Facilitation Challenges: Navigating the Space Between Neutrality and Identity

lindsey-whyte
By Lindsey Whyte

As a brand-new student in the art of facilitation, one of my first lessons was in the importance of maintaining neutrality on the substance of discussion and, relatedly, in the value of calling in an outside facilitator to a sensitive discussion. The theory underlying this concept is that, by remaining neutral as to content, the facilitator is able to focus her undivided attention on the conversation’s process and on its participants.  Seasoned facilitators confirm this theory with experience, offering stories of past facilitations in which their status as a complete outsider, or their relative unfamiliarity with the substance of discussion (as compared to the conversation participants), was actually their greatest asset.  By arriving to the conversation as a neutral party and setting that expectation with the group up front, an outside facilitator is freed of potentially charged or problematic aspects of her identity – such as “insider” or “partisan” status, hierarchical power, decision-making authority, or potential bias – taking the focus away from her own thoughts or views on the substance and shifting it fully to the views of the dialogue’s participants.  Having quelled participants’ worries that she may be passing judgment on their comments or harboring a hidden agenda behind her process moves, the neutral facilitator gives herself, and the group, the best chance of drawing out the truest version of all perspectives, and thus of helping the group do its best work.

This lesson didn’t come naturally to me. One of the ways in which I connect with new people is through commonalities.  In a sense, I offer pieces of my identity as a means of building common human ground, affinity, and trust with others.  This natural tendency surfaced in one of my first facilitations, a simulated community planning meeting to brainstorm possible uses of an urban park.  Seeking to build rapport and trust with one particularly frustrated participant, a dog owner, I acknowledged her frustration and added, “I’m a dog owner myself.”  No sooner had the words left my lips than I saw on my other participants’ faces that my good-natured comment had aligned me with that frustrated dog owner’s positions, wiping away any perception I’d managed to build of the “neutral facilitator” in one well-intentioned swoop.  In the conversation debrief, my suspicions were confirmed:  our frustrated dog owner felt validated and legitimized; the others felt less willing to give voice to their thoughts and concerns – fearing that I would be less receptive – and left the conversation feeling unheard.  Lesson learned.

In conversations delving into race, privilege, and oppression, the neutrality/identity tension becomes even more complex. For one thing, participants will likely perceive the facilitator to have certain visible characteristics – such as characteristics indicating a racial identity, to give one example – which may denote to the participants “insider” or “outsider” status quite apart from whether the facilitator is an “insider” or “outsider” with respect to the specific topic of discussion.  The facilitator may choose to acknowledge these visible characteristics with the group up front – and may choose to comment on how they impact the facilitator’s own perspective or to what extent they reflect the facilitator’s actual identity – but he or she may not be able to alter how these characteristics impact participants’ perceptions of his or her neutrality in the conversation.  Additionally, the facilitator may bring to the conversation possibly less visible – but no less potentially powerful – identity components around lived experiences of privilege (or relative lack thereof), or personal experiences with racism, sexism, classism, heteronormativity, or other manifestations of systemic power and oppression.  As human beings – particularly those of us who have grown up in this country, steeped as it is in an ongoing history of systemic and institutionalized oppression – these identity components affect our perspectives and our contributions to conversations, in ways both conscious and unconscious.  Here again, the facilitator may choose to acknowledge the presence of these less-visible identity components with the group, all while reaffirming his or her commitment to remaining in the role of neutral facilitator as much as possible.

Regardless, group participants may recognize that, if the facilitator were to participate in the dialogue, these less-visible identity components could still manifest themselves in her comments or reactions, and would in any event shape her views on the substance in a way that could feel decidedly non-neutral to participants. As a result – whether or not a facilitator chooses to acknowledge the visible components of her identity – refraining from participating in the conversation and thus from divulging these less-visible identity components can also be an important part of maintaining neutrality in the eyes of the group.

In my experience last semester facilitating a series of small group conversations that frequently examined racism and other forms of oppression both inside and outside our law school community, I navigated my own complex tension between neutrality and identity, even as I continued to learn what it means to be a skillful facilitator. On the one hand, I am still learning how to marshal the theory and practical skills I’ve learned, including on the subject of facilitator neutrality, to foster an inclusive space for participants to share diverse perspectives and listen to each other with resilience and curiosity.  On the other hand, I am a white woman for whom the pursuit of being a better ally in the fight for racial justice that feels both urgent and imperative to me is an everyday process, one in which my eyes are continuously opened to how I can be doing better and one whose chief catalyst is conversation with others.  Nor, as a student in the law school, was I an outsider to these particular conversations.  I, and my stance on these issues, were known to some of the participants in my small group – my peers – and cannot, in any way, be described as neutral on the substance.

As I reflected on these tensions over the course of our series of conversations as a small group, I began to wonder: are there some situations in which a facilitator’s aspirations of neutrality must remain aspirations only in the eyes of the group?  If so, are the interests underlying facilitator neutrality still served by the facilitator professing neutrality as to the substance to the group and refraining from sharing any of her own personal struggles or experiences?  What are the interests underlying facilitator neutrality in this context?

To touch on the last of these questions first, I’ve suggested some of those interests above – building trust; fostering an inclusive space where participants can share dissenting views and learn from each other, without fear of judgment; and making all participants feel equally heard and validated in the conversation. Others include giving the facilitator the mental bandwidth to focus on other, important aspects of her role, such as keeping the group faithful to pre-established group norms, working to ensure that all participants have a chance to share their thoughts, remaining mindful of time, and listening carefully to each participant, drawing out prevalent themes and areas of difference for group reflection.  In some sense, these aspects are the true essence behind the meaning of the word facilitator – the facilitator makes the process of engaging in conversation easier for her participants by freeing them to focus exclusively on the substance.  Accordingly, if the facilitator steps too far into the role of participant, she risks losing herself, too, in the substance, at the expense of her role as facilitator.

These important considerations notwithstanding, over the course of our Real Talk experiment, I reached the conclusion that there are times when a facilitator can meet the interests behind declaring herself to be officially neutral in other ways.  Indeed, these other ways may even feel more authentic to participants if the facilitator is not, in fact, an outsider, or if aspects of her identity feel – either to the participants or to the facilitator herself – difficult to reconcile with professed official neutrality.  This may be particularly true if the facilitator has the opportunity to work with a group over time and in smaller groups, where all participants have the opportunity to speak, listen, and share ideas.

The facilitator has a number of tools in her belt, aside from professing neutrality, for fostering a low-risk and inclusive space from the start, even (perhaps especially!) in potentially difficult or emotionally-charged conversations. To promote transparency, the facilitator can acknowledge the interplay between her identity and the subject of conversation, affirming her commitment to creating an inclusive space while also signaling the possibility that she may participate at some point in the future.  By crafting careful group norms that encourage participants to respect each others’ views – even while digging in to them and even while disagreeing – working with the group to adopt norms that work for them, and then holding the group to those norms, the facilitator begins to lay the foundation.  On to that foundation, the facilitator builds a structure of careful and active listening, encouraging quieter participants to share when it feels right and helping more active participants to make that space for their colleagues.  All the while, the facilitator takes her cues from the group, looking for indications that trust and inclusivity are present, even as disagreement and emotion surface.

Once she is assured that this structure is firmly in place, then might the facilitator begin to experiment with participating herself. In my experience, this should be done with purpose and intention, and, can also do much to meet some of the interests behind remaining neutral on the substance.  For example, particularly in intimate group settings, the facilitator may choose to share her own struggles, missteps, or vulnerabilities, signaling to the group that, far from sitting in judgment, she too is grappling with the same difficult questions.  In the right group atmosphere, this sharing of identity can build trust and reveal an authenticity that participants may find comforting.  And of course, like any intervention into the dialogue that a facilitator might make, this move could also risk alienating members of the group who do not experience a struggle around these issues, potentially causing them to withdraw from subject matter about which they may already feel distance, or discomfort.  The choice of whether or not to share this information may not seem easy or clear in the moment, or even in retrospect.  And, my suggestion here is only that, in certain contexts, it could be a helpful one.

There is no one right answer to how to navigate the tension between neutrality and identity, particularly in conversations about privilege and oppression that affect all of us – albeit in ways that may feel differently and of a different degree. By remaining carefully attentive to the needs of the group, and reflecting constantly on how her identity can interplay with that dynamic, the facilitator can begin to work through some of these questions, incorporating the invaluable teachings of those with whom she has the privilege of sharing dialogue.

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