About Whole Picture Thinking

Aftab Erfan

In a world that is mired in complexity, people often say, “I wish I could see the whole picture to know what is going on and what we should do”. I am here to help with exactly that challenge: helping clients see the whole picture and think their way through complexity.

My name is Aftab Erfan and Whole Picture Thinking is my Vancouver-based business. I work with groups of people at various levels of organizations and communities, designing, facilitating and supporting engaging meetings. And I build the capacity of leaders to convene and participate in better conversations when I’m not around. Depending on the type, scale and complexity of projects I work on my own or with a team of colleagues and regular collaborators.


Aftab Erfan (PhD) is a scholar-practitioner working in the areas of community engagement, conflict resolution, strategic planning, intercultural diversity, and leadership development for social transformation. She currently teaches at the School of Community and Regional Planning at the University of British Columbia and consults to private, public and non-profit organizations as the principal of Whole Picture Thinking. The focus of her consulting work is on making the 'whole picture' of complex problems and systems visible, and offering facilitative tools for collectively thinking through complexity and contention, to illuminate innovative paths for moving forward.

Photo Credit: Michelle Doucette

Download my 1-page resume and client list here.

Seven Little-Known Facts About me


I was born in post-Islamic Revolution Iran and my family immigrated to Canada when I was about 14. I had studied English for years before coming to Canada, but I didn’t speak a word of it in public for the first three months I lived here. For those months I was, literally, all ears. When I finally opened my mouth I was nearly fluent, and have since spoken English with an accent just slight enough to make clear: I wasn’t born in Canada, but I call Canada home.


In my late teens and early twenties I was very involved in the social justice and environmental movements, the ethics of which continue to influence the work I take on. In those years I co-founded many social change oriented initiatives and groups. But the most successful thing I ever co-founded was a just-for-fun Wine Tasting Club at my university. We managed to get thousands of dollars of wine donated to us by claiming that we were “grooming the next generation of wine connoisseurs in the province” (which was true). We had 200 members signed up and an event room that only held 75, so every week members had to try to get their names on a list posted on the club’s office door to come to our wine tastings!


I’ve always been good at math and science and took environmental sciences as my first major, but ended up also taking enough fine arts courses to constitute a minor. When I began my masters in urban planning (McGill University) my idea was to bring my interest in environmental issues and my love of drawing together under one roof. But by the time I graduated as a planner what I really cared about were the questions of democracy: how to make public policy decisions with groups of people who disagreed with each other. This was the basis of my interest in facilitation.


I met many facilitation approaches while working as a planner. In 2006 I met the Lewis Method of Deep Democracy and I fell in love. I think what I most loved about it was that it wasn’t WASP and polite. It made room for loud emotions, tears, and cursing. It got everyone out of their chairs and walking. It actually made working with conflict fun and immediately destroyed my fears around it. Two years later I was in South Africa, learning from Myrna Lewis, and I haven’t stopped yet.


The first time I ever taught a Deep Democracy course I was in Beirut, Lebanon. I wasn’t really ready to be teaching decision-making and conflict resolution in the Middle East! I was supposed to have been there helping Myrna teach the course, but it turned out that she couldn’t travel to Lebanon on a South African passport that was already bearing an Israeli stamp from an earlier trip. So I went as the teacher instead of the teacher’s assistance. It was like jumping into the deep end, and it was amazing.


I met graphic recording through the random thoughtfulness of a stranger. I was doodling in my notebook during a meeting and someone pointed out to me that what I was doing was actually a “thing” that people did professionally and it was called graphic recording. I Googled the term: sure enough, it was a thing, and it was a thing I could do. I have been formally trained in graphic recording and continue to learn through my membership in the International Forum of Visual Practitioners. Meeting graphics have provided a way for my love of drawing to come back into my life after all.


I did a PhD in community planning (University of British Columbia) that is about my efforts to apply the approaches to facilitation I had learned to the context of a small Indigenous community on Vancouver Island. During the five years I spent doing my PhD I also gave birth to my two children. My first son was born a month after I defended my proposal and accompanied me for the entire duration of my fieldwork (and was incredibly helpful). My second son was born two days before I handed in the full draft of my dissertation. If it wasn’t for the two of them I would probably still be writing that thing…