Neutral meeting facilitation – difficult and critical.

Enhancing Rural Community Capacity April 17, 2014 Print Friendly and PDF

You work with groups. Sometimes you lead the group.  Sometimes you facilitate the group.  Sometimes you are there to train and other times you participate as a member.  Sometimes you are in multiple roles. 

What is the difference between a facilitator, a trainer and a leader? How can we be in a leadership position while facilitating? Can we remain neutral when we are invested in outcomes? Can we participate fully in generating outcomes when we are required to remain focused on directing a process?

According to the traditional definition of facilitation, a group member cannot formally fill the role of facilitator because a group member is not content neutral. Traditionally a facilitator does not intervene directly in the content of the group’s discussions; to do so would require the facilitator to abandon a neutral position and reduce the group’s responsibility for solving its problems.

However, in real-life situations, there can be a crossover between the roles of facilitator and participant.  We, indeed, switch roles.   As group members or leaders we suddenly find ourselves in the position of facilitator and must use facilitation principles and techniques to guide our groups through efficient processes to effective outcomes. This is our reality. 

Meeting Situation

Read the following situation and jot down what you think you could do. 

Add to your notes when you read the chart below.

I am working with a group of 20 highly skilled, strong opinionated volunteers to plan a one-time event.  They are not afraid to ‘speak up’.  Their leader knows them well and has been a part of the group for many years.  She tends to be easily shaken by the strong-minded volunteers and meetings can get quickly overrun and out-of-hand once she hands over the floor to them. What can I do to make the meeting more effective (and enjoyable)?

We simply need to clarify – for ourselves – and for the group – what our roles are.  Myriam Laberge (2010) says that as tempting as it is, facilitation requires that you avoid controlling or influencing the discussion and outcome.  She defines various situations in which we can find ourselves.

 

Task

Role

Goal

Pure presenter

Content/subject matter expert;

Process and outcome neutral

Share expertise and skill by presenting information or content

Instructional facilitator

Deliver learning content;

Outcome neutral

Care about how the group learns and provide expertise on content

Pure facilitator

Process expert who does not contribute to meeting content;

Content and outcome neutral

Assist the group in doing its work

Facilitator/expert

Give advice from your subject matter expertise but have no stake in the group’s work;

Outcome neutral

Your expertise helps the group discuss and come to its own decisions by asking questions, offering suggestions, advice and options for consideration; you do not impose your opinions nor make decisions on behalf of the group

Group leader/member as facilitator

Contribute to discussion, control the discussion and how they arrive at the decision and have a stake in the decisions; very difficult role in which you will be seen as neither neutral nor credible on process.

If you feel compelled to contribute to content, transparently step out of the neutral role and hand it to another group member as you revert to the role of group leader or member

Our challenge is to observe and address facilitation opportunities that come with the multiple roles those leaders, group members and facilitators assume within group. 

So, when you are asked to participate in a meeting that calls for facilitation, check out what is really meant.  Then carefully prepare for your role(s) in that meeting.  You might use  these questions to reflect on neutral meeting facilitation:

  • What risk do you take when you are a facilitator who remains neutral?
  • What support do you get from your group when you need to step out of the neutral role?
  • What support do you need more of?

Material adapted from:  Great Facilitation.  Myriam Laberge.  Delta, BC:  Masterful Facilitation Institute, 2010 [found at http://myriam-musing.blogspot.com/]; Corrie Hunkler, interview, 2010; Strengthening Your Facilitation Skills, Level 2.  Jane Haskell and Gabe McPhail.  Orono, ME:  UMaine Extension, 2010.

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This work is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, New Technologies for Ag Extension project.