I often get asked about neutrality as a ‘stance’ for museum facilitators of discussions around art and objects. So today I’m addressing the question: How neutral do we need to be as a facilitator in the museum?
As I said way back in The Art of Facilitation, facilitation is a key part of creating engaging and interactive discussions around art and museum objects.
As a facilitator, you are guiding the process, creating participation and activating the learning and engagement.
But do you have to be neutral too?
If you look at the general definition of a generic facilitator you will often see the word ‘neutral’ or ‘impartial’ used.
What do these words actually mean? And what should we be neutral about? Is it even possible to be neutral as a museum facilitator?
Neutrality is a tricky concept and this subject is always quite a thorny one in my classes and trainings. Read on to find out what I recommend.
THE MYTH OF FACILITATOR NEUTRALITY
‘A facilitator’s role is primarily objective or neutral‘
If you look up the definition of the word facilitator, you will often see the words ‘neutral’, ‘objective’ or ‘impartial’ used. However, a quick search also reveals that there are many people out there who believe that facilitator neutrality is a myth.
What about when we are in the museum with groups? As a museum facilitator of discussions and conversations, should we be neutral?
In some approaches, like Visual Thinking Strategies, you are encouraged in your training to be neutral and accepting in your responses to participants and when paraphrasing their responses.
As a VTM facilitator, I don’t recommend neutrality (as tbh, no-one is completely neutral).
Instead I recommend a number of stances and tones that you can adopt when you’re in the museum with groups.
SETTING A TONE OF FAIRNESS
What happens if a child shares a fantastic question or comment that captures the essence of an artwork or object? Should you say ‘great comment’ or should you choose to stay away from these kind of positive encouragements?
The first thing I recommend is that you set a ‘tone of fairness‘ in the group. This means, that if, for example, you decide to give positive feedback to one member of the group for a response, you then should treat everyone the same.
I struggled with this in the early days of working in a discussion-based way. I have a naturally enthusiastic style as a facilitator and I am genuinely overjoyed when participants offer insightful comments or share ideas that open up new lines of inquiry.
A teacher offered me constructive feedback on the way I responded to students on one of the pilots for Stories Around the World and it really changed the way I thought about this. It made me think about how one overly enthusiastic response to one person can shut down the contributions for the rest of the group.
By the way, you can still have your own personality as a facilitator and still treat everyone fairly. It doesn’t mean you have to act unnaturally or inauthentically.
It’s about recognising what your personal facilitation style is and then responding to everyone in the group in a way that fits in with your style. It’s worthwhile developing your own set of standard responses that treat everyone fairly.
As we discussed here, by being aware of the words you use and the responses you give, you avoid alienating members of the group and this keeps the discussion as inclusive as possible.
Instead of aiming for neutrality, think about how to maintain a non-judgemental stance.
You want to respond to any comments that your participants share with you in a non-judgemental way.
Giving feedback to a group member who has made a comment or stated their opinion is important. It shows you have not only heard their response, but understand it too.
How you react to each comment will have an impact on the group itself. Overly positive or negative feedback can limit and close down a discussion. Likewise, giving judgemental feedback encourages participants to compare themselves with others.
If you are interested in hearing a wide range of comments from all participants, giving feedback without any implied judgement is essential. This opens up the discussion so that everyone in the group feels their opinions are valid and valued.
This non-judgemental stance and treating everyone equally sets the tone of fairness within the group. This requires practice and patience.
Non-judgemental responses help to build trust within the group. It does not mean you cannot be encouraging or show enthusiasm and interest in what a group member is saying. Notice the difference between these two responses:
‘Wow, that’s a great idea! I wish I had thought of that’
‘It sounds like you have a good theory there. I’m interested in hearing more about…’
Which one do you think would build the most trust in the group and encourage others to share their thoughts?
Both comments could work, but the first is extremely enthusiastic, so you would need to ensure that you responded to all future comments in a similarly positive way or risk alienating group members. The second response still demonstrates sincere interest and encouragement, but in a more neutral tone. Again, this is not being neutral, this is about having a neutral tone with your responses and feedback.
NEUTRALITY IN RESPONSE TO UPSETTING OR OFFENSIVE COMMENTS
The other problem with neutrality I have is what you would do if someone if your group said something offensive, insulting, or upsetting.
In this instance, I wouldn’t want to be neutral.
My first response as a facilitator is to be calm on the exterior (even if you are not calm on the interior) because we can only control how we react to people, not how they act or react.
Depending on what was said, I may ask for rephrasing or I may practice active listening to check what was said.
If someone has, however, shared viewpoints that are offensive or upsetting, I would deal quickly with it and make a statement about what is acceptable on this programme (referring back to any guidelines we agreed at the beginning. You can read more about setting guidelines in your introduction here). I would then move on and focus on and reinforce positive behaviour.
PERSONAL RESPONSES TO ARTWORKS OR OBJECTS
Another issue I have with facilitator neutrality is with sharing personal connections to an artwork or object. Does neutral mean that you’re not allowed to share any personal responses or thoughts too?
As I said at the start, as a VTM facilitator your goal is to guide the process and encourage your participants to make their thinking visible. It is participant-centred, rather than focused on you.
Having said that, there are times when it can be helpful to share some thoughts to the group – for example, sometimes it can be a way of modelling a suggested response if the group are struggling to come up with their own responses.
I’ve done this in the past with personal connections (‘In what ways do you connect with this artwork?’), I’ve shared some ways in which I have connections with something as a way to get the ball rolling.
But do be aware that you don’t really want to share anything that will influence the discussion too much or to shine a spotlight too much on what you are saying.
Every piece of information you share will have an effect on the ensuing discussion, so think carefully about what you share and how.
And too much time sharing your own responses will send a message to the group that their responses aren’t as valid or necessary and it might shut down the discussion prematurely.
In essence, you are showing that you have thoughts and connections to the artwork too, but you are more interested in hearing other people’s thoughts in this programme than sharing your own thoughts.
So there are some thoughts on the question ‘how neutral do I have to be as a facilitator?’ As you can see, it’s a tricky question with lots of nuance – and I’ve only scratched the surface here.
The key points to remember are that instead of neutrality, you are aiming to treat everyone equally, set a tone of fairness, respond non-judgementally and only share your personal connections when it’s helpful and appropriate.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on whether facilitators in the museum should be neutral too! Share with me on social media.