Professional facilitators are meant to be independent. They are not partisan participants in the difficult conversations they host. This independence translates as neutrality on the issues in contention. In circumstances where there are not necessarily polarised positions, this neutrality also means that the facilitator does not introduce her own ideas into the conversation. The role is to support the group to shape its own perspectives.
However, most people who are interested in meetings are not professional facilitators. They have a job to do, a proposal to finalise. They are often responsible for drafting the proposal, and have some degree of ownership for it. Incidentally, they are expected to chair meetings where the proposal will be discussed. Commonly, they initiate meetings with stakeholders in order to get agreement on a proposal (or at least demonstrate that stakeholders have been consulted).
If they initiate and chair meetings, the stakeholders themselves are very aware that the ‘facilitator’ in these cases, is not neutral at all. This is a difficult position.
Their roles are divided. You are responsible for the progress of the proposal and for chairing a meeting to get the genuine views of stakeholders. In extreme cases, there is an underlying intention, which may or may not be explicit, to ‘educate’ the stakeholders so that they fall in line with the proposal.
The latter approach is not an effective long term strategy. There are plenty of occasions when force, bribery or seduction works to secure agreement or compliance. This is normal politics in fact. However, as a professional practice, it diminishes your credibility with stakeholders. It fuels resentment and creates a climate for short-term exchange. A win this time means you owe something next time. More fundamentally, an agreement struck with full consideration and consent from a stakeholder will elicit more intelligent and motivated fulfilment than a forced, resentful compliance. This is true even when the stakeholder did not achieve their preferred option.
What are useful steps to take towards a ‘facilitated’ outcome for such proposals?
First of all, ensure clarity and transparency on the purpose of the meeting. Don’t pretend that some things are negotiable when they are not. Be clear about the scope of decision-making power in the hands of participants. If the deal is already done, then the meeting is to ‘inform’ participants, not to ‘consult them’ (See the IAP2 spectrum on this). Check the expectations of your participants on the purpose. If there is one participant who needs ‘educating’ then perhaps it might be more useful to have a one-on-one session with them before the sign-off meeting.
If there are concerns that might derail the meeting but which are not within the influence of participants, acknowledge these and then double check what is in the power of the group to influence. Then ask the question “How much time should we spend today on those concerns over which we have no influence?” For a specific exercise on this, have a look at Stephen Covey’s circle of influence, circle of concern. (See more detail on this tool here).
Get agreement on how the decision will be made – the ‘mode’ of decision-making. Will it require unanimity or a workable consensus. Will it be by majority vote. If so, does the minority get to publish their reasons for not supporting the proposition. Is the group just to advise and make recommendations to a separate executive authority that will have power to make the decision. Establish the likely pathway before the event, and get formal agreement at the start of the meeting. If you are the driver of the proposal, consider offering the chairing role to another person, so you can be in the discussion, but not responsible for how it is run.
As a last resort, declare your dual role, your two hats, and then separate moments in the meeting where you are facilitating or presenting: “Let me take off my facilitator hat for a moment, just to add something to that last point…(join in discussion for a minute then)….OK I’ll put my chairing hat back on now, are there any more comments?”).
Yes, neutral. I am not joking.