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A facilitator must be neutral but not bland or colourless

Mirjami Sipponen-Damonte

I was conducting a workshop for an organisation on how to build a new work community after a takeover. At the beginning of the workshop, I used the “Unbelievable Story” method to build trust, where participants in small groups told an unbelievable story that had actually happened to them. In order to help the participants to understand the exercise, I gave a personal example of a situation in which I was cycling in the mountains of Italy. I was just getting up some speed on a downhill section when I noticed that the brakes of my bike had completely failed. Fortunately, in the next few seconds I spotted a small gravel path off the road I was riding on, which I then took my bike down and managed to stop. I told this not only as an example of my own story, but also in order to tell something about myself. When the participants began to work in groups, I heard many of them recount “near-miss” situations, for example on a horse or in a car.

There can of course be many other kinds of unbelievable stories but, through my example, I had unintentionally but clearly directed the thinking of the participants towards a certain theme. My intention of building trust with the new group through my own example was good in itself, but in practice it limited the creativity of the group. Nowadays, I’m more careful about giving my own examples during the guidance phase of the work.

A fundamental element of facilitation is that the facilitator is neutral in relation to the topic being dealt with. This is part of building a safe environment. It’s easier to bring different, perhaps even conflicting opinions into the discussion when the facilitator doesn’t take sides but helps participants to listen and understand each other’s points of view. In reality, we are never completely neutral. A facilitator naturally has opinions, experiences, views, examples, tips, and her own set of values. However, a competent facilitator, who is aware of her role, will not bring these up when facilitating because she is aware of the risks of introducing substantive views.

When a subject matter expert or a manager steps into the role of facilitator, neutrality at that moment or in that situation is important for the following reasons:

  • the participants feel motivated and free to state their own views if the expert doesn’t give or expect ‘the right answers’
  • the participants are more active because the event has been built interactively right from the start
  • the atmosphere is safe for the participants, because the facilitator doesn’t put herself on any one side of the discussion, but supports the group impartially
  • the group has the opportunity to be creative and find new possibilities if all their ideas are basically viewed openly

Facilitator's naturally enables

I was recently facilitating in quite a lively discussion in which strong conflicting opinions were being expressed. One person turned to me and asked what I thought of the matter. Here it was easy for me to answer that I was not in a suitable role to answer the question.

To assess your own suitability for your job as a facilitator in meetings or workshops that typically come up for you, answer the following questions:

  • Can I remain neutral in relation to the issues being discussed or will I want to express my own opinions?
  • Can I allow the team to make decisions that are contrary to my own opinion in the matter?
  • Can I use my expertise to ask for solutions rather than suggesting them?
  • Can I control the group dynamics and treat all parties equally?
  • Can I guide the discussion without stating what should happen?
  • Can I handle difficulties to the progress or agenda of the meeting without taking them personally?
  • Can I focus more on guiding the process of the meeting rather than actively producing content during it?

If you answered more than one question no, you should consider whether someone else could be responsible for facilitating the meeting, so that you can participate in the content discussion. Of course, this is not always possible. In such situations, it’s particularly important to focus on your own behaviour during the meeting and to be aware of and anticipate difficulties in sticking to your role.

It may be that you’re also playing the role of expert, supervisor, project manager or perhaps trainer in the same group whose work you’re facilitating. In this case, you’re playing different roles at different moments.

The more accustomed the group is to having the ‘right answers’ coming from you (and if you genuinely want to get them to actively participate and contribute their own viewpoints instead), the more important it is to stay in a purely facilitating role in those situations that are intended to gather ideas and thoughts from group members. Don’t go down the same route as I did, and give your own example or your own view on the matter, but let the group discuss from a clean slate. Sometimes, it’s also a good idea to begin by asking each person to put their ideas on paper before starting the discussion, so that participants don’t get influenced by each other’s ideas.

In order to ensure efficient working, it’s therefore important to be aware of your own role in relation to the group in every situation, and to refrain from giving your own views when there might be a temptation to do so. Naturally, there might arise a situation in which it’s vitally important to bring out some viewpoint related to the content. In such a case, for the sake of clarity I recommend telling the group that you are momentarily changing from the role of facilitator to another role, in order to give an important perspective. In my personal experience, however, this is mostly a case of falling in love with your own ideas, and a lack of self-discipline in failing to keep them to yourself. Most of the time, when I’m asked for insights or examples of how other organisations have dealt with similar situations, I’m happy to answer the question at the end of the session. In that way, I’m able to respond to the wishes of the participants, but without giving an answer just at the moment when it might influence the work.

I spoke in my earlier blog post about how a servant leader first points the way and then turns the pyramid upside down to help his/her group to proceed in the right direction. If the direction and its importance are clearly communicated, the servant leader should be able to break away and give the group space to identify ideas, make choices, address challenges and influence how goals are achieved.

At the same time, it’s important to identify the moments when the expert, supervisor or project manager should be one of the participants and an external facilitator should be invited.

An external facilitator is needed when:

  • in terms of the objective, it’s important for all the group members to be involved in producing content (e.g. in brainstorming and expressing views)
  • facilitation of the event seems to be particularly difficult, for one reason or another
  • there are tensions between group members, so it’s better for the facilitator to be completely impartial
  • a new kind of approach to facilitating a topic is needed
  • neither the members nor the leader of the group have time to plan the facilitation properly

I’ve sometimes found leaders and project managers struggling with the idea that, in their role as facilitators, they see that the ideas developed by the group are bad or impossible to implement, but they can’t say anything about it because of their neutrality. The neutrality of the facilitator doesn’t, however, mean that you let the group go ‘full steam ahead’, at the same time knowing that their ideas can never be implemented. By developing your facilitation skills, you can guide the group to develop ideas in a targeted way from specific perspectives and, after the creative phase, to analyse the ideas according to the desired common framework or criteria. That way, the group itself finds the best ideas most genuinely suited to the situation, and is then motivated to start to put them into practice.

While it’s important for the facilitator to be neutral about the content, there are many other things that the facilitator is not at all neutral about, such as the methods used, the tasks assigned and the way the group works. At times, the facilitator must be very firm to bring the discussion back on topic, motivate the group to do their best or, for example, stop behaviour that is detrimental to the atmosphere.

The writer of this post is the founder and Managing Director of Xpedio, Mirjami Sipponen-Damonte. She has been working with facilitation and organizational development around Europe for the last 17 years. Get to know Mirjami better here.

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