The neutral facilitator

So often, in our field, we find ourselves straddling roles:  playing the facilitator role in a meeting when we (or the organisation we work for) has a preferred type of outcome in mind. A professional independent facilitator shouldn't have this problem: if your ability to stay out of the content is at risk because of strong personal opinions about the topic, then you don't take the job.

But if your organisation has, for example, an environmental or sustainability mission, then you may need to ensure that this mission is reflected in the group's conversation.  Or if you are the sustainability lead in your organisation, you may want to ensure that colleagues challenge each other enough on environmental limits, ethics and social justice during internal workshops.

I have been spending a lot of time recently training people from organisations which clearly have an agenda, and yet where it definitely makes sense for staff to have good facilitation skills.  The question of how to manage this 'agenda' dilemma has come up.

A lot of the reflection is on how they know when it would be appropriate or not for them to facilitate, what they do if they notice their own agenda coming to the fore and interfering with their facilitator role, and how to manage this tension in preparation and in the moment.

What are your options?

Don’t facilitate the meeting. Explain your conflict of interest and ask the meeting’s convenor, host or planning group to find an alternative facilitator.

Ask someone else to attend the meeting as a participant, who you know will ensure that your own interests are represented.  For example, a colleague or someone from a similar organisation which shares your interests.  This is a particularly useful strategy if it's important that someone champions being ambitious about strong sustainability.

Step out of role.  If the conversation unexpectedly begins to cover topics in which you have an interest, tell the group that this has happened and ask their permission to temporarily step ‘out of role’ as facilitator. Have your say, and then clearly step back into role.

Flag the role conflict and ask the group to help you stay independent.  Tell the group that your intention is to be a neutral facilitator, and that you positively welcome them flagging it up if they think you are not behaving in a neutral way.

What place knowledge?

Another kind of neutrality relates to knowledge of the topic under discussion.  Facilitators often maintain that knowledge of the topic under discussion is not necessary, and I'd agree with that - with some caveats (see below).

Sometimes experts take on the facilitator role for reasons which seem obscure and probably stem from misunderstanding of facilitation skills and practices in the client's and expert's mind.  (A senior Judge of my acquaintance was once asked to 'facilitate' a workshop session on his area of expertise. I was astounded! He is very expert and experienced: why would you ask him to put his specialist knowledge away and play the 'servant'. A waste of his skills. I can only imagine that the event organisers did not know what facilitators do, and used the word as a fashionable alternative to 'lead'.)

And sometimes clients opt for a facilitator who does have experience or knowledge of the topic, because they imagine this will make the person a better facilitator.

And I think they could be right!

When knowledge helps

There are a few, limited ways in which knowledge can help your facilitation, in my experience.

  • Jargon and acronyms - If you are the only person in the room who doesn't know the technical language, and you need to have it explained to you, this can slow things down and irritate the group.  If you are also acting as a scribe, then spelling things wrongly can undermine the trust the group has in you.   Ask for a glossary as part of your briefing!
  • Stick to the point - it can be hard to tell whether someone is wandering off from the aims of the discussion, if you don't know the subject.  Is it irrelevant to talk about interference with sonar when discussing the environmental impact of wind turbines? (*)  When discussing low-income customers, will discussing local currencies be time well spent? (#)
  • Digging deeper - the flip side of not recognising whether someone is 'on topic' or not, is failure to spot important distinctions.  If one participant talks about biofuels and the other about bioenergy, is this just a pleasant variety of words to avoid boredom, or a crucial distinction worth exploring?  If you know a bit about the field, your guess is more likely to be a good one.

Caution!  I do not intend to imply that you can assume your knowledge is sufficient to make these judgements on behalf of the group.  If you think something may be off the point, you'd still want to check this out with the group because this is their decision.  Knowing a bit helps you to make better guesses.


There is a short download on this, here.


Join in the discussion in the comments thread.  There's also a very lively thread over at the IAF Linked-In group. If you're a member of that group, you can add your perspective here.


* No - there are concerns about bats being affected by turning blades, although whether sonar / echolocation is involved is unclear. So not irrelevant.

# Yes - if there is a viable local currency already established in an area, then this could well be a useful suggestion.  So not irrelevant.