A Super Bowl without neutral referees? The World Series or World Cup without neutral umpires? Any tripartite government without the judicial branch? Conduct a meeting to build consensus without neutral facilitation? The answer to all of them – Don’t even think of it!
We promote an evidence-based meeting approach that converts subjective points of view into their objective basis or facts of support. When consensus challenges arise, neutral facilitation remains the single most important attribute of a professional facilitator.
Participants who trust the authenticity of their facilitator respond more frequently and thoroughly than smooth-talking facilitators that memorize and rehearse their script. Neutrality provides a critical attribute for meeting balance and integrity.
Derivation of Neutral
Look closer at the term ‘neutral’, its derivation, and various types of neutrality applied to disparate bodies of knowledge. First, neuter derives from the Latin neutralis, or “neither the one nor the other, neither of two”.
Aspects of Neutral Facilitation:
- Not engaged on either side specifically: not aligned with a political or ideological grouping a neutral nation.
- Relating to a neutral state or power neutral territory.
- Not decided or pronounced as to characteristics, indifferent.
The definition of neutral is not taking part in a fight or war or having very little color. An example of neutral is a person who does not take sides in an argument between two friends.
Types of Neutrality
- Arbitration or Mediation (a person who takes no side in a dispute)
- Biological (gender)
- Carbon Displacement (situation in which contrasted elements, as losses and gains, offset each other)
- Chemical (having a pH of 7, neither acidic nor alkaline)
- Color (indicating a color such as gray, black, or white that lacks hue; achromatic)
- Electrical or Physics (uncharged, neither negative nor positive, think neutron)
- Mechanical (disengaged position of gears, in which they do not transmit power from the engine)
- Phonetical (articulated with the tongue relaxed and in the mid-central position)
- Thermoneutrality (the heat-neutral temperature for a given animal: the temperature at which it does not need to regulate its body temperature)
- Spread (where the total delta position on the long side and on the short side add up to approximately zero, thereby making the commodity risk-neutral)
- Viewpoints (favoring neither the supporting nor opposing viewpoint of a topic of debate)
- Wartime or Conflict (a natural country or a neutral corner in a boxing ring)
- Wall Street (a neutral rating is a code phrase for a sell rating, used in lieu of “sell” in order to avoid offending clients)
Do You Want to Go to Prison?
Note that being non-neutral implies partisan, or as can be easily derived, participant. Meeting participants are also known as subject matter experts. People that bring their subjective points of view, expertise, and bias to their meetings.
We have an alumnus, a contractor with Northrop-Grumman, who has facilitated the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In their consensus-building sessions conducted in the third sub-basement of the Pentagon, the participants, who are also Generals, adorn sweaters to hide rank during facilitated sessions. They’ve learned that participants need the right to speak freely in a facilitated session, as long as the facilitator remains neutral.
Another alumnus from the largest department of people reporting directly to POTUS (ie, President of the United States), the Federal Mediators, informed us that violating neutrality during a federally mediated session could result in imprisonment! Hello—we’re talking jail time for being non-neutral.
It seems important enough for us to make neutrality a top ten consideration for an effective professional facilitator. If you are not remaining neutral, then you better learn how to and now.
Importance of Neutral Facilitation
Workshop leaders should strive every way possible to avoid offering up content, knowing that the participants must own and live with their decision. Workshop leaders risk total failure if they violate neutrality by stepping on content.
When you exude neutrality, you cannot be viewed (and neither can you view yourself) as being wrong in anything related to the deliverables or results of the session. Neutrality compels staying focused on the method, not a specific solution:
- An attitude of acceptance of various points of view
- Essential for effective facilitation
- The preserver of the context, the method
Staying neutral means keeping your opinions to yourself. You do not lose your opinions—but you learn to value alternative views, and keep your mouth shut. You remember that an important part of your role says to keep your opinions to yourself. Above all, neutrality is a discipline:
- Conveys acceptance of all views
- Draws out quiet people and perspectives
- Preserves the process
- Prevents facilitator alignment with sides
When you, as facilitator, align yourself with a participant’s point of view you become another participant. It is preferable, and essential, that you draw out the perspectives of others without disclosing your own personal opinion.
If you lose neutrality, stop the session, take a break, and reconvene when you have regained your role; or simply ask the group to reign you in so that you can apologize, mitigate the distraction, and move on. You should begin a session by telling the group that your job is to remain neutral. Let them police your actions. It helps a great deal.
How to Remain Neutral
Neutrality may be your biggest challenge but it is also a defense mechanism. Being neutral means letting go of the “I”, the ego, the personal stake in the outcome of a situation.
“We” and not “I”
Speak in terms of “we” instead of “I.” The group is responsible for commitments and obligations. You will discourage contributions and increase jealousies if you talk about “my idea” or “my plan.”
Put your thoughts in the form of a question. Instead of saying “I think we should raise prices,” try “What if we raised prices?” As the group makes progress, talk “we.” When claiming success, talk “we.” And when you are tempted to take credit, talk “we.”
When presenting content or material, depersonalize ownership. Refer to “their” material or “your” situation. For example, “As you know (or, as you’ve seen) . . .” rather than “I think . . .” When obligated to use the first person, at least be pluralistic and use “we” or “us” or “ours” and NOT “me” or “I” or “mine.”
Balance Requires Neutral Facilitation
Combining active listening, neutral facilitation, questioning, and observation along with understanding appropriate responses helps create effective facilitators. As leader and facilitator, you are responsible for maintaining the balance.
Project Manager and Product Owner Considerations
As project manager or product owner, you may need to eventually render a decision. At least remain neutral until you reach that point. Or embrace the following suggestions, to stress your neutrality and deference to the voice of the market or voice of the customer.
- Share passion about method, output, and outcome, not content. Remain passionate about results, yet unbiased about path.
- Use expertise in advance to fill gaps in deliverable by sharing with participants what you already know.
- Present your knowledge as a discrete activity prior to the workshop or meeting, in a different role—as presenter, or PM or CSPO.
- Apply your content expertise in the form of a question: ie, tell them what we need and ask for their responses about how to do it.
- Ultimately bite your tongue, make off-line adjustments, BUT DO NOT “SWITCH HATS” (participants will view you as psychotic).
- Finally, BE HONEST and ask participants to object audibly if you violate neutrality.
Managers and executives in the role of meeting leader may not be expected to be entirely neutral. Effective leaders will learn to embrace the importance of meeting neutrality and active listening but when required, they may be forced to render an opinion or a decision. Strive to remain neutral and use pluralistic rhetoric at least until you reach the decision or inflection point.
Perhaps above all, make sure your neutrality comes from the heart. Use the right tone of voice or they may perceive you violating neutrality. Be careful with your vocal tone (eg, Hmmm) and other non-verbal characteristics (eg., raised eyebrows).
Don’t ruin your career or reputation with bad meetings. Register for a class or forward this to someone who should. Taught by world-class instructors, MG RUSH professional facilitation curriculum focuses on practice. Each student thoroughly practices and rehearses tools, methods, and approaches throughout the week. While some call this immersion, we call it the road to building impactful facilitation skills.
Our courses also provide an excellent way to earn up to 40 SEUs from the Scrum Alliance, 40 PDUs from PMI, and 40 CDUs from IIBA, as well as 3.2 CEUs for other professions. (See individual class descriptions for details.)
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