We spoke in Chapter 1 about
maintaining neutrality and building trust. We offered a few glimpses along the
way on how to do that. Now it is time to look at neutrality in a serious light.
We do that by examining our values.
There are many kinds of values, and there are many
things that we value. We can value our possessions, we can value our family, we
can value our collections, we can value our home. Security, fame, friendship, organization,
control, excitement, planning, spontaneity, all are things that we can place
value on. Some say that we can really only value one thing
or at least one thing at a time. Jesus said, “No man [sic] can serve two
masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will
hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” (MATT
6:24, King James Version).
says that there are two ways we can live: out of our strategic personality or
out of our soul. The strategic personality is the part of us that preserves
life. It has two pieces: one is the desire to be safe, and the other is the
reasoning ability that contrives things to make us safe. The soul is the part
that gives reason to life. It seeks to live life. It does not seek to be safe:
it says, “I am already safe because where I am there is life to be lived.”
In any meeting, there are many values, but they
fall into two groups that stand on opposite sides of a paradox. On one side are
the substantive values.
These are the interests: the considerations, concerns, and constraints that
participants bring in with them and hope to see reflected in the result of the
meeting. Because of this desire that their values will become part of the
content of the solution, these are also called “content values.”
Content values, as discussed in Chapter 3, “Action
Planning” in the section “The Three Cs” often have strong emotions around them.
They are the source of conflict in the group. Conflict is good. Without
conflict everyone is thinking the same and there is no reason for a meeting. But
conflict must be managed to move the group forward, and that cannot be done by
someone perceived as being on one side or the other. Because of the need to remain neutral in order to
build trust, the meeting facilitator or others who try to avoid the role of
partisan advocate are frequently seen by those involved in the conflict as
uncommitted people, as dehumanized persons, as witting or unwitting stooges for
the “establishment,” or as some combination of these unsavory roles and
characterizations. But there is another kind of value at operation. On
the other side of the central paradox from the substantive values are the
methodological values. These have to do with the ways in which such conflicts
should be settled in making and remaking decisions or policies which are valid
and mutually acceptable, at least ideally, to all parties to the conflict.
Methodological values include placing value on:
- The quality, validity, and reliability of
evidence used in settling the issue.
- The inference processes (reasoning and logic) by
which meanings are derived from the evidence by various participants (how
people climb the ladder of inference).
- The human effects of the means of persuasion
used, such as coercion, group pressures against minority opinions, and exploitation
of anxieties and fears.
- The quality of the communications: the listening
and the empathy participants show towards one another.
- Whether the parties learn anything from the
- Whether people invest imagination in creating
solutions that integrate existing substantive values and generate new, shared
values in the exchange.
- Not having energy invested in trying to impose rigid,
prepared positions upon one another and destroying, not strengthening, whatever
moral community has existed among the parties.
Because methodological values often define, even
dictate the process that a meeting facilitator will attempt to follow, these
are also called “process values.” To be a facilitator, to remain neutral and build
trust, you must be able to let go of any content values that you bring to the
meeting. If there is the least glimmer of you supporting one outcome over
another, one idea over another, especially in highly partisan, confrontational
conflict, the participants will lose trust in your neutrality.
This can be very difficult to avoid, and you can
shoot yourself in the foot in seemingly innocent ways. For example, to try and
encourage participation in the opening phase of action planning, you may say
supportive things like, “Good idea!” or “That’s really imaginative!” as you
record responses. Be careful that your comments and the tone in which they are
delivered are balanced and consistent or you will be perceived as favoring some
ideas over others.
We all have some content values. Sometimes the
discussion will go in a direction that will violate a deeply-held value of
yours. See the description of what happened to me while teaching a facilitation
class under “Disruptive Behaviors” in Chapter 2, “Focusing the Meeting.” In my
defense, if memory serves they were taking positions that violated my process
values. And that is the key. When you are tempted to let your content values
sway your actions, go quickly to your process values. Remember the inference
ladder and the coyote. Look for the opposing concerns that reflect the force
that stands in opposition to the force that led you to your concerns. And
remember that you have pledged to be a servant of the group, not of your own
This doesn’t mean you never comment on content.
Most of the things I do as a meeting facilitator are never recognized as having
value – remember what Lao Tzu said in Chapter 2, “Focusing the Meeting” about
the best leaders. However, one intervention I frequently make is the one most
often cited in meeting reviews as having helped the group move forward. This is
my ability to listen to all the interests, concerns, considerations, and especially
constraints, then review the list of ideas and propose a choice or synthesis of
ideas that will serve what the group says they are looking for. When I do this,
I am very careful to:
- Use the group memory to point out where the idea
came from in the alternatives put forward by the participants
- Use the group memory to highlight the interests,
criteria and constraints agreed to by the participants themselves that led me
to propose the solution
- Offer the solution neutrally, and offer the
alternatives of accepting, exploring, or rejecting my idea with exactly the
same words and inflection.
- If an idea is getting traction that violates an
agreed-upon constraint, I move to where the constraint is recorded and point
out the violation. Then with the same careful neutrality offer the choices of rejecting
the idea, rejecting the constraint, or showing me why the two are not
- Quickly reassume the three roles the of neutral
servant in leading the discussion around my proposal.
A friend of mine who was a community organizer in
Columbia and a major player in the first Latin American Conference of the
International Association of Facilitators (IAF) brought me a souvenir of that
conference. Each of the people working on the conference wore a vest made for
them by the indigenous peoples of Ecuador where the conference was held. It was
to remind them that the conference was for the participants, not the
organizers. For almost two decades it has been my facilitator’s vest.
This pledge, this commitment, these
methodological/process values are not to be taken lightly. They are the thing
you serve. They are tantamount to wearing a #safetypin or a rainbow flag or
#ThursdaysinBlack. They are things you would give up your personal safety for.
Sometimes the line between substantive and
methodological values gets blurred. For me, the most dearly held process values
are the ones about how we treat one another in this process called life. In my
personal theology, God is only a metaphor for the source of the sacred
learnings of the past 100,000 years on how to live together in community. That
has led me to put great value on each person. As a result, I do what I can with
my limited public presence to support the LGBTQIPA+ community. However,
homophobia has its historical roots in societies that put great value on population
growth so that they could keep up with their competitors. These cultures put a
moral judgement on any spilling of seed that did not have a chance to increase
the population. In certain situations, I have to remember that for some people,
this force for population growth still holds religious sway and stands in
opposition to the force for equal treatment which is my concern. I still have
not found the coyote way on this issue.
The same Columbian friend once told a story at an
IAF International Conference. A community organizer he trained had helped to
establish a playground. This and other actions she facilitated gave hope to the
community and that angered the drug cartel that sought to keep the people under
their thumb. She was murdered by the drug cartel and her body hung from a slide
on the playground. I think about her every time I put on the vest. I hope I
never have to defend my methodological values with my life, but I hope that if
I had to I would, and that I never feel compelled to say that about positions I
come to out of my substantive values.
Whyte, David, The Heart Aroused: Poetry
and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America, New York: Currency
Benne, Kenneth et. al., The Laboratory
Method of Changing and Learning: Theory and Application. Palo Alto, CA.
Science and Behavior Books. 1975. Much of this chapter is adapted from Chapter
2, “Conceptual and Moral Foundations of Laboratory Method.”  In the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu says, "Of the best
leader, when the job is done the people say 'we did it ourselves.'"