The Electronic Discussion on
Group Facilitation
Process Expertise for Group Effectiveness
Moderator: Sandor P. Schuman

Neutral vs. Affirmation Thread.


Some interesting facts:


The thread had:

  51 responses

  23 different people

  responses from England, 3 cities in Canada, 3 cities in Austrailia

      Columbia, Texas, CT, NM, Mi, OH, NY and some others I couldn't


  changed topics 3 times: Neutral vs Affirmation to Situational

Facilitation (where I dropped off) to Christmas pudding (included at

the end for some humor) and facilitator hats. Not bad for a thread

started on Friday 13th :-)


Date:    Fri, 13 Dec 1996 19:25:32 -0500

From:    Jim O'Brien <>

Subject: Neutral vs. affirmation


During a recent JAD training session, the issue of neutrality versus

affirmation came up.  According to the trainer, the facilitator strives

to be neutral with his/her interventions. The facilitator indicates no

personal preference, does not favor one comment more than another.  The

facilitator maintains a position of neutrality towards the group.


While working with the training group, I commented "Very fine." I

observed that one particular comment helped the group accomplish its

work. In the evaluation, the instructor said that I had not maintained

a neutral position when I made the affirming comment. The instructor

believed that I had made a judgment by giving specific praise to one



Obviously I am having second thoughts about this evaluation. I believe

that well placed affirmation as positive feedback can help people in

their work, can help groups function effectively.


Does facilitator neutrality necessarily exclude affirmation? Is

affirmation, such as "Excellent", "Good work", "Nice going."

judgmental and thus, detrimental to the group? I'd appreciate feedback

either to the newsgroup or to me personally.


Jim O'Brien


Date:    Fri, 13 Dec 1996 17:58:27 -0800

From:    John Walker <>

Subject: Re: Neutral vs. affirmation


Yes, I've found this to be a tough one. The rule of thumb that I've

worked out is to think through what kind of group/session it is.


The "strict" neutrality rule is more formal, and is a reflection of a

cool relationship between the facilitator and the group. It is most

appropriate with more senior and more formal groups, that really don't

want or need interaction with the facilitator. They just want

a referee. In such case, the strict rule should be observed: neither

positive or negative comment. This is difficult for those of us who

tend to be less formal, but we need to do it.


But this is a bit too rigid for some groups, who really want a person

up front to interact with. In this case, the occasional supportive

comment works, but shouldn't be overdone.


John Walker        Ethika Performance Enhancement, Vancouver. B.C.

Canada        Phone:  (604) 980-9448


Date:    Sat, 14 Dec 1996 12:43:30 -0600

From:    Gary Kimble & Metta Zetty <>

Subject: Re: Re: Neutral vs. affirmation


I think your query is a very important one, Jim, because it surfaces a

pervasive "Myth of Objectivity and Neutrality."  Interestingly enough,

if we have learned anything at all from the "new" sciences of

complexity, chaos and systems theory it is that pure "neutrality" and

"objectivity" are humanly impossible.  We each see through our own

perceptual filters and experiential lenses, and everything we say or

do, personally or professionally, is processed through these

subjective, interpretive mechanisms.


I genuinely believe it is naive to assume that we can ever be

completely objective in any situation, and I agree with you

whole-heatedly that positive feedback is extremely valuable, if not

essential, in our work as facilitators.  In fact, genuine and positive

feedback can be one the best ways of building rapport between team

members, and I believe it is incumbent upon the facilitator to model

behaviors that are consistent with his/her values and beliefs.


Since much of my work involves mediation and conflict resolution, I am

very sensitive to the complexity of this issue, Jim, and I know there

are no easy answers.  But, if it is at all helpful, I would offer my

own positive feedback to you now by encouraging you to trust your

instincts on this one. We are not value-neutral automatons (valuing

"objectivity" is itself a bias), and if I can step briefly on my

soap-box, I believe that attempts to adopt a position of "sterile"

objectivity can perpetuate much that potentially de-humanizing in the



Although I have not read any of his work, I also suspect that David

Cooperrider might also address some aspects of this issue in his

ground-breaking work on Appreciative Inquiry. Could any readers on

this listserve share any references or titles as a starting point or

introduction to David's work?


Metta Zetty

KIMBLE/ZETTY, Change and Development Facilitation, 11300 Expo

Boulevard  #2404

San Antonio, Texas [78230], TEL:  210-561-6945


Date:    Sat, 14 Dec 1996 15:45:18 -0700

From:    Greg Giesen <>

Subject: Re: Neutral vs. affirmation


Although I can see both sides of this philosophical dilemma, I

strongly suggest you also pose that question to the actual group you

facilitate. After all, it is their process and their perceptions are

what matter here. However, next time you are in this scenario and want

to make an affirmation, I might suggest you consider stepping out of

your facilitator role to do so. Food for thought.


Greg Giesen

Mgmt Consultant/Trainer


Date:    Sun, 15 Dec 1996 18:36:43

From:    "nic.ron" <>

Subject: Re: Neutral vs. Affirmation


What I do in these situations is to consider my intention when making

any comments on content.  If my comments are designed to encourage

participation and input, as your comment was designed to, I feel that

it is appropriate to give positive feedback.  If I was intervening as

a result of my agreement with what was said I would notice this and

reflect later on what was appropriate - focusing on the effect my

intervention had  on the group. If my feedback seemed to constrain

other participants it may not have appropriate. I find with my work I

am often required to wear more than one hat - often that of

facilitator and also process consultant.  I often let the group know I

am changing roles so that they are clear about what role I am basing

my intervention from - and that they can accept or reject my

suggestions as a process consultant.


I'm not sure if remaining neutral is always the best approach. Some

participants need some encouragement in order to feel comfortable

contributing - especially in newly formed groups.





Date:    Sun, 15 Dec 1996 09:01:53 -0500

From:    Andrea Tannenbaum <>

Subject: Re: neutral vs. affirmation


I have been puzzling over this question, wondering what I do in this

situation to accomplish the job in a "human" way.  I do provide

affirmation for the attendees, but I try to affirm their participation

in the process, not their content.

- I thank them for their entry into the conversation.

- I applaud their progress.

- I point out how far we've come, and how far the journey is.

->I congratulate when they pass a sticky point or encourage them to

see the light at the end of the tunnel


As others have pointed out, it is extremely difficult to stay neutral,

and may possibly make you seem disinterested or disengaged in the

process.  I agree with Greg, "Although I can see both sides of this

philosophical dilemma, I strongly suggest you also pose that question

to the actual group you facilitate. After all, it is their process and

their perceptions are what matter here."  Make them all "table"

facilitators.  This is their meeting, their content, their results,

their accountability.  The more you encourage them to own, the more

energy and ownership you'll create.  I would also encourage them to

provide the affirmation on content if it is appropriate.  After all,

what will they do when you leave?


Ask them to keep you neutral.  You are also modeling the way if a

participant catches you out of line - and you accept responsibility. 

I admit that occasionally I step into content big time - just so that

the group WILL yell at me.  Lots of good energy in that!


Andrea Tannenbaum, IntraGroup Dynamics 22 Wyndcliffe Park, Bloomfield,

CT 06002

phone(860) 286-0004;  fax (860) 286-0307


Date:    Sun, 15 Dec 1996 16:26:24 -0700

From:    Anne R Tyler <>

Subject: Re: Neutral vs. Affirmation


I agree with Metta Zetty (below) about the myth of objectivity. And I

mention a specific method that helps a great deal because it is not



I recently was reminded about Peter Elbow's writing feedback

method--no judgment but giving owned emotional responses. Example:

instead of using objective phrasing such as "Very fine," Elbow

suggests things more specific to the person's emotional response, such

as, "I really felt an opening there," or "I really appreciated the

visual image there." Several of us tried it in responses to written

material and the results to the writer, in contrast to the

judgment-laden "objective" phrasing results, were wonderful. It was

harder work, because we were not as familiar with

this kind of feedback, but it was much more useful to each of us

because it identified specific reactions and facilitated revisions.


Anne Tyler, masters candidate in Community and Regional Planning

University of New Mexico, Albuquerque


Date:    Sun, 15 Dec 1996 20:28:57 -0500

From:    "Dr. Gilbert Brenson Lazan" <>

Subject: Re: Neutral vs. affirmation


Our experience with this (very difficult) issue in a very

"people-centered" culture is that the situational or contextual

evaluation that John mentions is of utmost importance.


At the same time, there is another factor we learned from family

therapy and that we transfer to group facilitation:  equidistancing. 

Whatever the level of affirmation that is decided upon (according to

group needs, culture and task), we firmly believe that it should be

applied equally to all participants, be it quantitatively (in time,

space, etc.) or qualitatively (in degree of intimacy, question

difficulty, etc.).



FUNDACION NEO-HUMANISTA - Dr. Gilbert Brenson Lazan, Exec. Dir.

Facilitando y Formando Facilitadores de Gerencia Social

Transformacional, Correo: Apartado Aereo 50717, Tel: 1-345-2724   

Fax: 1-345-2072    Santafe de Bogota, Colombia


Date:    Mon, 16 Dec 1996 14:48:29

From:    tony crawford <>

Subject: Re: Neutral vs. affirmation


A simple way to feel comfortable with the role of neutrality is to use

the group's reaction to a suggestion/idea as a barometer of success

versus your own opinion. If Jim felt he was praising an individual

based on a personal benchmark, that may not be deemed as impartiality.

However, if Jim was simply responding to the groups "feel" or

consensus to the idea, he is only reflecting the team's understanding

that this is indeed a good idea. Sometimes, a good idea still needs to

be challenged or praised to ensure all extreme viewpoints

(for/against) are ironed out before moving on to the next topic at

hand. This will, in the long run, prove the viability of the

suggestion and promote a better sense of accomplishment because the

solution was proven viable by the team and not just because they

thought it may be viable without due analysis.


These observations are made from my experience in facilitating JAD



Roman Soltys

Process Improvement Institute, 461 Lakeshore Road West, Oakville,

Ontario L6K 1G4, Canada

Phone 905 845 3844 Fax 905 849 0252


Date:    Mon, 16 Dec 1996 20:35:00 -0500

From: Steve J Rice (Facilitator/Coach/NLP Practitioner),

Subject: Re: neutral vs affirmation


I was just about to respond to the original note when I decided to see

what responses followed. What a good job I did as Andrea appears to

have said everything I would have said. I absolutely agree, THEY know

CONTENT I know PROCESS and isn't it so much better if THEY realize how

well THEY are doing. As to jumping in bigtime, OH YES, and ain't it

fun to use this to generate more energy (as long as you can duck and

dive, physically and metaphorically). Great response Andrea.


Steve J Rice (Facilitator/Coach/NLP Practitioner)

DS (IBM Global Services), Hursley MP 100 England

Tele:    7-246478              44(0)1962-816478


Date:    Mon, 16 Dec 1996 21:37:53 -0500

From:    "Sandor P. Schuman" <>

Subject: Re: Neutral vs. affirmation


James Laue, in a classic article entitled "Sociologists as advocates:

there are no neutrals," suggested that one cannot be neutral and still

play a role in a controversy.  He argued that he has to be an advocate

for either:


o a party (one of the parties involved in the controversy)

o an outcome (a particular outcome or end result) or

o a process (how the controversy will play out)


As facilitators it is our role to be neutral with respect to party and

outcome, but advocates with respect to process.






Date:    Tue, 17 Dec 1996 15:23:35

From:    JOHN PINKARD < email: >

Subject: Neutral vs. affirmation


IMHO, facilitation can encompass both neutral and affirming

approaches. For me, facilitation isn't about "either / or" choices.

Rather, facilitation can be inclusive of both approaches, along with

an infinite spectrum of variations in between. I see that facilitators

must choose an approach that best meets the needs of the situation and

that can be effectively accommodated by their own repertoire of

facilitative skills.


To be more specific, I see that this thread is at least in part about

the degree of control a facilitator exerts over group processes and

outcomes. The spectrum associated with facilitator control might, for

example, involve "Full Facilitator Control Over Process / Outcomes" at

one end of a continuum, with "Full Group Control Over Process /

Outcomes" at the other end. An infinite number of variations are

possible between these extremes.


In addition, I believe that the particular approach to control that a

facilitator chooses will be influenced by a number of variables. These

will include, although not be limited to the following variables.

a) Individual Participants...

b) The Group...

c) The Facilitator...

d) The Context...


I guess what I'm saying is that I prefer to use a situational approach

to facilitation. The approach a facilitator chooses to use (e.g. high

/ medium / low degree of facilitator control over group process and /

or outcomes) can be based on situational considerations. In my mind,

both neutral and affirming approaches can be effective and "right".

Alternatively, both might be "wrong" for a given situation. It all



John Pinkard, John Pinkard Consulting, P.O. Box 983 ,Fremantle. 6160

Western Australia

 Phone: (International access code) 41-111 6562



SMEVERS asked: A thought - what kind of Christmas pudding would result

if the people making it were all *good* facilitators?


Dutch Driver: Blandness on the level of over-boiled oatmeal if the

facilitator is outcome-neutral.  I should've resisted but couldn't.  I

expect I'll have a lump of coal in my stocking. ;}  Merry Christmas.


Ned Ruete: Responding to Dutch's "Blandness:"  In the worst case.  In

the best case it would probably be about as good as a conference

designed by a bunch of facilitators.  Just depends on someone(s) able

to step outside the process role and show some leadership.  Bring your

chef's hat as well as your facilitator's hat. (By the way, does anyone

know where we can get facilitator's hats?  I made one with a white

painters hat and a label maker, but it's not very good and the laser

toner is flaking off the label.)


Dr. Larry A. Pace:

A process-pudding, blended well

But of the outcome, who can tell?


Andrea Tannenbaum:

- Diverse flavors that work together with spicy spots that smooth over

and add richness to the mix.

- A product that invites others not directly involved to bring

complementary sauces/dishes.

- Plenty for all. May even be more than we can handle.

- Finished in time and then celebrated.

- Can I have some more, please?


Mary Margaret Palmer:The best way to find the answer to this question

is to come to the IAF conference and find out.



Date:    Tue, 17 Dec 1996 20:21:42 -0500

From:    "Dr. Gilbert Brenson Lazan" <>

Subject: Re: Neutral vs. affirmation


John Pinkard's opinions are also those of many of us, especially those

of us outside what appears to be a typically North American posture on

facilitation;  I feel a second wind coming on regarding this subject.


It seems that many listers consider "facilitation" as an exclusive

role within a broader range that many others of us also consider

facilitating. We use a double-entry matrix with task-process baselines

and a diagonal low-protagonism to high-protagonism continuum. I have

read some authors that say that only 1/4 to 1/9 of this type of

intervention matrix is facilitating (process, low protagonism,

"neutrality", etc.).  Why is that any more facilitating than high

protagonism and/or task orientation, if the goal (and result) is group

empowerment, self-development, autonomy, co-evolution or what ever

else you want to call it?  In some other cultures I work in, both

organizational and ethnic, that kind of limitation  on facilitating

behavior would only be seen as arrogant, aloof, uncaring, etc.


In our experience, situational facilitating does not require months or

years of evaluation, just a few minutes of sensitivity and observation

of what's going on in the group right now.  At the same time, I

realize that my years of experience as a brief family and group

therapist  are showing through, as is my paranoia about cultural

hegemony in facilitation techniques.  At least for many of us that

work with very, very culturally diverse groups (in our case, from slum

neighborhood self-help groups to cartel sicario rehab to transnational

corporations), facilitation that is not situational is not

facilitating much of anything.


Best wishes and don't's Christmas,


Dr. Gilbert Brenson Lazan (address information in previous note).

Santafe de Bogota, Colombia