illuminating pathways to change

Neutrality: a crucial discussion between facilitators and clients

yellow-neutral-faceMost facilitators I know – myself included – strive to minimise our influence on the outcome of the groups we facilitate. But why do we do this and why is it considered important?

It’s one matter for facilitators to maintain a neutral stance by containing their own opinions but it’s another altogether when the client asks to ensure a particular outcome from a meeting – when success is defined by getting agreement on a pre-determined outcome. It presents a dilemma that facilitators and clients need to discuss before we launch into working with the group.

Nowadays my clients generally understand the role and one reason they contract a professional facilitator is because they seek impartiality. If not then I explain how engaging a facilitator to drive through a decision could backfire spectacularly. We have a conversation about my role and how I work with a group helping people reach an outcome that is genuinely up for exploration. If you have ever been invited to a meeting advertised as seeking different perspectives, then find the outcome is predetermined you will know about the damage done. Trust is compromised and it impacts your behaviour in future meetings (if you decide to attend).

Wised-up leaders understand the value of a collaborative approach to problem solving and decision making, and they know the best way to demonstrate that value is to model it. Contracting an independent “neutral” facilitator gives leaders the freedom to engage in the “what” of a meeting rather than how it is done. They can influence others without it being seen as just the boss pushing through an agenda. They know a good facilitator can draw out different perspectives in a way a line manager cannot and there’s a difference when the facilitator tells people to shut up (in the nicest possible way of course). The leader is also freed-up from the burden of managing the process and the dynamic and can concentrate on the content as a participant.

But just what does it mean to be neutral? I once got myself into trouble when someone took exception to my intervention regarding unhelpful behaviours in the group “You told us you were neutral” he interjected “but by asking me to let others have their say you are not being completely neutral”. I had in fact introduced myself as being “substantively neutral” a term borrowed from Roger Schwarz (The Skilled Facilitator, 2002) but I’d failed to explain what I meant by that term. From this man’s perspective neutral meant completely hands-off. Neutral is not a neutral word.

Over the years my position on facilitator neutrality has moved as I’ve become more conscious of why I am doing what I am doing as a facilitator. I sort of drifted into group facilitation and initially didn’t have a framework that informed my practice. In my early days – back in the 80’s and 90’s, I no doubt got involved in content and influenced outcomes without really being aware how this tainted the legitimacy of my role. By the time I joined the International Association of Facilitators in 2006 I had changed to become a strong advocate of neutrality. The concept is enshrined in the preamble to the IAF’s Code of Ethics which states “Facilitators are called upon to fill an impartial role in helping groups become more effective.” As an IAF Certified Professional Facilitator I’m required to model the core competencies including F.3.c “Is vigilant to minimize influence on group outcomes”.

But I’m not a purist. Boxing themselves in by strict adherence to rules can stifle facilitator’s flexibility – which is crucial for them to properly do their job. By occasionally suggesting an alternative or opening up a new line of thinking the facilitator can help the group move beyond being stuck or “group think”. This is better done through questioning of course but sometimes even a good question reaps no response. The deciding factor is the motive of the facilitator – are they doing this to serve the group or to feed their own ego. This needs to be the topic of discussion between a facilitator and their client as they are discussing the project. What does the client think about this, where do they stand on the neutrality issue and what do they expect of a facilitator for the meeting? What does the group think? (Pardon the cliché).

Apart from the fact that complete neutrality is impossible, to describe a facilitator’s role as neutral reduces it to nothing but a cipher. Yes, they should aim to be impartial in relation to the content of a meeting but not impartial when it comes to process. Being able to design an appropriate process and guide the group with methods and processes requires a special leadership role. Process expertise is what a professional facilitator brings. It’s what they are paid to do (whether they are an internal or external facilitator) and it certainly doesn’t mean being hands-off.

Nowadays I take more time ensuring there is clear and shared understanding about the impartial aspect of my role. When explaining my role with the group I say I don’t have a vested interest in the actual outcome of the meeting, other than it is considered successful and sustainable.

Unless facilitators and their clients discuss this issue early on they leave themselves open to problems. Facilitators need to express their position on “neutrality” or impartiality, why they believe it is important and how it adds value to the meeting. Clients need to be clear about their expectations. A shared understanding of what is meant by facilitator impartiality and an agreement about what happens when the boundaries are blurred will serve everyone well.

* Facilitator Neutrality: Does It Matter? Does the Client Care? Is it Possible? Is the subject of a professional development session I’m leading at the IAF Victoria Chapter AGM on 10 October. If you’re in Melbourne then please join us. I’m sure there will be some lively discussion.

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