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Values-Neutral Facilitation in Value-Laden Environments

Last week, I was discussing with my community change graduate class the concept of values-neutral facilitation. We spent some time unpacking the challenges behind being truly neutral while facilitating, especially on concepts of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Using a values-neutral approach to facilitation doesn’t mean you don’t have values or that your values won’t show up in your facilitation. In fact, your values absolutely do show up in your facilitation. So what does it mean to perform values-neutral facilitation?

Guiding

As a facilitator you are guiding the process and you need to trust the process. You are not (with some exceptions) a participant and therefore you must be conscious of your values, opinions, and perspective and how they may be creeping into your facilitation – whether it’s how you respond to other ideas (verbally or non-verbally), the way you frame your questions, or what you choose to write or not write down. You’re guiding a dialogue to find solutions for the collective good based on the people in the room. It’s important to acknowledge that their solution may look different than yours – and that’s okay.

Preparation

Yes, be prepared as a facilitator with materials (if that’s your style) but more importantly be prepared for nothing to go as you planned. Values-neutral facilitation is about flexibility and adaptability to follow the flow of the group and focus on their needs, not yours and not someone else’s (especially when they aren’t in the room). Over planning and being too rigid with specific, measurable objectives can be just as detrimental as not having any goals at all for the group. Something else will always happen- be prepared for your reaction to it and be prepared to shift your focus.

Deflection

As the facilitator, participants will want to know who you are and learn interesting things about you. That’s completely understandable – you are expecting them to create a brave space, be vulnerable, and potentially unlearn ideologies and beliefs they didn’t even know they held – the least you can do as a facilitator is share a part of yourself and your vulnerability. Understanding when to share your personal narrative is a delicate balance. It will always vary depending on the group, the setting, and how much time you have with them. When in doubt, you can always use a deflection method. You’re not there to talk about yourself anyway, and what you do share will change how participants interact with you. This often comes up as facilitator when the group wants you to make a decision for them, essentially asking you about the “right” thing to do. Try the some/some/others/and you technique to deflect.

An example (a very basic example) would be if I was asked what I wanted to get the group for lunch, a deflection to avoid making that decision on behalf of the group would be to respond along the lines of “Some folks may want pizza, some may want salads, others may want sandwiches, and what do you think would be best for lunch?” Putting the onus of making the decision on the group, and not on you. You’re there to guide the decision making process not participate in it.

Seeking Common Ground

Conflict within groups is normal and often a very necessary part of the facilitation process. So how do you as a facilitator lean into conflict to get to the transformative next stage in the process? One part of it is being comfortable with being uncomfortable. Another is remembering that information or data alone will not change someones mind, opinions, or values. You’re not there to change anyone’s mind, you’re there to find a collective solution or consensus for next steps that everyone feels they can support. When someone disagrees with another participant or with you – try to avoid assumptions or to “rationalize” them out of that thought and ask them questions to get to the root of why they feel that way. Also, be prepared to change your mind. Even as the facilitator, you don’t always have the answer (and even when you do, it’s not your role to dictate it).

Authenticity

The foundation of facilitation is building trust among everyone in the room and you can only do that if you are trustworthy. What separates a good facilitator from an amazing facilitator, is the authenticity they bring to the process. Find what works for you, build on your strengths and don’t try to be someone you’re not.  What works for some, will not work for others – and practice is how you will learn what will or will not work for you. Facilitators are always growing and learning too – invest in your personal development, learn new skills, and be open to change or doing things differently.

Have other tips for values-neutral facilitation? Let us know!

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