When the Facilitator Knows Nothing or Everything About the Subject


A client asked me recently, “How do you facilitate when you know nothing about the subject?” I had to gulp and pause because it was actually true of what I was about to facilitate for that client. So I took a deep breath and, well…I’ll get back to that!

Or, what about the opposite situation?

One of the most frequent questions we get in our ToP facilitation class is, “How do you facilitate when you know everything” (i.e., you are a subject matter expert (SME)?

So this blog is going to explore both those questions. Knowing nothing to knowing everything! It’s really a question about neutrality. In the first case, knowing nothing allows you to be exceptionally neutral. But, you can be at a disadvantage if you are not able to follow the discussion. In the second case, you have an advantage in that you can be an enthusiastic listener who knows the complexities of the topic. But, you may be tempted to offer your opinion. And worse, you may subtly or not so subtly indicate positive or negative reactions to other’s ideas or perspectives.

A third pitfall that I am facing in the near future is knowing nothing about the topic but, I want to know a lot. I am passionate and care a lot about the topic. So how do I stay neutral in the face of that deep passion about a topic I know nothing about? We’ll answer that question of compromised neutrality also.

In a nutshell, how do you navigate this “pumpkin patch” of potential pitfalls?

(I hope you are admiring my p-p-p-p alliteration?)😊

Let’s go back to the first situation when you know nothing about the topic.

I. Situation- Facilitator Knows Nothing About The Topic

I said to this client:

“It’s actually often better when the facilitator does not know much about the topic because I can stay focused on the process that is needed and not get caught up in the content.”


“I do take the time to read up on the topic based on what you have given me, so I am sure to know how to spell acronyms and understand key concepts.”


“I ask naive questions sometimes of the group. It might sound like, ‘Why is this so important to you?’ Or, ‘What would you tell someone like me who knows nothing about this topic to justify your perspective?'”

Although I was a little worried about whether the client would except what I just told him, it did seem to do the trick. He didn’t pursue that question any further.👀PHEW

II. Situation – Facilitator Knows Everything About The Topic

Here’s what we typically say in our ToP Facilitation Methods classes:

Ideally, if you really know a lot about the topic and have a vested interest in it, it is better to find someone else in your group that can be the lead facilitator. You might just back them up or lead on the pieces where you can remain more objective.


Before the meeting, you can write down all of the things that you think the group needs to know about the topic based on your research and/or experience. You can have someone else in the group bring that information up when the moment is appropriate. Meet with that person before the meeting and help them understand when to offer what information. That way, the information is still given to the group, but it doesn’t come out of your mouth at a time when you were facilitating. If your designated person forgets to mention something, see the next suggestion below.


If there is no one else to take the lead, or you have not taken the time to write out the information in advance, you can let the group know you occasionally may have to offer information on the topic. When that moment comes, you sit down and make a motion of changing hats to indicate you are changing your role to participant. Then you say, “As a participant I would like to offer this information because I hope it might help the discussion go forward”. Keep your comments brief (2-3 minutes maximum) and in an as neutral tone as possible. And then when you are done, stand up, and make a motion of putting the facilitator hat back on. Tell them, “I am now back in the role of your facilitator and I will not offer any opinions on the rest of the discussion.”

III. Situation – Facilitator Knows Nothing But Is Deeply In Love With The Topic And Wants To Know Everything

OK, I admit it. This has happened to me. This is a tricky one and I am really talking to myself as I give you some advice.

First of all you need to journal or have a deep listening session with someone about your passion for this topic. You need to defuse your passionate interest before you facilitate the group.


When you get in front of the group, squash all temptations to tell them how you love this topic. They don’t care! You are there to help them do their best thinking. It is not about you. Drop your ego and your passion at the door. It doesn’t mean you can’t have a lively, interested look on your face throughout.😊


Make a long list of all the reasons why your passionate interest in this topic could be unhelpful to the group.

Which are the situations you encounter most yourself? And, what specifically have you found to work well so that you can remain in service of the group and focus on process and not content?

Barbara MacKay

Barbara loves “everything facilitation”. She thinks BIG! She loves working with other facilitators around the globe to create transformational results for client groups. She loves teaching others how to do that. She loves presenting at global facilitator conferences. She loves certifying new professional facilitators. If you also love what process facilitation can do for the world, connect with her – virtually or in person. She believes facilitation processes, used well, will provide the roadmap to a more just and sustainable world.

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