By Michael Wilkinson, Certified Master Facilitator, Managing Director ofLeadership Strategies – The Facilitation Company, and author of The Secrets of Facilitation and The Secrets of Masterul Meetings

As a facilitator, have you ever found yourself in the neutrality dilemma? I suspect you have an idea of what I mean by this. Text book facilitation says that the facilitator should be completely neutral, should solely focus on the process and group dynamics, and should avoid at all costs making any content suggestions.

But haven’t you been serving a client and have had ideas come to you that could potentially benefit the group? Have you wondered, “Should I say something? Would I be violating the primary role of a facilitator?” Herein lies the neutrality dilemma. Do you or don’t you say something?
The traditional facilitator school would answer, “Absolutely not. It’s not your role. You are not the expert. It is not honoring the wisdom of the group. If you want to participate, give the pen to someone else and sit down.” 

But there are other schools of thought as well.

Over a several week period I was engaged with a group of facilitators in an online discussion about neutrality on The National Facilitator Database Network LinkedIn Group. If you have ever found yourself facing the neutrality dilemma, you may find some of these insights helpful.
(Special thanks to Leigh Ann Rodgers, Rich McLaughlin, Kim Sawyer, Jessica Hartung, and John Miller for contributing thoughts to the discussion group.)

In talking with facilitators about neutrality, I tend to hear two distinct schools of thought. For ease of discussion, let’s give names to the two views: the traditional and the hybrid. While in my practice I tend to facilitate using the hybrid approach, I think there are strengths and weaknesses to each.

The Traditional View

The traditional view, which I believe originated out of the organizational development disciplines, is that facilitators must present themselves and conduct themselves as totally neutral parties.

  • Facilitators are responsible for the process; participants are responsible for the content.
  • Facilitators don’t have to understand the content and it is often best if they don’t understand it so they aren’t tempted to engage in content discussions.
  • Facilitators don’t praise comments made.
  • And above all else, facilitators never, ever, ever offer content suggestions.

The overall goal of facilitators taking the traditional view is to take the group through a process that builds relationships, creates an atmosphere of trust, and produces results that have the support and the commitment of all team members.

The Hybrid View

The hybrid view, which I believe comes out of the management consulting arena, starts with the premise that facilitators, much like financial advisors, have a fiduciary responsibility to their clients to do all that they can to help encourage positive outcomes for their clients.

  • Facilitators taking a hybrid view believe it is better if the participants come up with the ideas because when participants create the ideas, it is more likely that they will own them, accept them, and implement them.
  • At the same time, these facilitators believe that if they are aware of possible solutions that may be of help, the facilitator should, as a last resort, offer these possibilities.
  • To this end, facilitators operating with a hybrid view might go to great lengths to educate themselves on their client’s industry, operations and business issues. They might consider, in advance, possible pathways clients might take to address their situation.
  • During the facilitation, if a potentially suitable solution is being overlooked, facilitators operating under a hybrid view might ask a general leading question such as, “Are there solutions related to technology that we might not have yet considered?”
  • Or if the facilitator is aware that a specific idea has not been brought forth, the facilitator might float the idea, being sure to only record the idea if participants take ownership of it. For example, a facilitator with the hybrid view might say, “What do you think of doing X? (if a positive response) Why might you want to do X? What would be the benefits? How do you want me to write it…?”
  • A facilitator taking a hybrid view may use techniques such as leading questions and floating ideas, but does not care about the outcome. If the group takes the idea, great. If the group doesn’t, great.

However, a hybrid view facilitator also recognizes that these same techniques can easily be misused. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, these techniques can be used to manipulate the group into agreeing to solutions that they don’t own, and, as a result, typically don’t fully implement, if at all. Of course this type of manipulation, or “facipulation” as we call it in our practice, can occur whether you are taking a hybrid or traditional view. It is just that with the hybrid view, the facilitator has to take greater care to not abuse the role of the facilitator.

In summary, in the traditional view, neutrality means NO involvement in the content. In the hybrid view, neutrality means the facilitator may offer content ideas, but has no preference in whether the ideas are used or not.

Strengths and Weaknesses

What are the strengths and weaknesses of each approach? Below is a list for each of the two views. (Note that since there are only two views offered, the strengths of one are more or less equivalent to the weaknesses of the other.)

Traditional View

Hybrid View

Strengths

  • Higher likelihood that the group will implement what they create since all ideas come from the group
  • Higher likelihood that the group will look to themselves for solutions rather than look to the facilitator for answers
  • Less likelihood that the facilitator will become a “facipulator” – guiding the group to solutions that they don’t create or own
  • Less up front effort required by the facilitator to learn and understand the client’s business and issues

Strengths

  •  The facilitator may be more likely to be active in facilitating and managing the discussion
  • The facilitator is more likely to offer thoughts that stimulate the group’s thinking
  • Potential suitable solutions known by the facilitator are more likely to be brought out
  • Clients may be more likely to perceive higher value from the facilitator’s involvement

Potential Weaknesses

  • The facilitator is less likely to offer thoughts that stimulate the group’s thinking
  • Potential suitable solutions known by the facilitator may go unspoken
  • The facilitator may be more likely to become less active in facilitating and managing the discussion
  • Clients may be less likely to see the value of the facilitator beyond setting up the meeting agenda and ensuring ground rules are followed

Potential Weaknesses

  • Higher likelihood that the group will look to the facilitator rather to themselves for solutions
  • Higher likelihood that the facilitator will become a “facipulator” – guiding the group to solutions that they don’t create or own
  • Lower likelihood that the group will implement what they create since some ideas may come from the facilitator
  • More up front effort required by the facilitator to learn and understand the client’s business and issues

Boundaries

If you choose to use a hybrid approach, how do you avoid abusing the role? Here’s what one facilitator had to say.

I have always felt that as facilitators we can never be totally neutral. We have our own values and beliefs that can seep out very subtly in our non-verbals. My answer to that with a group is to be very transparent up front about what my worldview/biases is/are then ask them to call me on it if they see me inappropriately advocating. This way, I think I can use a hybrid approach without fear. — Rich McLaughlin

Differently, Leigh Ann Rodgers suggested in the discussion, “A hybrid approach has the potential to offer greater value to clients if you establish and exercise a set of parameters.”  Some boundaries she recommends to consider are the following.

  1. The facilitator has strong knowledge/experience in the area being discussed and can add value through the suggestion of ideas.
  2. The facilitator has a unique observation as an “outsider” that might be missed by those closer to the issue at hand.
  3. The facilitator offers these suggestions/ideas only after the group has stalled or is ready to move on believing they are potentially missing something that might have a significant impact on the group’s output/success.
  4. The suggestion/idea is always posed as a question. (“What about…?”, “I’m wondering…?”)
  5. Suggestions/ideas are given sparingly and cautiously.

This issue came up last week during a facilitation. I felt there was an expanded suggestion from the one on the table that would benefit the group. As I was taking notes on the computer — projected during the discussion — I spoke and typed my suggestion/addition to the comments on the table. I announced that I was about to step out of facilitator mode for a moment and offer a suggestion, and that I would be happy to delete it from the notes if it didn't fit the group's perceptions of a suggestion they would like to keep. Given the option the client chose to include the suggestion and several folks mentioned that it was appreciated.  — Jessica Hartung

A Note of Caution

In thinking about a hybrid approach with neutrality, it is important to recognize the potential for widespread abuse.  As John Miller warns, “I think a lot of people who call themselves ‘facilitators’ just don't get the notion of neutrality as a defining characteristic of the role. Instead, they are looking for any excuse to parade their ego. So this line of reasoning opens the door wide for sloppy thinkers and undisciplined show-offs to call themselves facilitators.”

What Do Your Clients Want?

It certainly has been my experience that most of our clients want our facilitators to use more of a hybrid approach.  However, one of the things that I will do more often – and will ask our facilitators to do it as well – is to gain agreement up front from the sponsor and the group if they would prefer that I did nor did not offer suggestions from my experience.

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Interested in learning more facilitation techniques?  Check out our course, The Effective Facilitator.  

Michael Wilkinson is the Managing Director of Leadership Strategies – The Facilitation Company, and a much sought after trainer, facilitator and speaker.  He is a Certified Master Facilitator and a Certified Professional Facilitator.  As a past president of the Southeast Association of Facilitators and a board member of the National Institute of Facilitation, Michael is a national leader in the facilitation industry.  You can get more tips from either of Michael’s books, The Secrets of Facilitation or The Secrets to Masterful Meetings. You can receive a signed copy through our website.