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Global Experience, Locally Available

Making Space Consulting


The following article is Chapter 6, "Values," from the forthcoming book, Lead Your Group to Success by E.S. Ruete. It says some important things about where Making Space Consulting places value.

We spoke in Chapter 1 about maintaining neutrality and building trust. We offered a few glimpses along the way on how to do that. Now it is time to look at neutrality in a serious light. We do that by examining our values.

     There are many kinds of values, and there are many things that we value. We can value our possessions, we can value our family, we can value our collections, we can value our home. Security, fame, friendship, organization, control, excitement, planning, spontaneity, all are things that we can place value on. Some say that we can really only value one thing or at least one thing at a time. Jesus said, “No man [sic] can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” (MATT 6:24, King James Version).

     David Whyte[1] says that there are two ways we can live: out of our strategic personality or out of our soul. The strategic personality is the part of us that preserves life. It has two pieces: one is the desire to be safe, and the other is the reasoning ability that contrives things to make us safe. The soul is the part that gives reason to life. It seeks to live life. It does not seek to be safe: it says, “I am already safe because where I am there is life to be lived.”

     In any meeting, there are many values, but they fall into two groups that stand on opposite sides of a paradox. On one side are the substantive values.[2] These are the interests: the considerations, concerns, and constraints that participants bring in with them and hope to see reflected in the result of the meeting. Because of this desire that their values will become part of the content of the solution, these are also called “content values.”

     Content values, as discussed in Chapter 3, “Action Planning” in the section “The Three Cs” often have strong emotions around them. They are the source of conflict in the group. Conflict is good. Without conflict everyone is thinking the same and there is no reason for a meeting. But conflict must be managed to move the group forward, and that cannot be done by someone perceived as being on one side or the other. Because of the need to remain neutral in order to build trust, the meeting facilitator or others who try to avoid the role of partisan advocate are frequently seen by those involved in the conflict as uncommitted people, as dehumanized persons, as witting or unwitting stooges for the “establishment,” or as some combination of these unsavory roles and characterizations. But there is another kind of value at operation. On the other side of the central paradox from the substantive values are the methodological values. These have to do with the ways in which such conflicts should be settled in making and remaking decisions or policies which are valid and mutually acceptable, at least ideally, to all parties to the conflict. Methodological values include placing value on:

  • The quality, validity, and reliability of evidence used in settling the issue.
  • The inference processes (reasoning and logic) by which meanings are derived from the evidence by various participants (how people climb the ladder of inference).
  • The human effects of the means of persuasion used, such as coercion, group pressures against minority opinions, and exploitation of anxieties and fears.
  • The quality of the communications: the listening and the empathy participants show towards one another.
  • Whether the parties learn anything from the process.
  • Whether people invest imagination in creating solutions that integrate existing substantive values and generate new, shared values in the exchange.
  • Not having energy invested in trying to impose rigid, prepared positions upon one another and destroying, not strengthening, whatever moral community has existed among the parties.

     Because methodological values often define, even dictate the process that a meeting facilitator will attempt to follow, these are also called “process values.” To be a facilitator, to remain neutral and build trust, you must be able to let go of any content values that you bring to the meeting. If there is the least glimmer of you supporting one outcome over another, one idea over another, especially in highly partisan, confrontational conflict, the participants will lose trust in your neutrality.

     This can be very difficult to avoid, and you can shoot yourself in the foot in seemingly innocent ways. For example, to try and encourage participation in the opening phase of action planning, you may say supportive things like, “Good idea!” or “That’s really imaginative!” as you record responses. Be careful that your comments and the tone in which they are delivered are balanced and consistent or you will be perceived as favoring some ideas over others.

     We all have some content values. Sometimes the discussion will go in a direction that will violate a deeply-held value of yours. See the description of what happened to me while teaching a facilitation class under “Disruptive Behaviors” in Chapter 2, “Focusing the Meeting.” In my defense, if memory serves they were taking positions that violated my process values. And that is the key. When you are tempted to let your content values sway your actions, go quickly to your process values. Remember the inference ladder and the coyote. Look for the opposing concerns that reflect the force that stands in opposition to the force that led you to your concerns. And remember that you have pledged to be a servant of the group, not of your own agenda.

     This doesn’t mean you never comment on content. Most of the things I do as a meeting facilitator are never recognized as having value – remember what Lao Tzu said in Chapter 2, “Focusing the Meeting” about the best leaders[3]. However, one intervention I frequently make is the one most often cited in meeting reviews as having helped the group move forward. This is my ability to listen to all the interests, concerns, considerations, and especially constraints, then review the list of ideas and propose a choice or synthesis of ideas that will serve what the group says they are looking for. When I do this, I am very careful to:

  • Use the group memory to point out where the idea came from in the alternatives put forward by the participants
  • Use the group memory to highlight the interests, criteria and constraints agreed to by the participants themselves that led me to propose the solution
  • Offer the solution neutrally, and offer the alternatives of accepting, exploring, or rejecting my idea with exactly the same words and inflection.
  • If an idea is getting traction that violates an agreed-upon constraint, I move to where the constraint is recorded and point out the violation. Then with the same careful neutrality offer the choices of rejecting the idea, rejecting the constraint, or showing me why the two are not incompatible.
  • Quickly reassume the three roles the of neutral servant in leading the discussion around my proposal.

     A friend of mine who was a community organizer in Columbia and a major player in the first Latin American Conference of the International Association of Facilitators (IAF) brought me a souvenir of that conference. Each of the people working on the conference wore a vest made for them by the indigenous peoples of Ecuador where the conference was held. It was to remind them that the conference was for the participants, not the organizers. For almost two decades it has been my facilitator’s vest.

     This pledge, this commitment, these methodological/process values are not to be taken lightly. They are the thing you serve. They are tantamount to wearing a #safetypin or a rainbow flag or #ThursdaysinBlack. They are things you would give up your personal safety for.

     Sometimes the line between substantive and methodological values gets blurred. For me, the most dearly held process values are the ones about how we treat one another in this process called life. In my personal theology, God is only a metaphor for the source of the sacred learnings of the past 100,000 years on how to live together in community. That has led me to put great value on each person. As a result, I do what I can with my limited public presence to support the LGBTQIPA+ community. However, homophobia has its historical roots in societies that put great value on population growth so that they could keep up with their competitors. These cultures put a moral judgement on any spilling of seed that did not have a chance to increase the population. In certain situations, I have to remember that for some people, this force for population growth still holds religious sway and stands in opposition to the force for equal treatment which is my concern. I still have not found the coyote way on this issue.

     The same Columbian friend once told a story at an IAF International Conference. A community organizer he trained had helped to establish a playground. This and other actions she facilitated gave hope to the community and that angered the drug cartel that sought to keep the people under their thumb. She was murdered by the drug cartel and her body hung from a slide on the playground. I think about her every time I put on the vest. I hope I never have to defend my methodological values with my life, but I hope that if I had to I would, and that I never feel compelled to say that about positions I come to out of my substantive values.

[1] Whyte, David, The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America, New York: Currency Doubleday, 1994.[2] Benne, Kenneth et. al., The Laboratory Method of Changing and Learning: Theory and Application. Palo Alto, CA. Science and Behavior Books. 1975. Much of this chapter is adapted from Chapter 2, “Conceptual and Moral Foundations of Laboratory Method.” [3] In the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu says, "Of the best leader, when the job is done the people say 'we did it ourselves.'"