Facilitators as stakeholders: Suspending the bias

By Lauren Holder

4C Student Affiliate

In public deliberative processes, stakeholders are the persons who hold an interest, concern, or perspective that affects or is affected by the issue at hand.  With many forums I have facilitated or planned over the past two years, I have identified simultaneously as both a stakeholder in the conversation AND an unbiased facilitator of the process. The difficulty with this situation is that it is nearly impossible to remove one’s bias. One’s perspectives and beliefs are not merely erased when we step into the role of a facilitator. Therefore the challenge is to step into the neutral role and suspend all judgments, opinions, and personal values at the proverbial door where they may be picked up again later.

Each forum has been different. In Spring 2013 4C facilitated a conversation regarding natural gas fracking and its effects on the community. I had little to no opinion or knowledge on that matter, so my bias didn’t present any issue and I never thought much about it. However, when I facilitated a dialogue on Marriage and the State in Fall of 2014, I was faced with the challenge of feeling very strongly for the side of marriage equality and gay rights, but had to remain a neutral facilitator.

There is no simple way to put your beliefs on hold. Sometimes you are so tempted to blurt out your own perspectives that you feel the need to literally bite your tongue. There is no quick fix, trick, or simple strategy to suspending judgments. You simply must “do.” The way I accomplish the task is by reminding myself that this isn’t the only dialogue. I am not missing my one opportunity to be heard. I am, however, making sure that these participants are heard, and that is my most important role in that moment. I remind myself that my first and biggest priority is creating a safe and open space for others to feel comfortable sharing their own beliefs.

The biggest challenge to personal bias that I have seen through 4C was during the Students as Neighbors Forum this past November. ALL of the table facilitators were JMU undergraduate students from the SCOM department. ALL were clearly stakeholders in the conversation as they were, in fact, students. The discussion was quite literally about them, yet they were challenged to neutrally guide the conversation while certainly having an opinion on the matter.

The biggest obstacle here was to be upfront and honest with participants that while yes, facilitators were students, they were not there in the ‘student’ role. Facilitators had to balance the conversation between different perspectives so as not to appear to favor their peers’ perspective over another. The student facilitators accomplished this task with ease, while still seeming genuine and human. I was unbelievably impressed with their ability to juggle their many roles in that moment.
Neutrality is certainly easier said than done, but facilitators can learn the skill through practice and intentional thinking. Sometimes observing others accomplish neutrality can be an effective learning tool. Neutrality doesn’t mean lying or putting up a false front, because others will see through that persona. It just means suspending judgments for the time-being.