How Offering Confidentiality to Group Members Undermines the Group and Your Consulting Role — and What to Do About It

Roger Schwarz

This article is adapted from the new third edition of The Skilled Facilitator: A Comprehensive Resource for Consultants, Facilitators, Coaches, and Trainers. (Jossey-Bass, 2017)

When you’re a facilitator, team coach, or other type of consultant, often clients ask you to meet individually with group members before you meet with the full group. You’re likely to receive this type of request particularly when the group is experiencing conflict and mistrust. Once I was asked to facilitate a meeting of the executive director and key individuals in a public health research organization. The executive director asked for my help in part because several incidents in the organization had led her to believe that people didn’t trust her. Even before the planning meeting, the executive director told me that individuals would prefer to meet with me individually to discuss the retreat.

In another case, I was asked to facilitate resolution of a dispute between a developer and a town council that was being sued by the developer for not approving a subdivision plan. If the facilitation was successful, the developer would withdraw the lawsuit. The town council wanted to meet with me individually (in a session legally closed to the public) to assess my acceptability to them and to share their concerns with me. The attorney for the developers also wanted to talk with me privately to see whether I was acceptable to her client.

Many consultants prefer to meet with individuals before meeting with the full group. But if you meet with group members individually, you can quickly become entangled in and reinforce the group’s ineffective dynamics. The consultant and group members see the meetings as an opportunity for the consultant to learn how different members think about the group and the challenges it’s facing. The consultant considers these meetings rich diagnostic interviews that can shape the agenda for the group and even for the interventions the consultant may make. The consultant reasons that group members will be more forthcoming in individual meetings, especially if they are promised confidentiality, than in the full group meeting—and the consultant is correct. By the end of these interviews, the consultant has become the central repository for members’ hopes, dreams, and fears about the group. The consultant may now know more about the group than the group does.

The Three-Horned Dilemma of Confidentiality

But when you offer confidentiality in this situation, you create a three-horned dilemma that leads you to act incongruently with the core values of transparency, informed choice, and accountability (three of the five mutual learning values that underlie The Skilled Facilitator approach). The first horn is this: If you honor the individual confidential conversations, you can’t share with the group what individuals said and you certainly can’t share who said it. That means if you use any of the information to make an intervention or suggest a process, you can’t fully share your reasoning for it. This fails the transparency test: consultants must be able to share all the relevant information that led them to make their interventions.  Because members know that you’ve met with them and others before the meeting, your lack of transparency makes it easy for group members to make inferences about what others told you that led you to intervene the way you did. In short, you’re now contributing to potential conflict and mistrust in the group.

For the second horn, even if you obtain permission to share information from the individual sessions, you’re still reducing group members’ accountability to each other by raising for them the issues that are theirs to raise. In short, you’re carrying group members’ water.

If you don’t meet with members individually, you avoid these problems, but now face the third horn of the dilemma: your concern that you won’t find out about important group issues or dynamics until you begin the actual consulting, and some issues may not get raised at all by group members.

Managing the Three-Horned Dilemma of Confidentiality

There is a way to manage the dilemma of individual meetings. If members ask for individual meetings, it’s likely they’re facing conflict and mistrust and don’t know how to raise these issues safely. The solution lies in jointly creating the conditions for members to say in the group what they want to but feel they cannot say. You can ask to talk first with the members as a group. You can raise the dilemma that the group and you face, talk with members about their concerns regarding sharing information in the full group, and ask what leads to these concerns. If members are willing to share some of their concerns, you can then ask, “What would need to happen for you to be willing to raise and address these concerns in the full group?” If group members— including the formal leader—agree to create these conditions (for example, no retaliation for raising an issue), they can then discuss issues that they previously chose not to discuss.

However, if members are still to have initial discussions in the full group, you might agree to talk to individuals or a subgroup if the full group (1) agreed on how the information discussed in private meetings would be shared in the full group and (2) agreed that the responsibility for raising issues remained with group members. The purpose of these individual sessions would then be for you to coach members on whether and how to raise these issues. You help them explore how they can raise the issues they want to discuss, including their concerns about doing so. You can also role-play with them to find the words to do this. You can make the same promise to all group members: “I can’t raise your concern for you, but as soon as you raise your concern, I will do everything in my role to make the conversation as psychologically safe and productive as possible.”

Ultimately, each member gets to make a free and informed choice about what to share and what not to. As consultants, our role is to respect that choice, even if we would make a different one. A nonobvious but powerful implication of combining informed choice, accountability, and the principle “go slow to go fast” is that we serve the group better when we ask each member to control what he or she shares and doesn’t share with the group. This may take more time, but it ensures that the group moves no faster than it chooses to move.

Ensuring that group members maintain accountability for sharing their own information creates several benefits. It eliminates or reduces the dilemma of confidentiality, preserves group members’ free and informed choice, reduces unnecessary and inappropriate dependence on you as the consultant, and increases the group’s trust in you.

originally published on June 27, 2017