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Facilitation Essentials: Unconscious Bias (TRN1-J13)


This job aid for employees at all levels provides a brief introduction to the topic of unconscious bias and offers practical guidance and tools for fostering a meeting environment that is free from biases and assumptions, including one's own.

Published: February 16, 2021
Type: Job aid

Facilitation Essentials: Unconscious Bias

Our assumptions, beliefs and biases about a group influence how we treat people who are members of that group. Groups can be defined by race, ethnicity, gender, ability and disability, or other physical and social traits. An essential part of ensuring a safe meeting environment is to become aware of how we think, feel, and behave towards different groups of peoples.

What is unconscious bias and how does it work?

Biases are formed through experiences, socially reproduced norms and messaging, and prior learning. Biases can be positive or negative; they can be an inclination towards something or a preference against something.

Our brain is continually perceiving, filtering and categorizing information to help us make sense of everything. Since this happens automatically, we can reach conclusions without active thought or reasoning. We may be aware of some of our biases, but many of our biases are unconscious or hidden. These form part of what is normal to us, so we don't realize that we hold them.

Unconscious bias refers to thoughts and feelings that occur outside of our awareness. They are learned stereotypes that are unintentional and deeply engrained. Unconscious biases can influence behaviours. Together they can lead to an unfair treatment of a group of people—in either a positive or a negative way.

What can bias look like when facilitating a meeting?

Biases can appear in many circumstances when facilitating, and often unexpectedly. Who are we calling upon when seeking an opinion? Are we acknowledging some ideas more often, or more rapidly, than others? How do we seek out diverse perspectives or experiences? Who are we making eye contact with? These are just a few examples.

Biases can be categorized in different ways:

  • Affinity bias – gravitating towards people who are like us
  • Confirmation bias – a tendency to seek or favour information that confirms our own beliefs, and a failure to notice that which does not
  • Conformity bias – where people's views are swayed by the views of others
  • Contrast bias – valuing something in comparison to another
  • Other biases including those based on race, age, gender, background, ability and disability

A challenge for facilitators

By examining our own unconscious biases, we can learn to manage them. As facilitators, our job is to be impartial, which also means helping people look beyond their own assumptions. To foster inclusive meeting environments, we MUST build an awareness of our own biases and work to alter any that result in inequitable treatment of others.

We can start by:

  • recognizing and observing our biases
  • forming connections and relationships with people who are different from us
  • making decisions objectively using rational, conscious processes
  • interrupting our automatic responses
  • working to fight the return of our biases

Applying active listening skills

As facilitators, we work with participatory values to bridge different perspectives and experiences. Active listening is an effective way to better understand people whose experiences and approaches are different from ours. We listen actively by fully concentrating on what someone is saying and communicating this listening through verbal and non-verbal cues.

Want to learn more? Here's a resource on active listening techniques.

Identifying assumptions

Assumptions are the things we take for granted, whether or not there is evidence to back them up. Identifying assumptions can be a valuable way to establish common ground between people. When we name our assumptions and think critically about whether they are shared, or even real, we are taking an important first step towards collaboration.

Questions to help us recognize bias

Understanding our own unconscious biases:

  • What are my biases?
  • Are my biases automatic thoughts?
  • How do these biases make me feel?
  • What will help me understand my biases?

Understanding the biases of participants:

  • What kind of language is the speaker using?
  • Is the language strongly positive or negative?
  • What types of facts is the speaker sharing?
  • Do the facts include or omit anything that you or others would consider important?

Tips for addressing unconscious biases in a meeting

  • Consider creating guiding principles with specific language to help the group shine a light on unconscious bias. 
  • Ask yourself who you are not hearing from regularly.
  • Pause the discussion and invite people who have not spoken recently to add their views.
  • When you notice a possible bias, model curiosity and ask questions to help the individual and group reflect. For example, Can you tell me more about that? or Help us understand what you mean?
  • Refer back to the group's guiding principles when you see something that looks like a bias; this will help others see and address the barriers that are getting in the way of full participation.

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