Vol. 46, No. 4

Leadership skill-building: When you're not a neutral facilitator

By Jeffrey Cufaude
Jeffrey Cufaude

Jeffrey Cufaude

(Note: “The greater your stake in the discussions and decisions, the more compromised you are to facilitate them,” says Jeffrey Cufaude, an expert on facilitation who provides customized training in this skill set. In this article, Cufaude, who is also a 2021 ABA Bar Leadership Institute faculty member, advises on how to facilitate if you have a stake in the matter being discussed.)

Effective facilitation should make it easier for groups to have better meetings. But people often find them more difficult if the facilitator has a vested interest in specific outcomes or holds positional power or authority over any participants.

Successful meeting management

It’s called many things: leading, running, chairing, facilitating. This is more than semantics even though people may use those terms interchangeably. Each of those words connotes a different relationship dynamic with meeting participants.

Effective meeting facilitators focus more on neutrally managing a conversation than contributing directly to it. When I am brought in to facilitate a group’s discussions, I have a stake in ensuring the group reaches a decision, but not any specific decision. Whether or not it is the right decision is the group’s purview.

But when team leaders, department managers, or board or committee chairs lead meetings, they often have a clear stake in a conversation and want to influence the decision that is made. Can they effectively facilitate when they aren’t really neutral?

Truthfully? No. Like a judge in a case where she knows the defendant, the facilitator with a stake in a conversation’s content or actual decision has a conflict of interest. 

A facilitator’s role is primarily objective or neutral; a participant’s role is subjective and not impartial. Ideally, individuals would consider recusing themselves from the facilitator role if they are not able to honor the neutrality it requires.

Stop rolling your eyes. I know how unlikely or impractical this sounds. But it is an option, one I strongly suggest considering, particularly when others’ full ownership of a decision is critical.

Another option groups rarely consider is rotating facilitation responsibility among a variety of individuals. This not only reduces undue influence from a less than neutral facilitator, it helps build everyone’s capacity to advance better discussions or decisions.

Options other than recusal

If your role means you’re compromised overall to facilitate meetings from a purely neutral position, you could discuss this reality upfront with participants. After all, a staff or committee meeting belongs to everyone, not just you. Elicit others’ ideas about what you (and they) can do so they are comfortable contributing freely, challenging your opinions, and owning both the process and outcomes.

Here are six tips to help reduce the potential negative ramifications of your less neutral facilitation:

  1. Collect ideas and other input anonymously and aggregate responses. This helps ensure any ideas you contribute initially carry no more weight than anyone else’s.
  2. Have the group develop shared criteria that all members use to evaluate ideas. All participants rating ideas by the same criteria reduces the likelihood that personality, politics, or power, including yours, unduly influence what decision is made.
  3. Keep your opinions in reserve. When positional leaders who are facilitating express their opinions early on, they may impede group members from offering contrary perspectives. Hold your opinion until others have expressed theirs, but also be careful not to use your contribution to trump what everyone else has said.
  4. Be aware of your nonverbals. People often look to leaders’ body language for clues to how they feel about the discussion or ideas pitched. As best you can, maintain more neutral facial expressions. Remain self-aware of your body language overall to avoid unnecessarily influencing the group.
  5. If unhappy with the direction of the discussion, be restrained in how you redirect it. Imagine a group you’re facilitating is excited about a specific idea you don’t favor. Instead of rejecting the specific idea, a more neutral facilitative contribution invites the group to further examine its value.

    Example: “Let’s take a few minutes and consider how this idea would help achieve the three objectives called on in our strategic plan.”

    This type of invitation invites discovery more than a facilitator directive that may elicit reluctant compliance rather than genuine commitment. It also may surface information that causes you to reconsider your initial hesitance for the idea.
  6. Acknowledge your bias and invite people to advocate strongly for their ideas. If you facilitate in a manner that drives a group toward your preferred position, participants often feel manipulated and resentful. Unsure if you’ll be able to keep from advocating for your opinion? Perhaps acknowledge that upfront.

    Example: “I genuinely want us to reach a decision that everyone actively supports. It’s probably no surprise that I have some strong opinions about what that decision should be. But I remain open to others making a case for other options that they see as more desirable. Please speak strongly and freely in advocating for your position today as I may do so in making my case. And please challenge my facilitation if you feel I cut anyone off or overly bias our discussions.”

Bottom line?

The greater your stake in the discussions and decisions, the more compromised you are to facilitate them. Select an approach that makes it easier for meeting participants to have better discussions and make better decisions.