Do You Need To Be ‘Content Neutral’ To Be An Effective Facilitator?

Turns out you CAN facilitate your own Topic!

By Pat McNellis


For years there has been an “Urban Legend” going around that you shouldn’t facilitate your own topic.  You need someone without a vested interest in the subject matter.

Hogwash…in 9 out of 10 cases.

It’s not a matter of can, it’s a matter of should.

Compression Planning uses a six-step model that can be molded to facilitate any topic…by anyone, including the owner of the issue.

There is always a battle between content and process.  As long as the facilitator is skilled in understanding and guiding a group using a structured process, there is absolutely no reason why that person cannot facilitate and participate in coming to the resolution of what the group has been charged to deliver.

How can one facilitate when they are not neutral to the content?

Easy…follow each of the steps as laid out in the Master Model.

6 Steps to Facilitating Your Own Issue

Step #1:  Do a Design!  If you are your own client, use the boundary questions found on page 25 of your Institute Reference Book:  “The Compression Planning Advantage…A Blueprint for Resolving Complex Issues.”  If you do not have a copy of this one pager and want one, send me an email –

You may want to use your free design alert to have one of our Compression Planning experts take a look at your design.  You don’t have to, but hey, we’ve facilitated a ton of our own sessions and we’ll look at your design for ways to simplify and strengthen it.

Step #2:  Orient the group to the process you’ll be using.  Again, follow your Cue Sheet – Share your topic card….participant introductions….explain your role as facilitator…get your help, printers and pinner….NOW explain your Design…post guidelines….introduce artifacts to help with the guidelines….start facilitating your headers.

But wait…you want to participate as you have ideas too!

Good…here are two tips I use when I need to participate.

  1. I physically step off to the side of the storyboards.  When I facilitate, I am in front of the group and the storyboards.  When I participate, I step off to the side, usually behind the printers.  It’s a visual cue to your group.
  2. Sometimes you need to announce to the group “I’m stepping out of my role as a facilitator as I have an idea I want to share.”

Bottom line though, as long as you are keeping your eye on the process and keep the content moving and are filling out yellow subber cards with well churned ideas, then go forth and participate as you see fit.

But don’t come up with ALL of the ideas.  If you feel that is happening, then have someone else jump up for a period of time and facilitate.

Remember, facilitation is mostly a listening skill, not a speaking skill.  You are listening to content and are guiding the development of that content through churning and developing actionable ideas (see the blog on Developing Actionable Ideas).

Step #3:  Decision Making time.  You did your design and you have a clear Purpose of this Session statement.  This is your expectation of the group.  Give them reminders and guidance of how you want them to dot….and it should be directly tied to your Purposes.

Depending on your group, and you as a leader/client, you may want to or need to dot in a separate color.  Probably not, but if appropriate, it does give “ownership distinction” – makes it easy to see where you, the client, sees the highest potential ideas.

If you do decide to dot in another color, don’t dot first!  Dot after half the group has already dotted.  This isn’t a case of “follow the leader.”  If it is, then why do you need a group to give you input?

Step #4:  Making commitments.  You’ve dotted and as a group, have come to a “consensus agreement.”  Now is the time to make assignments and commitments.

Now, the trick for you as the leader/content owner is to let people “sign up” and volunteer for assignments versus mandate them.

If the group came to consensus on the session deliverables, the concept of “if they build it they will buy it” comes into play.  You should have people clamoring to volunteer to take tasks on.  This is a sign of a healthy group that was properly commissioned to tackle an issue!

Step back and guide…let people take on appropriate tasks, make their commitments and deadlines.   Feel free to take on tasks that you want to see come to fruition as well!

Step #5:  Communicate…think Information Flow.  There are most likely people who are impacted by the work you and your group have done.   Who are they and what are the messages they need to know?  Follow the template as laid out on your Cue Sheet and in the book on page 94 of the Blueprint for Resolving Complex Issues.

Step #6:  Debrief/Evaluate.  How do you get better at facilitating your own topics?  How do you get better at facilitating in general?  By following the template for Debriefing – What Went Well, What Would We Change For Our Next Session, and Lessons Learned – you will learn a lot…not only about the process, but about yourself as well.

There will be that “1 in 10” situation where you shouldn’t facilitate your own topic.  Just as a surgeon shouldn’t perform brain surgery on their own child, it doesn’t mean they can’t…it just means that they may be too close to the content to effectively do their job.

You have to ask yourself…what is my vested interest in this subject matter?  Ask yourself if you should be sitting around the table versus standing in front?

Most content issues will be ones you can facilitate…and the ones you can’t, find someone to come in and facilitate for you.

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