Skip to main content

Keys to Creating Neutrality or ‘Perceived’ Neutrality

Meeting Facilitator Leading Meeting At Boardroom Table
November 12, 2019 2:50 pm

“A bridge has no allegiance to either side,” said British artist and author, Les Coleman. Indeed, bridges have long been universal symbols of connection and neutrality. Their primary purpose is to improve communication between two points that would have otherwise remained separate.

In a sense, facilitators are like bridges in meetings, ensuring that voices and ideas are connected in a productive manner. And, like bridges, they do not have, or should not have, allegiances. They do however have an allegiance not to influence the ideas or ‘content’ of the meeting, but rather to structure and lead the ‘process’ of the meeting. Leaders therefore wear many different hats. When Leaders structure meetings around sharing their opinions and expertise, or mandating what needs to be done, they are more focused on ‘what’ or ‘content leadership’. When they start focusing on ‘how’ the meeting is run and are asking questions rather than telling, they are now wearing the ‘process leadership’ hat.

When leaders are focused on ‘process’ leadership or facilitation, there has been a debate as to whether they should maintain strict neutrality. Traditionally, the belief has been that facilitators benefit from knowing very little or nothing at all about the content of their meetings to prevent them from biased thinking or offering any opinions that may unduly influence outcomes.

For most people who facilitate internally, being completely neutral is impossible due to a vested interest in the outcome of the company, group or meeting itself.  So the question is; can internal facilitators be effective process facilitators? I believe they can if they are very transparent as to which hat they are wearing at the outset of a meeting or as they “change hats” throughout the meeting.

The goal is to maintain neutrality when you want to maximize input from the group and only slip back into your “expert” role when absolutely necessary. In order to get the most out of the group, it is critical that you are perceived as neutral, even if you are not.  As soon as participants sense that your mind is made up or the decision has already been made, you will lose credibility and generate mistrust.

Here are some tips as to how to maintain perceived neutrality:

  • Treat everyone equally by making sure you make eye contact with all the participants and that you acknowledge all contributions using similar wording and body language
  • Focus on engaging ALL participants so that everyone’s voice is heard
  • Never personally evaluate the ideas that are being generated by the group
  • If a conflict arises, avoid siding yourself with any one person, group, or an idea. Put a structure in place to ensure each voice is heard followed by those who disagree, paraphrasing back what they heard to ensure active listening. Repeat this for each conflicting party
  • If you are wearing “both hats” in the meeting, tell the group when you are moving from neutral facilitator to active participant
  • During idea generation or brainstorming, do not hesitate in scribing someone’s input. This deferral may come across as you analyzing their idea or giving the impression that what the speaker said may be wrong or not clear
  • Explain at the beginning of a meeting that your role is related to the process and not the content. Any content generated should be coming from the group
  • Any questions posed to you should be mirrored back to the group to respond to. For example, if a participant asks you a question that deals with an important issue, make sure that you tactfully refer this question back to an individual who can answer it, or the whole group
  • Fight the urge to speak too much. BTL – bite the lip!
  • Avoid using ‘yes/no’ questions to start off with. This may cause participants to feel like you’re leading them down a specific path. Rather, use open-ended questions to generate ideas initially. Use close-ended questions to confirm that you recorded an idea correctly or to clarify the intention of someone’s input (“Did you mean XYZ or ABC?”)
  • Feel free to contribute a suggestion only if the group’s ideas/comments have stalled, you’ve re-asked the question in several different ways, and/or you believe they might have missed something important
  • In this case, make sure that you pose your suggestion in the shape of a leading question or a floating idea: “Are there any solutions related to mobile technology that you might have not considered yet?” or “I’m wondering what you think about…”
  • Even if you choose to make a suggestion, you should not care about the outcome. Only record the idea if the participants do pick up on it and start to own it
  • Most important to note is that you reserve suggestions for only those times as stated above – suggest sparingly

Remember that no matter which approach you choose to follow, you are not immune to starting to manipulate while you facilitate – or, as industry experts term it, to ‘facipulate’. After all, we all have our worldviews/biases and temperaments that we bring to the table and sometimes we might begin advocating without even being fully aware of it. This requires that you consciously remind yourself of the above tips so that ultimately, it becomes part of what you do as a facilitator.


Let us Know

Do you have a unique meeting challenge not covered by one of our blog posts? We’re always looking for different dilemmas to discuss in our articles!