News Reviews

Exploring Ethical Challenges Through the Power of Partnership

by: Martin Gilbraith, MA, CPF|M, and Michael Ambjorn, CDir, SCMP

Reposted with thanks from Business Acumen | 2 February 2022 of Catalyst, the official publication of IABC.


Knotty issues, wicked problems and challenging topics. What to do? In this article, we explore the power of facilitation as applied to the field of professional communication in general and ethics in particular. We believe there is a unique opportunity to apply these professional skills and competencies in partnership with each other.

We found that many communication professionals struggle with understanding what a facilitator does — and vice versa. This is a pity, as the two professions could be natural partners in making change in organizations and beyond. To this end, we’ll share practical ideas that you can put into use immediately. There also will be some questions for deeper reflection and longer-term learning. Our hope is to reduce misinterpretations, miscommunications and misunderstandings and to show the power of collaboration. If this gives you appetite for more, we recently co-authored a larger volume The Power of Facilitation, which you may want to explore further.

Ethics: How Might You Tackle a Tricky Challenge?

“Communication professionals adopt the highest standards of professional behavior.” —The IABC Global Standard

Ethics is the first constant in professional communication practice.

A code of ethics is a practical tool to help guide your professional practice. Both the International Association of Facilitators (IAF) and IABC have codes that are short and to the point — which their members commit to uphold. 

We’ll focus here on how you can bring these alive in your own practice. That is because, while codes are useful on paper, they become powerful when they’re taken into conversation. It is through questioning that real-life ethical dilemmas can be explored and negotiated.

There’s a tension within this idea though, which might come as a surprise to some facilitators who make a living working with questions! Communications people might be reluctant to approach this type of dialogue. For some there is an instinctive switch to being a spokesperson, which is very different to being a facilitator. Why might this be? We spoke to international expert on ethical business practice, Ruth Steinholtz (one of our clients), about this:

“Organizations tend to ignore or marginalize people who ask questions. They are labeled as not being team players.”

You, too, might have found that yourself if you asked one question too many at an inopportune moment.

This is where the power of facilitation truly comes into play. Because asking questions is the very essence of facilitation — exploring answers for mutual benefit.

Here are some of the questions Steinholtz (and her co-author Professor Chris Hodges) recommends for leaders wanting to implement ethical business practice:

  • Have we defined the essential ethical purpose of our organization?
  • Have we defined and consistently championed ethical values?
  • Do our systems result in the right people being “on the bus” and in the right jobs?
  • Are our leaders and board members able to challenge each other and hold each other to account?

Great questions. But they could be daunting, and difficult to answer (and ask), without some conversation to contextualize them.

Don’t worry. There’s help at hand from a well-established and proven technique known as the “ToP” Focused Conversation method, built on a model of human behavior known as “ORID” for short, reminding you of each stage of the process:

  • Objective
  • Reflective
  • Interpretive
  • Decisional

It is an integral part of the Institute of Cultural Affairs’ Technology of Participation (ToP) methodology, and it is a technique we’ll come back to.

The Process in Practice

The book The Art of Focused Conversation: 100 Sample Conversations for the Workplace has a range of useful dialogue guides, including one on how to have a tricky conversation around an ethical quandary.

Here’s a brief excerpt adapted for brevity (and with permission[1]). Get the book for the full question set:


  • Let’s talk about this. Shall we have coffee?

Objective Questions

  • What are some of the facts about the decision you’re facing?
  • How would you describe the problem and the situation?
  • What are different aspects of the problem?

Reflective Questions

  • What are the demands and pressures you face on this?
  • What makes it so hard to decide?
  • What is it like being in this situation?

Interpretive Questions

  • What are the options?
  • What values do you want to hold in making this decision?
  • Take the first option. What are the advantages? What is the downside?
  • Take the second option. What would be the advantage?
  • What would be the disadvantage?

Decisional Questions

  • What would be the impact of this decision on your life?
  • What consequences will you need to be prepared for?
  • What will be the first steps in carrying it out?


  • This has been a very difficult choice to make …

Try It Out

Grab a trusted friend or colleague and try working through an ethical conundrum you’re facing. Then swap roles. What surprised you? What might you do differently next time you’re facing an ethical dilemma with a colleague or client?

Being able to handle ethics is at the very core of the practice of both professions — indeed any profession.

And if you want to explore more approaches like the above, download your free copy of #FacPower. Like a good cookbook, don’t try all the recipes at once. Rather, dip in and out for best results. Together you can explore how to build a bridge and get better results for both of you — and the people and organizations you serve. If you come up with new insights and examples, be sure to share using the #FacPower hashtag.

[1] Reprinted with permission The Art of Focused Conversation: 100 Sample Conversations for the Workplace, The Canadian Institute of Cultural Affairs, ICA Associates Inc. Toronto. 1999. New Society Press, Gabriola Island.

Martin Gilbraith, MA, CPF|M, and Michael Ambjorn, CDir, SCMP

Martin Gilbraith, MA, CPF|M, works as a facilitator, trainer and consultant to help groups, teams and partnerships work more effectively together to bring about lasting change. What drives him is his passion and commitment to make a positive difference in the world and to support and enable others to do so as well. He began his career in grassroots community development work in India, Africa and the Middle East, after awakening to his own passion and commitment as an international volunteer. He has been facilitating and training, specializing in ICA’s ToP facilitation methodology, since 1986. Since 1997, he has worked with a wide range of clients in the U.K. and overseas.

With 20+ years of leading people, Michael Ambjorn, CDir, SCMP, has run organizations, chaired boards and developed change makers. As a mentor, he provides 1:1 advice to chairs, chief execs and senior leaders — and the next generation of change makers — on strategy, change and turnarounds. He is also a past chair of IABC. Ambjorn is particularly interested in how strategic alignment can focus people and enable sustainable growth and renewal. He spends a lot of time at the intersection of people, tech and sustainability. And he is a committed espresso drinker.

By Martin Gilbraith

Certified Professional Facilitator | Master, ICA:UK Associate, #FacPower author, FRSA.