How Asset-Based Inquiry Methods Can Reveal Solutions

Room 42 is where practitioners and academics meet to share knowledge about breaking research. In this episode, Lucía Dura explains the applications and dimensions of positive deviance, an approach to social and organizational change that can reveal information about your audience and solutions you may have overlooked.

Airdate: August 4, 2021

Season 2 Episode 3 | 47 min

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Transcript (Expand to view)

[00:00:11.050] – Liz Fraley

Hi everyone and welcome Room 42. I’m Liz Fraley from Single-Sourcing Solutions. This is Janice Summers from TC Camp, he’s  our interviewer. And welcome to Dr. Lucía Dura, today’s guest in Room 42. Dr. Dura’s, an Associate Professor of Rhetoric and Writing Studies in the English Department. And she’s the Associate Dean of the Graduate School at the University of Texas, El Paso. She’s a border resident with border identities and perspectives, who works on collaborative interdisciplinary projects. She teaches and mentors students in rhetoric and technical writing projects.

[00:00:44.560] – Liz Fraley

She works- her work on positive deviance, intercultural communication and participatory methodologies foregrounds and leveraging the assets of vulnerable populations to solve complex problems. She collaborates on risk communication and change facilitation initiatives with local, national and international organizations. And her research has yielded numerous presentations, publications, and awards. She’s the co-chair of the Hispanic Servingness Working Group at UTEP and contributes to leadership initiatives. And she represents UTEP at Graduate Education Advisory Committee at the Texas Higher Ed Coordinating Board.

[00:01:22.910] – Liz Fraley

And she’s an advisory member and chair elect of the Texas Center for Legal Ethics. We’re lucky that today she’s here to help us start answering the question how asset based inquiry methods can reveal unexpected solutions. Welcome.

[00:01:38.780] – Lucía Dura

Thank you so much. It’s great to be here.

[00:01:41.660] – Janice Summers

We are thrilled to have you here, just excited and it’s always a delight and a pleasure to talk with you about any number of things.

[00:01:50.690] – Lucía Dura

Ginger and cardamom included.

[00:01:52.940] – Janice Summers

the spices, all kinds of things. But really quick, I want to ask a stupid question. I like to ask stupid questions.

[00:02:04.790] – Lucía Dura

Will you believe there is such a thing as a stupid question?

[00:02:07.550] – Janice Summers

There isn’t. I’m happy to play the class clown, though.

[00:02:10.740] – Lucía Dura


[00:02:12.810] – Janice Summers

You could you tell us what is positive deviance?

[00:02:17.510] – Lucía Dura

We’re starting with a hard one.

[00:02:19.280] – Janice Summers

Oh, is that a hard one?

[00:02:20.360] – Lucía Dura

It’s a hard one only because as- as Liz was reading my bio and I was thinking, you know, since the dissertation days have I, like, gotten past the jargon, have I– can indicate what I do in a way that that makes more sense and positive deviance would always get me? Well, just the words, right? Positive deviance people– and I will tell you, I’ve gotten stopped at the border and have a positive deviance story there.

[00:02:53.620] – Janice Summers


[00:02:54.440] – Lucía Dura

Well, it throws the the customs inspectors off. Right? What do you do.

[00:03:01.000] – Janice Summers


[00:03:02.300] – Lucía Dura

Why were you– I will deviate just for a second with that story because I went to get an osteopathic massage in Juarez across the border. This was several years ago. And on the way back- and an osteopathic massage, I’d never had one, but it sounded like a good idea. You have to take your own sheets. And we were when we got back, we were covered–

[00:03:27.650] – Lucía Dura

My friend and I were covered in oil

[00:03:29.750] – Janice Summers

in oil, yeah

[00:03:30.320] – Lucía Dura

Basically Vaseline and God-knows-what petroleum products. But we were very shiny. And then when you go through customs, it’s like when you go through the airport, everything comes up. And the person said, why were you in Dallas ten times last year? And I was like, that’s a weird question, because I use my driver’s license to go to Dallas, not my passport but– and I said, well, I was doing a study at a hospital. Oh, do you live in Dallas? No, I live in El Paso. What do you do? I’m a professor. What do you teach? English. Because I thought I’ll just simplify it. I’ll keep it very- And then he’s like, so why were you in a hospital doing research? Well… and then I said, well, it was a positive deviance study on health care associated infections.

[00:04:20.570] – Speaker 2

That was a mistake. And then, you know, he’s like, but you but you teach English. So those are the moments, right, where it’s like it’s not just about getting a job or explaining to somebody what you do and telling what you do. But sometimes it’s kind of more- For me, crossing the border is always that life or death feeling. And so, yes, positive deviance raises a lot of ‘hmm, wait a minute.’ So he kept asking and asking and asking and yeah, sometimes I end up in the little rooms in the back with questioning because I’m honest. But what I say sounds so weird. Well, positive deviance. What?

[00:05:02.610] – Janice Summers

No, no, no, I was just saying right.

[00:05:04.560] – Janice Summers

Oh, and then not a normal thing, yeah

[00:05:08.400] – Lucía Dura

Or say rhetoric, how about- like, Let’s just say rhetoric

[00:05:11.790] – Janice Summers

That’s not normal either

[00:05:12.160] – Lucía Dura

Everybody I think can identify with that one.

[00:05:14.440] – Janice Summers

See, and some of these words, when you’re outside of academia, people have to go look up.

[00:05:18.900] – Lucía Dura


[00:05:20.370] – Janice Summers

Like, what is rhetoric, right?

[00:05:22.580] – Lucía Dura

And positive deviance because of the word deviance, it’s like you’re putting an oxymoron together. You’re creating this- so positive deviance is people who deviate from the norm in a positive way or organizations or communities that deviate from the norm in a positive way. And that is when the norm is undesirable. So people who have found-  the typical definition is people who have found solutions to complex, seemingly intractable problems without access to special resources. So you’re looking at what’s working here and now without hiring an external consultant, without even looking at best practices because the best practices are internal, er, external.

[00:06:08.760] – Janice Summers

That’s true. That’s a good point.

[00:06:11.460] – Lucía Dura

What is working internally? What is working locally? And sometimes, you know, you can you can take positive deviance into an implementation of a project for culture change. And I think that’s kind of its maximum expression. But yesterday, one of our master’s students defended a project that- she didn’t use the words positive deviance, but she was- she was helping us find a way to design writing projects for writing programing for the graduate school. And she looked at what types of programs work locally at the undergraduate level.

[00:06:50.980] – Lucía Dura

And she said, you know, we have a long running zero credit research course and then a zero credit free self-paced course in developmental math. You wouldn’t normally put developmental math with graduate school.

[00:07:06.808] – Janice Summers


[00:07:07.600] – Lucía Dura

But she says- she’s looking at with our culture, our local culture. And I don’t mean ethnic, I mean just our UTEP culture, what has worked in the past. And so before she- so she did- she did an internal assessment rather than seeing what we do because we go to conferences, the Council of Graduate Schools, we see what are the best or the Consortium of Graduate Communication of the best things going on out there that I can implement. And I have a ton of Post-it notes here on my left with those ideas.

[00:07:41.230] – Janice Summers


[00:07:42.600] – Lucía Dura

Which are still great.

[00:07:44.190] – Janice Summers

Yeah, they’re great, they’re great ideas.

[00:07:46.680] – Lucía Dura

it’s not Either-Or, to me. It’s OK, these are awesome. I’m going to definitely keep them in mind. What are we already doing that’s working or what ideas do we have internally that are bubbling up?

[00:08:02.010] – Janice Summers

And I think- I really- I think that’s a really good example, when you talk about the student who’s defending a master’s thesis. She’s looking and this can be translated into practitioners, right? So often we go out and look at what are best practices, best practices and asking outside of a company that we’re trying to help support at what are the best practices and then trying to shoehorn those into the corporate culture that we’re in instead of saying, well, what other programs are in the company that work really well?

[00:08:39.450] – Janice Summers

And I don’t care where it is, it could be in shipping and receiving. It could be in accounting. It doesn’t necessarily have to be an engineering. It could be anywhere. And look for the similarities and things that are familiar. That work well. And how do you translate that? Because, you know, one thing we should be able to do as writers is be able to translate that and juxtapose it into what we’re trying to do to inform and instruct others, right, in our writing.

[00:09:11.560] – Lucía Dura

Yes. Yes. And and you’re absolutely right that it can be anywhere, because if you believe that we are a system where if the pinky finger is hurting, the rest of the body feels it, then you believe that we’re all here kind of for the same purpose, especially if you’re a mission-driven organization and if everybody who is there accepts this mission and goes with it, you could have– so there’s a famous case. I think there might be a YouTube video up there of Jasper, the janitor, the cleaning staff at a hospital.

[00:09:47.370] – Lucía Dura

They there’s a YouTube video showing how he takes his gown off when he goes into high risk, high infection rooms, that in the end he pulls it off and in the end it ends up in his glove inside out. And that minimizes waste.

[00:10:06.000] – Janice Summers


[00:10:06.840] – Lucía Dura

And minimizes vectors for infection in the way he does it. So then the solution came from cleaning stuff. Not from the CEO, not from the doctors.

[00:10:18.580] – Janice Summers

Not from the scientists.

[00:10:20.400] – Lucía Dura

Not from the scientists. Exactly. So it’s not education related. It can be just believing, though, that people have ideas.

[00:10:31.110] – Janice Summers


[00:10:32.040] – Lucía Dura

And that’s a key that’s a key step in positive deviance. Is you really have to believe that people have something to contribute, that there is a possibility of doing things from the ground up that are going to be just as good as what the traditional experts would do or better or whatever, you know. It’s about seeing people kind of eye to eye.

[00:10:58.050] – Janice Summers

yeah, I think that’s one of the things that I find the most attractive. It’s like we’re all on equal playing fields, right? We all contribute and we all have value. There’s an inclusion that I feel with positive deviance.

[00:11:13.780] – Lucía Dura

Well, you are including people who are normally excluded and positive deviance, as an implementation– because I’ll talk about it in different ways. As an inquiry strategy, you could use it to design a study and simply ask a positive deviance question. Just-

[00:11:30.820] – Janice Summers

How would you that?

[00:11:32.200] – Lucía Dura

So, for example, in the- the-. Journal of- JBTC Journal Business and Technical Communication, my recent article on design thinking and positive deviance talks about designing your studies with with a positive deviance question and asking–

[00:11:53.210] – Lucía Dura

So we were in the context of federal probation and recidivism. So instead of attempting to go into the root causes of recidivism, which hopefully somebody is doing and we’re very happy about that. We’re asking the people that are managing that are most at risk of recidivating once they’ve been released, but are managing to stay out of trouble, what do they do? What do their everyday lives look like?

[00:12:22.240] – Janice Summers


[00:12:23.030] – Lucía Dura

So we’re looking at the things that are working when they shouldn’t be working, these people that should be in prison but aren’t. They should be going back to prison but aren’t going back to prison.

[00:12:32.000] – Lucía Dura

What are they doing differently? So the emphasis is also in the actions. What are they doing? How are they saying things where-  So, one of the things that we found is that they have a plan in their back pocket so if they run into an acquaintance and they call them an association, that would lead them into trouble, they would say, I’m going to tell them that I’m going to go work. Depending on what’s going to work with that individual.

[00:13:00.570] – Lucía Dura

I’m going to work on my grandmother’s roof because grandmothers. Respect.

[00:13:04.500] – Janice Summers


[00:13:05.520] – Lucía Dura

There’s an older gentleman who would read, start reading the Bible and just be like, I’ve turned to God. And that worked for him. But having a thing that works for you, where you’re comfortable saying no and you’re not going to get hassled for it.

[00:13:21.180] – Janice Summers

But they have a- it’s interesting. It’s a positive strategy.

[00:13:24.360] – Lucía Dura

It’s a positive communicative strategy.

[00:13:27.570] – Janice Summers

Yeah, they’ve they’ve developed a positive communication strategy in advance of anything happening. So they’ve got something- so they don’t have to scramble and think about what am I going to do. Like, how am I going to handle it.

[00:13:40.390] – Lucía Dura

Yes. And it may seem some of the behaviors we found might seem kind of commonplace, like, well, of course, one of the things is they wake up at the same time every day. They were very aligned with their routine. So I wake up at the same time every day. I wash my face. My wife makes coffee. We drink the coffee together. We talk. Even those details. Right. You have somebody that you have a meaningful conversation with. Check.

[00:14:11.070] – Lucía Dura

So as a researcher in that context, it was more about finding the strategies and then giving those strategies to probation so that they could develop a checklist or beef up their checklist with the people that they work with. That was kind of what it was about. I didn’t work in the organization. I didn’t go on into full implementation mode there. That was, for me, it was more of an inquiry.

[00:14:41.250] – Janice Summers


[00:14:42.150] – Lucía Dura

Than a culture change intervention.

[00:14:44.730] – Janice Summers


[00:14:45.840] – Lucía Dura

That’s where you could use it for that.

[00:14:48.330] – Janice Summers


[00:14:49.380] – Lucía Dura

But if you want to implement this in your organization, get everybody involved. The reason we couldn’t do it like that is that it’s a sensitive population and you can’t have people who have been in prison all in the same room all the time for different reasons. And so we couldn’t- those are the people that are on the ground level. And so in a different organization, we would have wanted to involve everybody at the same time. Here we had to do more like conversational interviews.

[00:15:26.820] – Lucía Dura

So there’s different ways to do positive deviance. But even like this master’s student, just asking a different question will yield a different answer. Just make sure you’re asking the question. That’s the- remember to ask the question, the perspective taking question.

[00:15:43.800] – Janice Summers

Well, it’s asking a question, isn’t it? Also framing the question, you know. Before you ask it, you frame it from a different perspective. I think.

[00:15:52.110] – Lucía Dura

you do. You absolutely do. Because with- when you’re doing a positive deviance intervention or study, it has to be grounded in data, too. So it’s how you’re looking at the data. So you’re looking at the norm at the in the middle of the bell curve to establish the problem, to say this is what the problem is, to define the problem.

[00:16:15.780] – Lucía Dura

But then you’re looking at the edge that we normally don’t look at, at least the outliers. We don’t look at it for a long period of time or we just kind of make a brief stop there. I was recently working with some quantitative researchers and I asked them, I was like, do you ever look at outliers? Is this just something weird? And they said, no, we do. We do. But just to make sure that we’re not missing anything, but we do tend to stick at in the middle of what’s the norm.

[00:16:48.750] – Lucía Dura

What is because we want to look at patterns and positive deviance, you’re not really looking at patterns, because when you’re looking at outliers, you’re looking at a very small population right there.

[00:16:59.650] – Janice Summers

And really the deviations from the standard distribution you’re looking.

[00:17:03.600] – Lucía Dura

Exactly, exactly. So it’s really hard as a researcher, depending on your training sometimes to go in and say, because we’re always patterns. I mean, even grounded theory and constant comparative method, once I have enough saturation, I’m going to move on to the next pattern. And here you might notice patterns among the outliers, like routines, we can categorize them as a pattern, spirituality or some kind of connection with a higher purpose. OK, pattern. But what we’re interested in. Is that thing of–

[00:17:41.640] – Lucía Dura

I don’t know. I only meditate for five minutes or my prayers have to do with gratitude. It’s that key thing that everybody could implement. I might not be able to ever meditate in my entire life, but I could somehow find a way to incorporate gratitude.

[00:18:00.130] – Janice Summers

Right you could create a gratitude statement instead of meditating.

[00:18:04.270] – Lucía Dura

What are you thankful for? What went well, today?

[00:18:07.120] – Janice Summers

You could I just think the word gratitude. Have that little sticker somewhere, right? I mean, so that’s like really interesting because you’re drilling in, drilling in, drilling in and you’re not on the surface of oh, it’s a prayer meditation, therefore some religious cause you’re going deeper into. Now, what is it, what is it, what is it. Unpacking and unpacking to find out that it all goes down to the word gratitude, for example.

[00:18:32.560] – Lucía Dura

For example. And it has to be replicable.

[00:18:37.240] – Janice Summers


[00:18:38.080] – Lucía Dura

And immediately actionable by everybody. Accessible to everyone. Right. That action. So now we’re going full circle to what we were originally talking about. One of the principles of positive deviance is that it’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking than to think your way into a new way of acting. Right?

[00:19:01.060] – Janice Summers

Yes. Can you say that again?

[00:19:02.530] – Lucía Dura

Yes, it’s very action focused. It’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking than to think your way into a new way of acting. And what that does is it changes our perspective from the knowledge, changes, attitudes, changes practices paradigm to a different thing. Practices change your attitudes and change your knowledge. At first, I used to think is this PAK? Practices change attitudes change knowledge. A replacement for the CAP paradigm? And and now I see it much more, as no, sometimes. Right? Sometimes you think about our behavior, sometimes I know that in order to get into any kind of body movement routine. I can’t overthink it. I could be convinced and not do it. So it’s really about doing it. There are some things that it’s a matter of doing it. And then once you do it, it’s like you’re telling your body and your body is agreeing and saying, oh, yeah.

[00:20:14.300] – Lucía Dura

And then your body wants it. And then you think, oh, that’s really good. And now I know X Y Z. So, I think it’s a matter of saying, which one am I going to use right now? And we were talking before this call about our need to be so agile, on our toes. About now we’re using masks now we’re not using masks. Now we have this and now we have that. Yes, we have a lot of issues, lots of problems and difficult things going on in the world.

[00:20:43.740] – Lucía Dura

But it’s really like, what am I going to do? How am I going to do this?

[00:20:49.690] – Janice Summers

That adaptability.

[00:20:51.540] – Lucía Dura

Yeah, yeah

[00:20:52.270] – Janice Summers

And being able to take that practice, practice, practice, right, approach as well.

[00:21:00.070] – Lucía Dura

Yes. And so it doesn’t mean that I’m not going to have moments. I’m not like about to write a book on self-help about how amazing my life is or how. But it does help me. Always my bias is that looking for that different perspective. I ask myself heuristic questions in not just in my research, but in my everyday problems solving of is this true? Does this happen one hundred percent of the time? Are there exceptions?

[00:21:38.660] – Lucía Dura

What are the exceptions? So I start to do that, drill down in my everyday conversations with people. There’s a lot of power in that I have to say, right. With those of us who work with language, it’s good to realize the moments where it’s like, well, there’s a lot of power in how I’m asking this and what I’m getting people to see. So that matter of inclusion, you are being inclusive, but just because positive deviance has a tendency to be inclusive and asks the question, another principle is “nothing about me without me” or “who is not at the table that should be at the table”

[00:22:16.310] – Janice Summers


[00:22:17.870] – Lucía Dura

Those are important questions because it’s not automatically inclusive. We still have to make sure we’re checking ourselves with those things.

[00:22:26.630] – Janice Summers

Well, and I think that’s one of the basic tenets. We always have to be checking. Right, because there’s behaviors that are natural, right?They’re almost primal, and unless we’re always aware and asking those questions, we’re going to exclude because it’s kind of a primal thing and we have to overcome that and change that.

[00:22:50.490] – Lucía Dura


[00:22:51.390] – Janice Summers

Consciously, that’s one of those things like I have to tell myself I need to drink four glasses of water a day. I hate doing it, but I need to tell myself, repeatedly. It’s not in my nature.

[00:23:05.370] – Lucía Dura

Yes. And so there might be a positive way of doing that, right. Where it’s not as painful or where you remind yourself. This has been used in diabetes. You know, one of the things that I remember from one of the diabetes studies is the importance of disclosure.

[00:23:26.070] – Janice Summers

Yes. One of our students at UTEP did a study here with the local population. And it was about telling people that you have diabetes.  That step and then having your family then say, hey. It’s kind of tough. Are you sure you’re going to eat that? Or, I don’t know if I could do that. But, you know, what are the things that help people stay on track of their regimen or their compliance with certain medical protocols?

[00:23:58.500] – Janice Summers

Right. And as writers, as technical professional writers, how would we apply that to our trying to write instructions or information that inform or educate the general public? Right?

[00:24:14.520] – Lucía Dura

That’s a really good question.

[00:24:16.170] – Janice Summers

How would we change how we do what we do using positive deviance?

[00:24:25.130] – Lucía Dura

Hmm. Yeah, how are you imagining procedures differently or are you? I mean,  that’s really- I don’t have the answer to that question. I think that’s a good question I would love to ask people. Is do they imagine themselves or do they imagine positive deviance influencing procedural or instructional write-ups?

[00:24:53.570] – Janice Summers

I think it would be really interesting for practitioners to study more about positive deviance and- because I can see where that could go. Because they’re writing for an audience. How do they perceive their audience?

[00:25:08.900] – Liz Fraley

Well, they’re interviewing all the time, the subject matter experts and other, and the project managers and the feature writers like you’re asking questions all the time, right?

[00:25:19.040] – Lucía Dura

Right. And I guess I do have a little bit of a sense of how that could go. The closest I’ve gotten to it is this end of life decision making project that we were working on with Guillermina Solis, from nursing here, and then Laura Gonzales and Heather Turner. We were looking at end of life decision making glossaries or manuals or those pamphlets that we get. They exist in English and they exist in Spanish. But the assumptions that they make about how people are able to make decisions, the context for people making decisions.

[00:26:06.730] – Lucía Dura

If you consider positive deviance, I think you would you would have a different manual. In fact, we prototyped a bilingual glossary and we also started to consider different things, like, that people are thinking about, like family values, spirituality, notions of God, and then, of course, all of the legal jargon. And so the legal was the technical, really technical aspect of it, but making it bilingual here for bilingual people could help people better understand, because if people are constantly using two languages, then having something in one language and then another separately, it might have some gaps that a bilingual glossary could fill.

[00:27:00.310] – Lucía Dura

So that’s one example. A glossary’s not quite an instruction manual. We had a little bit of a decision tree of if yes and this if no then blah, blah, blah. So I could definitely see that I’d be interested in learning more. Such a curious person, you know, one I’d love to hear if people do do this, let me know how it goes I’d love to hear about it or read about it.

[00:27:26.530] – Janice Summers

And I think, you know, the nature of the technical and professional writer is that they’re very curious about a lot of things.

[00:27:33.640] – Lucía Dura

I think so. We all have that in common. It’s like. Huh, where’s this going to go.

[00:27:40.010] – Janice Summers

I think we’ve thrown down the gauntlet for someone to take up or for you to do a new research project.

[00:27:47.530] – Lucía Dura

Absolutely. Yeah, we could do we could collaborate on something with a collaborator.

[00:28:00.860] – Janice Summers

I don’t understand that question that you want me to ask. You ask it.

[00:28:07.760] – Liz Fraley

Well, so it was back to the procedural thing, right?  One of the sort of fundamental questions that all of us ask is like, do I just ask about this procedure or do I try this thing? And that’s something we do all over the place. Right? People will ask a question rather than go and dig around and look for it, because our nature is to ask. Right. So asking better questions that can only help all of us, really?

[00:28:37.880] – Lucía Dura

Absolutely. I think so. And procedurally, it could also help us use it, you know. Do I try to do this? You can also ask outliers about their experiences. I’m thinking about an engineering leadership professor here who worked with somebody in physical, it wasn’t physical therapy, occupational… It was something related to disabilities, but they were looking at the hacks that people make to their equipment to make it functional. So when you have a different body and a different, you know, way of functioning, that is not in the norm, and you still need to find a way to do things. Yes, there are a lot of great inventions and there are wheelchairs and there are other things that that help. But sometimes the best inventions come from the users. Right? And somebody who had a pencil that they would, you know, attach to God knows what, and then they would use it to put with their mouth.

[00:29:50.730] – Lucía Dura

I mean, those things, that’s what they were looking at. And so sometimes it’s about, you know, what are the users doing and who are the users and really getting familiar with that.

[00:30:02.650] – Liz Fraley

Right. That’s something that, like all of us do. We all have extra things or little things that we do that’s unique to us and how we do things. And you’re never going to discover those things unless you’re really asking and digging down because it’s like, oh, do you do anything special? No, not really. There’s always something, right?

[00:30:26.760] – Lucía Dura

Positive deviants generally don’t know that they are. They definitely don’t call themselves that. That would be weird. But it’s not it’s not something obvious.

[00:30:37.980] – Lucía Dura

A lot of the times that’s why the the drilling down and the observation becomes so important. Observation is the key. When I was able to go to released individuals’ houses, the project really came to life because our initial interviews were in rooms, were in offices, just for for safety, vulnerability, for many different reasons. But when we were at their houses, I was able to ask questions right after those years. Do you collect them? And you can. Looking at objects displayed or one of the probation officers had sports team paraphernalia in their office.

[00:31:23.880] – Lucía Dura

And, you know, when we asked him, he said, well, that’s the conversation starter. And it seems like, oh! Obviously. But not everybody has things in their office that are meant to engage. They’re just kind of things that represent me that I put there,

[00:31:42.690] – Janice Summers

Personal cues

[00:31:43.770] – Lucía Dura

For this person, it was a strategy, positive deviance strategy.

[00:31:49.830] – Janice Summers

Well, yeah. And all of these things, like our environments, give us glimpses into a person’s psyche. Right?

[00:31:57.810] – Lucía Dura


[00:31:57.810] – Janice Summers

And how they process things. I like the fact that I’m positive deviance. You’re looking for positive things. So if you’re looking at how applications work, right, so if you’re writing instructions for a software application and you actually have the ability to talk with someone who’s actually using the application and they’re candid and they feel safe and comfortable being candid, they can tell you, I don’t read that because that’s a waste of my time.

[00:32:27.010] – Lucía Dura


[00:32:27.010] – Janice Summers

I go click over here. I go do this. I don’t care what your instructions say. This is what I do. Because me as a user, I have adapted. Right?

[00:32:37.050] – Lucía Dura


[00:32:37.650] – Janice Summers

Because your tool does something I need to have done and I will figure out a way to make it work. And I think as a technical writer writing instructions for the software, that’s the person I want to talk to, find out how is it working for you?

[00:32:54.570] – Janice Summers

What are you doing? And withholding any judgment. If they’re going to tell you that, you know, your writing was not effective. That’s OK, because you want to find out how do we be more effective, because there’s probably more people like that, and if you can interview a lot of people that are using the application in a positive deviant way.

[00:33:15.340] – Lucía Dura

Yeah, I mean, that’s a very simple level, it’s feedback.

[00:33:18.580] – Janice Summers


[00:33:19.480] – Lucía Dura

Feedback is something that that actually makes a difference. And a study I didn’t do but that is from Norway. They looked at the Norwegian prison system. So the first thing is that they didn’t look, the officers did not read the files before meeting the individuals. That’s rare.

[00:33:48.840] – Janice Summers

Normally you get the sheet. You read, yeah.

[00:33:52.110] – Lucía Dura

Who is this person? And then the other thing is they would give them a tour of the facility upon arrival. Who does that? So, I mean, if you’re writing a manual. You would put read the file, take the person to their cell, and then those instructions would be one, two, three like that. If you look at it through a positive deviance lens, it’s first thing don’t read the file. Second thing, before you take the person to their cell, Show them the facilities.

[00:34:26.260] – Lucía Dura

We’re talking about treating that person like a human being first and then, yes. That doesn’t mean there’s no consequence and there’s no, you know, whatever, they’re doing time. But you’re treating them like a human being, and that means that when they leave, they will leave, hopefully, as a human being.

[00:34:50.830] – Janice Summers

Well, and it’s starting– it’s how you set that relationship, right?

[00:34:56.540] – Lucía Dura

It sets the tone.

[00:34:57.100] – Janice Summers

Setting that relationship, it sets a tone and it changes the dynamic. Right?

[00:35:03.080] – Lucía Dura

Yeah, and then after that oh, so so go ahead, go ahead.

[00:35:07.110] – Janice Summers

No, I was just going to say I think that’s one of the, one of the things with technical and professional writers is that does set the tone. And it does establish the beginning of the relationship.

[00:35:18.990] – Lucía Dura

And it’s, kind of, one of my students called it a front end investment, right? She’s like, you do it at the beginning and then it pays off. It might take a little bit of time, but there was another PhD student here, Dolly. 

[00:35:36.000] – Lucía Dura

She came off as introverted and quiet, and so when she told me this, it really caught me off guard. She said every day of the semester I shake every student’s hand. I was like, whoa, that takes a lot of courage. That takes time, courage.  She’s like it’s quick, though. I mean, yeah, it does but I’m connecting with them and maybe she is not going to. Maybe she does. I don’t know what she’s like in her classroom.

[00:36:09.240] – Lucía Dura

Maybe she’s super entertaining. But that small gesture with every student, every day. Yeah, every day I stand there and I greet them. It’s not the same as hey, everybody, good morning, welcome. How’s everybody doing? You know, this is like I see you. You’re here. You know? So you don’t have to do it and maybe somebody says, you know, I’ll do that the first day of class. That’s good. That’s a good enough.

[00:36:38.150] – Lucía Dura

Whatever works for you, you don’t have to shake. So whenever we elicit or articulate these practices, it doesn’t mean that you interpret them verbatim and have to do them. Is it replicable? I don’t know. Maybe some people are uncomfortable with that idea and maybe now it’s more like knuckle bump or whatever. But maybe you just do it at the beginning, the first week, so they know you’re whatever.

[00:37:05.900] – Janice Summers

And I like what you said earlier. I maybe we didn’t get a chance to talk about it in any depth, but I liked what you were talking about–the community. Like you have to look at the community or the culture of the situation. Right? Situational. And adapt to the situation. Right? Some cultural aspects. Some would be more welcoming than other situations.

[00:37:30.590] – Lucía Dura

That’s right.

[00:37:31.520] – Janice Summers

It’s not all rote and this is how it is.

[00:37:34.640] – Lucía Dura

No, no, no, no, no. And it has something to do with localization, too. It’s not just localization so that we can make this effective. It’s localization so that we can make this meaningful and sustainable.

[00:37:46.760] – Janice Summers

Yes. Meaningful and sustainable. Those are great words.

[00:37:51.330] – Lucía Dura

It’s more for that. And I can tell you that some people might wonder. I mean, is this because a fault of positive deviance is that it is not addressing the systemic issues. That is a local, you’re finding local solutions to problems. You’re doing kind of the self reflection and you’re looking at assets. And I think that’s good to bring up, assets. In my context, it works. It’s important because, for example, here we are on the border, Hispanic serving institution with eighty two percent Hispanic, not Hispanic serving–We just became Hispanic serving and we’re going off of a checklist. But this is kind of like our people or we care. There’s a culture of care approach at the university. There are a lot of systemic things that we need to be aware of.

[00:38:46.580] – Janice Summers


[00:38:47.320] – Lucía Dura

But one of the things we’re doing is looking at what are the things, how do we handle this current divide, critical race theory, systemic oppression, not this, black lives, the tensions, the national tensions and the global tensions.

[00:39:07.150] – Lucía Dura

We are aware of them, but we also feel like we have to look at them and we have been good at looking at them through our unique lens and experiences. So when we say Hispanic, throw out the blanket Hispanic term or Latinx or– We see that in our own way, we have a different way of seeing it. And so rather than just take it, what are the best practices in blah, blah, blah? What how do we do things in a way that is meaningful and sustainable?

[00:39:39.820] – Lucía Dura

And just. What does justice look like on the ground here, not just what does the Oprah Book Club tell us or what does, although I’ve read some really good stuff from there. But, you know, so we’re looking, we have to look at both negotiate that.

[00:39:58.360] – Janice Summers

I think, too, one of the things that you bring up that you’re aware of the systemic issues, but you look at the positive deviance and the assets that you have on hand to make positive.

[00:40:10.150] – Lucía Dura


[00:40:10.600] – Janice Summers

changes and to create positivity now.

[00:40:13.540] – Lucía Dura

Here and now, because the other thing is that some things are going to take a while.

[00:40:18.460] – Janice Summers

That’s going to take a while to solve. But you can solve for the here and now.

[00:40:22.810] – Lucía Dura

So it’s a matter of what do you want to do in that moment. For me, sometimes I want to invest my energy in the systemic long term impact, whatever that’s going to be. Other times I want to look at making an impact now so that we can get through something

[00:40:40.030] – Janice Summers


[00:40:40.720] – Lucía Dura

Or, because I honestly sometimes I feel cynical or hopeless about the system. And it’s like, what are the workarounds? It’s not, you know, it depends on the situation. So it’s not something even though I have that bias, it’s not the– it’s not something. I also have this systems lens, hopefully. And if not, nudge me, because that’s– it’s really important to keep that in mind.

[00:41:13.230] – Janice Summers


[00:41:17.250] – Liz Fraley


[00:41:18.150] – Janice Summers

Well, this has been such a fun conversation, I can’t believe our time is already. I know I have so enjoyed talking with you.

[00:41:26.850] – Liz Fraley

Me too.

[00:41:26.850] – Janice Summers

And I hope to have you back again.

[00:41:29.100] – Lucía Dura

Absolutely. It’s been great. Thank you so much.

In this episode

Dr. Lucía Dura is Associate Professor of Rhetoric and Writing Studies in the English Department and Associate Dean of the Graduate School at The University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). She is a border resident with bordered identities and perspectives who enjoys working on collaborative, interdisciplinary projects. Lucía teaches and mentors students in rhetoric and technical writing projects. Her work on positive deviance, intercultural communication, and participatory methodologies foregrounds and leverages the assets of vulnerable populations to solve complex problems. She collaborates on risk communication and change facilitation initiatives with local, national, and international organizations. Her research has yielded numerous publications, presentations, and awards. Lucía co-chairs the Hispanic Servingness Working Group at UTEP and contributes to leadership initiatives. She also represents UTEP at the Graduate Education Advisory Committee of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and is an advisory board member and chair-elect of the Texas Center for Legal Ethics. 

In this session, we’ll explore the applications and dimensions of positive deviance, an approach to social and organizational change. Positive deviance asks questions about outliers and exceptions. It prompts us, through asset-based inquiry, to search for solutions that already exist in our communities and systems, but that we tend to overlook. Lucía will share some examples of positive deviance research and practice in the fields of federal probation, education, and healthcare. She will also talk about the ways using a positive deviance lens has impacted her daily life both at work and at home as a resident of the largest border metroplex in the world. 



Research Gate:

Twitter: @luciadura


Other Appearances

Words have Meaning: Partnering for Inclusive Language (Green Room 42)

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