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Book Excerpt: Recognizing Your Own Implicit Biases when Leading Tough Conversations

No person exists without biases. In leadership roles or when leading tough conversations, they may stop the group from fully participating. I believe that order to be the best facilitator we must work on the parts of ourselves that keeps others from being the best version of themselves. In the excerpt from the new book, The SAGA Facilitation Model, I explore how you can identify and change your implicit biases.

Book Excerpt: Recognizing Your Own Implicit Biases when Leading Tough Conversations

A fallacy that we believe about our leaders is they should remain neutral when leading us. But if leadership is an expression of values, and our values are influenced by the dominant culture, then likely we are reinforcing ideas contrary to building a more diverse world. We will remain neutral only when we do the work to recognize our understanding of our privileges and implicit biases.

As we continue to work to build a community that reflects the best we all have to offer, we must also do the personal work to self-identify the parts of ourselves that keep others from being the best version of themselves. It is not enough to just be neutral in learning environments; I believe we must be actively anti-racist, anti-misogynistic, anti-transphobic, anti-xenophobic and all the other ‘isms’ that influence our values and daily interactions. If we do this homework, and then help others develop this skill, we may change the cultures and values of those we work with in ways that are meaningful.

Below is an excerpt of my new book, The SAGA Facilitation Model: Skills and Tools for Your Meetings, Workshops and Trainings. One of the chapters is how to identify our biases and improve the ways we show up as leaders committed to change, in trainings, workshops and meetings. I believe now, more than ever, we should be equipped with strategies for being the best version of ourselves when we are asked to lead our peers or colleagues, regardless of the learning that is taking place.


Excerpt from The SAGA Facilitation Model

Earlier I shared that not all facilitators come into facilitation for the same reason or purpose. Some elect to take on the role, others are volunteered to lead a group discussion. But that never absolves the facilitator from practicing some ethical behaviors about facilitation. I believe that facilitators should be guided by some basic ethical practices including:

  • Seeking the group’s permission to facilitate
  • Concentrating personal energy on the meeting rather than the issues
  • Not controlling the group
  • Being transparent about your role
  • Encouraging the group to take responsibility

The role of the facilitator is to act as someone who is both within and without. We get to hear all of the discussion without adding our own thoughts and beliefs. Or at least we should try. In this way, we have the responsibility to understand what our boundaries are and how they might overlap with the discussion topics.

But even the best facilitators can’t ignore their unconscious biases.

Being Mindful of your Biases

I have read a great deal about the importance of being an unbiased person when facilitating an exercise or experience. That in order to remain neutral to the discussion from the participants, you will need to keep your biases to yourself.

As a long-time diversity and inclusion educator, I disagree with this idea. I believe the best we can do is recognize our biases and do our best to keep them from disrupting the learning. Some of our biases are so engrained in our identities, that we can’t simply just put them aside for the time leading the group. There is an assumption that our biases are conscious, but many of them are unconscious.

Unconscious biases are learned stereotypes that are automatic, unintentional, deeply ingrained, universal and able to influence behavior. Unconscious bias is far more prevalent than conscious prejudice and often incompatible with one’s conscious values. Certain scenarios can activate unconscious attitudes and beliefs. For example, biases may be more prevalent when multitasking or working under time pressure. Trust me when I say that facilitating a small group on a time crunch, before returning to the large group, is very stressful. And in those times, your biases might emerge.

Being Deliberate Despite the Competing Priorities

When we’re facilitating – whether a full-scale strategic planning session, a quarterly/monthly board of directors meeting or a weekly staff meeting – there’s a lot to do and hold in our heads. The following are just some of those considerations:

  • Attaining a specific goal for the facilitated experience.
  • Creating and upholding ground rules.
  • Establishing a creative/engaging environment.
  • Hitting all key points outlined in the design document.
  • Providing clear/succinct directions for all activities.
  • Monitoring the time and course correcting, as necessary.
  • Rolling with the punches when plans change.

So, it’s no wonder that unconscious bias – without us knowing – can sneak into the meetings and events we facilitate. Unfortunately, this can have a damaging effect on not only participation – both in the frequency and in the manner/quality of participation – but on the outcomes of the facilitated experience, as well.

If we truly value inclusive participation (i.e., everyone’s perspective is not only respected and shared, but absolutely paramount to the outcomes and next steps identified as a result of the facilitated experience), that means we have to do something to both draw greater awareness to unconscious bias and to counteract its negative consequences.


Questions to Consider

In our roles as facilitators, we hold a great deal of control and authority. Even if our role is to remain open and neutral, that is almost impossible because everything we think or say is filtered through our beliefs, identities and privileges.

For instance, as a cisgender man, I have to be aware of how I welcome women and transgender folk into the conversation. Do I unconsciously interrupt people from these groups? Do I naturally attribute ideas that are shared? Does my tone invite dissent? These are some of the questions I need to ask myself.

Below are a few more questions that facilitators should consider before beginning a facilitator role.

  • What are my personal beliefs, values and stereotypes about the issue Dominant identities I hold that might stifle conversation?
  • Can I assume an objective role in the discussion?
  • What role should I assume as a facilitator?
  • How do I establish trust and openness among the group? Show respect for the opinions of others? Tactfully mediate conflict? Keep discussion flowing smoothly?
  • How do I encourage the participation of everyone and avoid domination by a few? Deal with someone showing disrespect for another?
  • What should I do when I don’t know how to respond to a comment or question?
  • Will I feel comfortable facilitating a group discussion on this issue?

These are just some questions that start to help with actively being mindful of your biases as a facilitator. Ultimately it comes down to your willingness to be a better person. That’s hard work, doesn’t come easily, and often is fraught with unexpected personal challenge. But knowing who are you and the identities that will show up in the room will prepare you to support the learning that is going to take place.


Here to Help You

The skills described above take time to learn. But we all need to start somewhere, in order to create an inclusive and just community. If there is anything I can do to help you and your organization improve the way it creates and sustains an open and just community, reach out to me. I am here to talk.

Schedule an introductory meeting so we can talk.

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