Facilitation ethics and values – where do you draw a line?

no go zoneMembers of the International Association of Facilitators commit to upholding the IAF Code of Ethics. The code was the result of a 4 year collaborative development process of the IAF Ethics & Values Think Tank, and was adopted in 2004.

I find the code a helpful tool to support me in reflecting on my own practice and values as a facilitator, and I have been referring to it again as I have been preparing my portfolio for ICA’s Certified ToP Facilitator (CTF) assessment – see also Evidencing facilitation competencies: reflecting on lessons learned. However, it does not provide an easy blueprint for what you should and should not do as a facilitator. It is not as simple as that – there are sometimes ethical dilemmas to negotitate.

Where do you draw a line, based on your own ethics and values, beyond which you are not prepared to go as a facilitator?  Perhaps more problematically, how do you negotiate the drawing of such a line with your client and group, especially when a contract or a facilitated process is already underway?  There are no right  or easy answers, but as IAF Chair Kimberly Bain writes in her new Reflective Ethical Facilitator’s Guide:

“As facilitators we are architects of trust. We owe it to our clients to act with an informed appreciation of the ethical issues and competencies needed to help groups build consensus and produce meaningful outcomes”.

One precaution I take is to try to communicate my professional boundaries clearly well in advance, just as many facilitators aim to establish ground rules at the start of a session. I have found an easy and helpful way to do that is to include in my proposals a simple and positive statement (with hyperlinks included) to the effect that: “As a Certified Professional Facilitator, my clients are assured that I uphold the IAF Code of Ethics in my work, and that I demonstrate the full range of core Facilitator Competencies. Nevertheless I can recall occasions in which I have had to draw a line.

In one case, it took a series of contracting meetings with increasingly senior officers in a local authority before I was able to understand what was the unspoken aim driving the event that I was being invited to design and facilitate. Ostensibly the event was for a variety of stakeholders to share and learn from experiences of what was working in tackling a particularly intractable social issue in the borough, and to plan next steps for collaborative action. The covert aim, however, as it was eventually disclosed to me in hushed tones, was to convince and reassure senior officers and elected members that the Council’s approach was working just fine and was not in need of review. The 80 delegates had been invited to participate in order to be guided to this pre-determined conclusion.

I responded, in hushed tones myself and as tactifully as I could, that that was not something that I would be able to help with as a facilitator. As the code makes clear, “As group facilitators, we practice stewardship of process and impartiality toward content”. I explained what I could offer instead, and drafted and submitted a proposal on that basis. My cover note stressed: “How I can help is to design and facilitate an event that enables poeple to share their views and perspectives in such a way that they feel heard and understood, and that they have contributed meaningfully to something that will make a difference; but I will not be seeking to ensure that they reach any particular conclusion”.  My proposal was not accepted, but privately I was thanked for having helped to surface an issue that had been concerning officers involved.

In another case, my proposal had won a competitive bidding process and I had had been awarded a contract for a team to design and facilitate an extensive community consultation process over several months. At our first team meeting with the client to plan for delivery of the contract, the client insisted on a more extensive process than we had proposed, and in a shorter timeframe. When I suggested that it might not be possible for us to deliver an appropriate quality of service under such constraints, I was advised that we were committed under the terms of the bidding process to deliver and that these would be the constraints.

Following a long and late discussion among the team that evening after the meeting, I wrote to the client the next morning to advise that with regret we were withdrawing our proposal. As the code makes clear, “It is our responsibility to ensure that we are competent to handle the intervention”. The client was unhappy, to say the least, and felt that we had reneged on a contract and left them in the lurch at the last minute. We learned later that they had said as much to another of our clients.  On balance, however, we felt that we had done the best thing that we could have done in the circumstances.

Where do you draw a line, and how do you negotiate such a dilemma?

For more on my work, and what others have to say about it, please see how I workwho I work with and recommendations & case studies – or view my profile and connect with me on LinkedIn.

You can connect with me also by joining my free facilitation webinars online, and IAF England & Wales’ free facilitation meetups in London and elsewhere.

10 thoughts on “Facilitation ethics and values – where do you draw a line?

    • Excellent examples that really bring the IAF ethics and values to life. Indeed, it was a series of examples like this at the IAF 2000 conference that led to the development of IAF’s “Statement of Values and Code of Ethics for Group Facilitators.”

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