily prepared for or willing to share and disclose. But the structure of the spectrum line basically is like you either do this or you have to sit out. And yeah, I’ve seen that be quite harmful for people sometimes.

Ali: Maybe to give a complex to give a nuanced position on the example, Sami gave earlier around people’s experience. I’ve been in ones where people have asked, like, what’s your experience with this thing. And then you just put yourself on a line. And then nothing was really done with it. Like I felt that was like, useless information. And it was just like, and then it was like, either telling people about confidence or experience or just like how they felt about something. And then that was it was dropped. And like, I feel like, there needs to be follow up with these things. So like, if it’s a spectrum line of experience, then you could like, physically fold the line in the middle and meet have the most confident person talk to the least confident person, and see how they could support each other. I think that that is like building on it. But if you don’t do that, it can feel like, Okay, great. I feel I’m not that confident. Now, what?

Sami: Yeah, or another example of like, how you can use that information is, so like you said, there’s the example of folding the line. So you can pair people up, maybe if you’re doing some kind of listening exercise, or some some kind of practical exercise where you need to make sure at least one person has confidence in what they’re doing, for example, or if you’re trying to work out. So for example, if you’re in the confidence one. And if you’re looking then to try and elicit answers from the group at some point, then it means you, if the room is a bit quiet, you can be like, Oh, well, like, blah, blah, blah, you said, like, you’ve done things like this before, like, what do you want to know. And one thing also that I’ve seen people use spectrum lines for that I have done before is using spectrum lines at the start and at the end of something and it that I’m I don’t really like it necessarily, because it does kind of go into that thing, which is like where spectrum lines go wrong is where there’s an there is a correct answer. And I feel like people know that the correct answer, if you’ve just done a workshop, is that you’re meant to be more confident than you were at the start. So like, I’m not, I don’t really, I don’t really like it. And I’ve stopped doing it over the years. But that’s the funny thing people can do.

Ali: Do we have any top takeaways around spectrum lines,

Sami: Can I share an example of another situation where I think spectrum lines are, have or are not certainly right or wrong. But it’s been a thing, which I know, done a lot of direct action trainings in my time, and a thing, which there’s always a lot of conversation around the group that we’d often do direct action trainings with, is around, especially if you’re working within like the anti militarist and peace movements. There’s a very strong,

Ali: I know where you’re going

Sami: Yeah, like there’s a very strong non violence tendency. And some people come at this from like, a very strategic non violence perspective, some people come at it from a very, like moral non violence perspective. And, and so you so like, have done workshops where there has been a spectrum line about like, kind of how you feel about different tactics. And, and so there’s different versions of that some of which may or may not be useful, depending on the group. And so they could say that there’s one version of it, which is like, how confident would you feel doing this? Or like, how good an idea do you think this is? Which is a slightly different question, maybe we feel competent doing it, we don’t think it’s a very productive thing to do. Or, like, how much do you think this thing’s count? This thing counts as the violence The classic example being like property damage, like how much do you feel like this example of property damage counts as violence, and can be useful illustrative tools to kind of draw out tension within a group, but it’s a it’s a fundamentally polarising tool. And if your intention is not to polarise the group, then it’s probably not a good shout. If your intention is to polarise the group. That is a great shout. I guess it really it really depends on your intention, what the group is, what you’re trying to get out of it. But if you’re not intending to polarise the group, definitely want to steer away from because you can create divisions that then will just run through a whole workshop or series of workshops.

Ali: Well, that group’s existence. Does anyone else have any good or bad things to say about spectrum lines?

Kat: I think it can be a really good way of finding allies in the group. If especially around experience, if if I am like not so confident or in the middle of finding someone at my pitch is helpful in terms of like being able to check in and also similarly like if it is an opinion thing, knowing that I’m probably not the only one is also helpful. And in in groups where maybe not everybody knows each other very well building that sort of sense of, not everybody agrees, but at least a couple of people do. Makes it easier to maybe name things.

Ali: Yeah, nice. Another thing I like about spectrum lines is because there is that bit of like, the, the only way not to be involved is to tap out completely, you can, gently or less gently ask people why they’re standing where they are. And if they’re the people that haven’t been talking, they must have a reason for choosing where they are that where they are. And they usually do have some, like, pretty insightful things to say, but might not have felt able to say, if we just had like a sitting in a circle chat about x topic, they might just feel like they’re like, happy with whatever so and so is saying or like, the confident people will take up the space. But if you’re like, Hey, you, you’re stood kind of near this end of the spectrum, can you tell us a bit of why, and then they often have great things to say.

Sami: I think for me, really the highlight of spectrum lines is about it’s about the physicality and the movement and the visual impact of it. And you can ask people how they feel about something, they can give you some words, but you just don’t really feel where the group is at in a way that you do where people position themselves on things. So minor point, obviously, that there can therefore be, as there is with everything, but probably concretely with spectrum lines, something around like ability, accessibility, and like requirement to move places. And so a way of amending spectrum lines I’ve done before, where there have been people who haven’t been able to move themselves in the workshop is have some kind of token that represents the person and get them to direct someone to put it somewhere in the spectrum, right. So they’re still like as part of the group, and they’re still there, and they’re still visible. And it kind of is like the 90s Kids TV show nightmare, we like walk a little bit forward a little bit to the left and the like directing them, and then you put them down. And that can be quite nice.

Ali: Someone want to shift us the top takeaways I tried before and failed.

Kat: So what are the top takeaways about spectrum lines? I guess for me, one of the things is being really intentional with the way you ask the question. And think about what the unintended consequences of that question might be in terms of how it divides the group. And also whether it puts a kind of moral framing of a good/bad option. Yeah. What else?

Ali: That can be a really physical and visible way of getting opinions out there. And that needs to be like, made accessible, but also, it can be a way of like, yeah, drawing out a variety of perspectives where otherwise there might have been less visible and less verbal interactions.

Sami: For me, I think it’s around. I think what’s really valuable about them is a way of drawing out and making visible polarity, which is kind of implied by the other things we’re saying but like often a group is polarised, but it’s just not clear to the group, how polarised they are. And so that’s the kind of situation where spectrum nines can be a really good on the fly, like taking out of your toolbox and applying thing of like what, like if you’re feeling like people are in really different positions, but no one’s really acknowledging it. It’s a good way of drawing out

Ali: on a spectrum line of 0 to 5, how much do you like spectrum lines?

Sami: I’m through the wall, through the non physical wall

Ali: on the love, the love end

Sami: At the love end of spectrum lines. I love a continuum. Haha.

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