Betwixt & Between

Issue #4

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Developing a soft humanitarian field – improving doing and being through creative partnership brokering

Abstract: Meaningful humanitarian work today requires improving practitioners’ capacities to operate (do) and to be present (be). There is a side to their work which complements the more traditional humanitarian response, striving for change by consciously exercising humanity, presence and collaboration. This can be called the soft humanitarian field. It encompasses all areas which value and bring quality to the capacity to ‘do’ but also ‘be’ with affected communities. It focuses on expanding humanitarian awareness, presence, networking, partnering and purpose.

Creative partnership brokering is a powerful way to assert that soft humanitarian field. Building on the author’s own humanitarian, partnership, management and coaching experience, this article explores three main qualities in creative partnership brokering: grounding the partnership process, collaborating insightfully, living values. It provides some ideas for those involved in humanitarian work to expand creativity and ensure resourcefulness in collaborative processes.

Developing a soft humanitarian field – improving doing and being through creative partnership brokering

In order to bring the humanitarian spirit into action, practitioners and disaster affected communities can draw upon a wide range of attributes and skills: envisioning; living principles and values; listening to, being aware of, and respecting disaster affected communities own models of help;  leadership; advocacy and diplomacy; psychosocial support; evaluative and learning work; human resourcing and competencies development; networking and collaborating; coaching, mentoring, facilitating and brokering.

There is a side to humanitarian practitioners’ work which we could call soft humanitarian field. It co-exists with the traditional side of humanitarian action[1] and seeks humanitarian change by consciously exercising humanity, presence and collaboration. This soft humanitarian field encompasses all areas which value and bring quality to the capacity to ‘do’ but also ‘be’ with affected communities. It is dedicated to expanding humanitarian awareness, presence, networking, partnering and purpose.

Asserting the soft humanitarian field will contribute greatly to improved presence and action in crises anticipation, preparedness and response. Creative partnership brokering has a natural capacity to touch and work with many of these areas, and as such, is a powerful way to assert soft humanitarian practice[2].

‘Partnership brokers support and strengthen partnerships by their understanding and skilled management of the collaboration process’[3]. In balancing the ‘art’ and ‘science’ of brokering[4], developing and applying creativity is essential for a partnership to realise its true purpose and path.

Humanitarian practitioners’ performance requires a constant dialogue around needs anticipation and response as well as brokering with a multitude of players: donors, programme participants, community members, external organisations as well as with other parts of the same organisation / movement / network. The importance of collaborating in an aligned, spirited and open way cannot be stressed strongly enough in meeting today’s and future humanitarian needs[5].

Such collaboration can be achieved through creative partnership brokering , which we can define as the broker’s presence and action which creatively coach partnering agents, networks and collaborative processes to tap into (often unknown) possibilities. Here partnership brokering gains expression as an ‘options generator’.

In asserting soft humanitarian practice, partnership brokers can enable and allow practitioners, partners, networks and collaborative processes to welcome and work with uncertainty and apparent paradox[6]. There is a broader partnership coaching attribute, which goes beyond specific tasks, behaviours or individuals to focus on the partnership, networking and collaboration as a collective unified field[7].

What are the key attributes of creative partnership brokering?

There are three main qualities which underpin it: grounding the partnership process, collaborating insightfully, and living values.

Creative Partnership Brokering

Grounding the partnership process

Brokers can act as coaches to enable the partners to anchor themselves in the true meaning of the collaborative process. Partners are often too busy to connect with the essence of the partnership; or they put the promotion of their organisation’s own agenda above the collective impact and integrity of the partnering process. It is (should be) the role of a broker, to allow the partnership to express its own self by living its true purpose, vision, mission and path.

This may or may not lead to unexpected insights, conflict and / or changes in previously agreed plans of action. But whatever happens, grounding a partnering process, will allow for thinking, decisions and actions to be aligned with the partnering purpose. The broker will need to be sensitive about working with partners’ busy schedules, roles, and relationships. However, a broker can take advantage of dedicated moments (and even allow them to happen) in order to generate a grounding space.

Collaborating insightfully

Partnerships are at their best when they form a collective field which is stronger than the sum of their parts. Brokers can promote collaboration which goes above and beyond the role each individual plays, by enabling individual and collective awareness of the various perspectives and interactions in the process. This may be done by bringing attention into perceptual positions[8] from which to draw out and build insights:

  • the self (as an organisation / group representative, and as an individual);
  • the other (as another organisation / group representative and another individual);
  • the eye of an external observer to the partnering process (of an ideal or real external observer, a third person not involved in the partnership); and
  • a fourth, meta-position, which perceives relational aspects of the various positions and observes the third person position.

Collaborating insightfully can empower partners to tap directly into the partnership collective system, and help with the partnering process, conflict prevention and management, moving on, and successful navigation of seemingly complicated situations.

Living values

Values are an important driver of humanitarian action: they shape decision making, operations, processes and goals. Understanding what values exist and are lived by in a partnership will be an important piece of work for a broker (and partners). There may or may not be conflicting values from the various partners in the process. Understanding those values that are important for partners will help them to commit (or not) to the partnership; understand each other’s behaviours; and discover what partners want to get out of the collaboration.

A broker can also guide the partnering process to embody the values at play. This is important because goals (and steps to achieve them) are powered by values. The benefits of a partnering process and purpose will be higher if people in the process are able to understand and express their core values.

Expanding Creativity and Resourcefulness in Partnerships

This section presents ideas[9] which brokers or practitioners active in collaborative processes can apply in order to make the ‘art’ and ‘science’ of brokering a meaningful contributor to the soft humanitarian field.

The broker as a coach – an idea for helping to ground the partnership

Acting as a coach, the broker is not expected to have answers to all the essential elements in the partnership. Instead, she / he should help partners to navigate through their collaborative experience by using resourceful and sometimes innovative ways. The broker can do this by asking some powerful questions which empower partners to reflect, generate and own their answers. See Table 1:

Table 1 Grounding the partnership through powerful questions.
Ten powerful questions which can help partners to align partnership and collaborations with their true self and purpose:

  • What is the partnership committed to?
  • What is the partnership becoming?
  • Is the partnership being authentic?
  • Where is the partnership incongruent?
  • What are the greatest resources of the partnership in this situation?
  • Is the partnership following its path or someone else’s path?
  • What or who can this partnership be compared with? (metaphor)
  • What is preventing the partnership from taking action?
  • How far has the partnership progressed?
  • How much have partners learned from the partnership?

Asking such questions may not lead to immediate answers; and may generate dissent rather than agreement. The broker can clarify the importance of going through the process, and help with recording what emerges. Partners can use powerful questions in a self-coaching capacity, and use emerging thoughts and ideas as basis for interaction, ultimately leading to a more grounded partnership.

The broker as an enabler of the partnership’s collective field – an idea for fostering insightful collaboration

As part of their role, brokers can help develop further partnering capacity, skills[10] and behaviours[11] and help partners to embrace a learning culture. She / he can create opportunities for partners to step back, or to step into another person’s shoes, or to have a heightened awareness of the entire dynamic taking place in the partnering practice. The exercise outlined in Table 2 illustrates such an opportunity for building insights and deeper engagement with the partnership.

Table 2 Two sitting, two standing: towards a collective partnership field
This exercise can be used in a workshop scenario[12]. The broker can divide the wider group into sub-groups of two (or three) people who will take turns in the exercise as ‘first position’, ‘coach’ and ‘observer’. If there are two people, they alternate between first position / coaching / observing (person A) and coaching /observing / feeding back (person B)[13]. The broker should ensure there is a comfortable space dedicated to the exercise, with two chairs.  Allow 45 minutes to one hour.
Step one: A chooses an aspect of the partnership where she / he wants greater understanding. This step is directed at the person in first position (A).  To start the exercise, B can prompt A to: “describe the partnering issue or context which you would like greater understanding”
Step two: A sits in chair no. 1 – the ‘yourself’ / first person chair. B, acting as  ‘coach’ sits in chair no.2 (the coach chair) B as a ‘coach’ asks the following questions to A:

  • What do you want for this partnership?
  • What is the strategy you intend to use in this partnership?
  • What is important to you about this partnership?
  • What will you be paying attention to during this partnership?
Step three: A leaves chair no. 1 making sure to leave first position behind. A sits in chair no. 2, as if she / he is a ‘coach’.B moves to ‘observer’ position (standing up) In a coaching capacity, in chair no.  2, A goes through the same questions posed in step 1to the (now imaginary) first position in the empty chair no. 1. B stands aside observing. As a ‘coach’, A will note what emerges as new from A in first position.
Step four: person A leaves ‘coach’ position from chair no.2 and moves to ’observer’ standing position. A will now act as an ‘observer’: looks at the two (empty) chairs and notices objectively what emerges from steps two and three. With B standing aside and prompting the questions to A, A will take stock of:

  • How do those two positions relate?
  • What is missing?
  • What are the possible obstacles in this partnership?
  • What other question could be asked here?
Step five: A steps out of ‘observer’ position and returns to chair no.1. B sits in chair no.2 and assumes again ‘coach’ position. After experiencing ‘coach’ and ‘observer’ positions A goes back to chair no.1. She / he will be asked  by B to notice what it is like to be back in the first position and will go through the original questions to reflect on:

  • Any changes?
  • What is it like?
  • What might happen next? 
Step six: Person A stands up, and moves further away from the two chairs and the observer standing position. This is the second standing position, called fourth or meta position. B prompts the questions, listens and takes note of A’s emerging thoughts. A will now connect with the wider partnership, and the present moment by attuning simultaneously with all the three different positions, their statements, feelings and thoughts.

  • Are there any thoughts or statements emerging?
  • Are there new possibilities becoming available?
  • Is there any other experience or context which partners can be given in order to bring out the best in the partnership?

A will state emergent thoughts and ideas to B, who will record them for feedback.

End the session with every person in each group feeding back for each exercise. Follow this up with a plenary feedback session (preferably in a big circle), focusing primarily on any changes noted, messages and possible metaphors arising from step six.


The broker as a connector – ideas for living values and motivating the partnership further

Values (and principles) are a core element of the soft humanitarian field and play a fundamental role in humanitarian action[14].Values are defined here as qualities which are important to us: they are both principles of action and states of mind. We all give importance to values in ourselves, in others and the organisations we work with. They have the power to influence and direct choices and goals that individuals and groups make and set. A broker can enable partners to identify the values being lived individually and collectively in a partnership: if partners understand, respect and live values at stake, it should help keep them motivated throughout their partnering journey.

A key question is ‘how can values leading the partnership purpose be discovered? Table 3 suggests an exercise to address this question.

Table 3 More than good intentions: finding core values in a partnership
These can be done via one-to-one or wider group sessions.
Finding out core values in relation to the partnership:

  • What motivates you in this partnership?
  • State the value(s) important to you in this partnership
  • Why is (are) the value(s) important to you?
  • When the partnership gets that, what will it give you? And others? And the collective?
  • [repeat question four if required to ‘dig further’ into the core values underlying answers]
  • What matters to you right now in the partnership?
  • This partnership is like…[a metaphor]
A broker or partner should be able pick up on the degree of enthusiasm (or lack of) a person expresses in talking about some values. Metaphors usually imply values.

But what should a broker do when confronted with disparities or conflicts in core values lived by in a partnership? It is likely that the broker will find some divergence in the importance placed on a value as well as some conflicting values.

In the first scenario, there might be a need for one or more values to be expressed through certain contexts and behaviours. See Table 4:

Table 4 Living values, values in action
Identify the value(s) to be lived. Identify subjective behaviours (in individuals and group). Then identify processes which can bring values into action.
  • What else can be done?

… to do more of in order to increase the embodiment of this value?

…to stop doing or do less of to increase this value?

… differently to embody this value in the partnership? 

  • Bring value(s) into context and action

What are the key capabilities required?

What kind of activities will best manifest this value?

What are the relevant environments or situations in which is most important to express this value?

In the second case, a broker might need to bridge contradicting values amongst partners. See Table 5:

Table 5 Bridging conflicting values
Identify the area where there seems to be conflict or incongruence between values in the partnership. Pick two contradictory values. An example of this conflict would be: someone in the partnership values ‘independence’ and someone else values ‘cooperation’. Conflict might arise because people think that promoting cooperation threatens independence. Whilst conflict might not be a negative thing at times in the partnering process, in other instances, it might create some resistance. Through verbal reframing, apparent opposite values can be bridged and connected. Partners can thus transcend opposites, and come up with complementary reframed values. 

  1. Value 1 ______________  opposite to Value 2 ______________
  2. Value 1_______________ reframe Value 1 into _____________

Value 2 _______________ reframe  Value  2 into ___________ 
Reframe each value into a word or sentence that overlaps with the values, but one which brings in a different perspective; and so form a connection of more harmonious and complementary elements between the values:

  1. Value 1_____→  Reframe 1_____ ↔Reframe 2_______← Value 2 _______


Step 1 – Value 1: Cooperation; Value 2: Independence;

Step 2 – Value 1: Cooperation, reframed into: ability to reach more people in humanitarian need; Value 2: Independence, reframed into: a stronger position to access humanitarian needs.

Humanitarian work today and in the future will require asserting the soft humanitarian field. A powerful way of doing that is for humanitarian practitioners and brokers to exercise creative partnership brokering. A combination of three qualities can be applied in diverse partnering settings: grounding partnerships, collaborating insightfully and living values. By putting into practice creative brokering qualities, brokers can coach, enable and connect and hence facilitate more of practitioners’ capacities to ‘do’ and ‘be’ to generate true transformation in humanitarian practice.



Mariana Merelo LoboMariana Merelo Lobo is a humanitarian and development practitioner with specific interest in coaching, brokering and facilitation of groups and individuals. She was the Operations Director for Action Against Hunger UK | ACF International Network for 5 years and has a partnerships and programmes background with both ACF and the International Committee of the Red Cross. Mariana has worked in conflict, post conflict and natural disaster contexts, and combines humanitarian leadership expertise with coaching, neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), and partnership brokering as well as advanced communication and language skills in her professional practice. She holds a variety of qualifications (Law, MA International Humanitarian Assistance, NLP Master Practitioner) and is a graduate of the Partnership Brokers Association’s Level 1 Partnership Brokering training course. Mariana is currently based in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
[1] One which is based on traditional organisational structures (NGO’s, UN, military) and tends to be  pragmatic, operational, programmatic, technical, logistics led, often top down in assessing and delivering aid.

[2] There are others falling out of the scope of this article: learning, innovating, transferring wisdom, receiving feedback.

[3] Partnerships Brokers Association (

[4]  Brokering can be understood as a balance between art (imagination and intuition) and science (being objective and systematic). Partnership Brokers Training Course, Level 1 Workbook, P22, ‘Partnership Brokers in Action’, Partnership Brokers Association.

[5] The author recommends  the article by Paul Currion, ‘The Humanitarian Future – Can humanitarian agencies still fly the flag of the high principle, or are they just relics of an imperial model of charity?’ (September 2014) It touches on the importance of network models of humanitarian work and the importance of ‘being’ better not just ‘doing better’.

[6] See learning paper ‘Dealing with Paradox, Stories and lessons from the first three years of consortium building’ on the Start Network collaboration, written by Ros Tennyson, Partnerships Brokers Association. The article hints at the power of dealing with uncertainty and transcending paradoxes as a means to energise partnerships.

[7] The Partnership Brokers in Action Level 1 workbook mentions coaching as a key skill / expertise which brokers should develop; it defines a coach as an individual who provides practical instruction and support to another individual or group (p. 87, Partnership Brokers Training Course, Level 1 Workbook). However, in this article I propose a wider dimension of coaching: one where the coach allows generating options and works both at the individual (partners) and collective (partnership) levels.

[8] Perceptual positions is a concept commonly used in Neuro-Linguistic Programming to support the development of various tools and processes used in facilitating and coaching groups and individuals.

[9] I have developed and previously used these ideas with various teams and partnering settings. Ideas proposed in these tables are adapted from the work of Joseph O’Connor (2004) ‘Coaching with  NLP- How to be a Master Coach’ Element; Robert Dilts (2003) ‘From Coach to Awakener’. Meta Publications USA.

[10]  Such as: active listening, seeing the big picture, coaching others, developing capacities, presence.

[11] Such as: building and maintaining rapport with partners, expressing curiosity and commitment, bringing in creativity, enhanced focus, receiving feedback.

[12] The Partnering Initiative has identified four phases of the partnering cycle: scoping and building, managing and maintaining, reviewing and revising, sustaining outcomes. The ‘two sitting, two standing’ can be used in the first two phases, and possibly in the last stage; and whilst it will be of little use in the third phase, the record of what came out of the exercise at some may contribute to the reviewing and revising stage.

[13] If there are three people: one practices (person A), the second coaches / observes (person B), the third takes notes and helps the observer with the feedback (person C).

[14] Some examples of core values and principles driving humanitarian action: do no harm, humanity, dignity, non-discrimination, cooperation, independence, impartiality, neutrality, voluntary work, professionalism, diversity, entrepreneurship, innovation.

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