Five key takeaways for new facilitators

Five key takeaways for new facilitators

1. Facilitating has a higher impact than you’d expect.

  • Within your program, you play a vital role in improving both your group’s enjoyment of and engagement with discussions, as well as providing extra context or clarity on the readings each week. Facilitators who do their job well can add a large amount of value by structuring the conversation and making sure it and its participants are on track.
  • The tone you set as a facilitator can often extend beyond the limits of your discussion group: the cultural norms that you instill in your groups could be highly influential to the development of the broader culture of your associated EA group, if not the wider EA movement.
  • For most of the participants in an intro program, this is their first experience of EA, so you have a pretty large impact on people's first impressions. This affects whether they join the community, and how they view its culture if they do. Also, people in these discussion groups often end up becoming friends with each other, which can have a large impact on how likely someone is to get involved with EA more seriously.
  • If you can get even one of your participants, who wouldn’t have otherwise, to get much more excited about doing (and not just discussing) good, and use their career to work on a really pressing problem, that might make a really big difference.
  • Even if someone in your group doesn’t make a massive career change, you’ll still have a pretty large impact just by making sure that they have a positive and accurate impression of EA and its ideas.
  • This all means that it’s incredibly important for you to take the role seriously - not that you shouldn’t enjoy it, we hope you do! But you should take care to read this document diligently, plan sessions carefully, give yourself enough time to read the curriculum thoughtfully, and set a good example for your group in the ways we’re recommending here.
  • Remember that you’re in a role with a high impact - not just on the success of your program, but on the EA movement as a whole.
  • While it’s important to get facilitating right, you're probably reading this document because someone feels safe entrusting you with giving new community members an amazing first experience in EA. This can be scary, but you can feel better knowing that somebody is already confident enough that you’ll do a great job, and they trust you to watch out for the participants you're responsible for.

2. Good vibes are highly influential and far-reaching.

  • In a group where you’re expecting people to share their genuine responses and opinions, it’s even more important than you’d expect to encourage a social culture that’s welcoming, sympathetic, open, and enthusiastic.
  • Consider how you want your participants to feel about EA, or even just about the ideas in the reading more generally. It seems pretty robustly bad if people who would otherwise get really excited and involved end up thinking that these ideas aren’t really ‘for them’.
  • As the facilitator, you’re in a unique position to set the tone for how the discussion will take shape. In particular, it’s worth you thinking carefully about how you participate in the conversation, such as:
    • Maintaining a friendly tone of voice and body language
    • Behaving in friendly and kind ways towards other people in the group - especially in disagreement
    • Responding charitably and non-judgmentally when someone is confused / asks an ‘obvious’ question
    • Making sure to thank the group and occasionally individual participants when they’re engaging well in the discussion, rather than being unkind or harsh on people when they’re not (unless it’s actually offensive or above the general level of social acceptability - see
      Frequently Asked Questions
      Frequently Asked Questions
      )
    • Showing genuine enthusiasm for EA (and in general!). You want to impart that these ideas are incredibly interesting and exciting, and they can seriously shape the lives of everybody in attendance (including you).
  • You should also spend some time yourself considering what precedents you want to set for these discussions, and how they tie into the overall goals of the program.
    • Remember: the norms of these sessions will have a big impact on your local group’s culture, and maybe even on EA culture as a whole.
    • They’ll also affect how people think EAs generally behave and think - you almost certainly want to display the best of the community: kind, friendly, inclusive, and enthusiastic people trying to change the world for the better.
    • It can be important to explicitly set out the ways you think discussions should proceed.
  • In early sessions it is especially important that you work to introduce your participants to each other, to make the discussions flow as smoothly as they can, as soon as they can.
    • You can do this at the start of sessions by dedicating a lot of time (30+ minutes for a 90 minute session) just to let the participants get to know each other, at least the first few weeks of your program until conversation between them becomes relatively free and easy.
      • You can run ‘icebreaker’ activities in this slot to achieve this in a more structured way, which often works well at the beginning of a program.
      • Some examples of fun icebreakers (more here):
        • A game of “two truths, one lie”, where participants come up with (ideally light-hearted) interesting fictions and facts about themselves, and the rest of the group have to guess which is which!
        • A game of “would you rather” - where you, the facilitator, set out two funny but divisive options, and ask all participants to move to respective sides of the room to represent which they’d prefer.
          • Remember: The more you specify the question, the less fun it is - encourage people to speculate wildly and freely!
          • Some examples of these questions include:
            • “Would you rather live for an extra year, or an extra 14 months but you can’t use a screen for that time?”
            • “Would you rather live for an extra year, or an extra two years but you must be nocturnal?”
            • “Would you rather only need two hours sleep per night, or have a perfect memory?”
            • “Would you rather be one dog, or two dogs?”
    • At the end of sessions, while the discussion itself should end on time, if there is no immediate pressure to leave, don’t force people to. If you’re inclined, join in with some of the post-conversation! You might hear some useful feedback, or simply take part in an enjoyable offshoot from one of this week’s topics.
  • You should expect that for some of your group, the discussions aren't actually working for them, and plan for it. It's not an indictment of your skills as a facilitator: even people who looked like great applicants might just not end up a good fit.
    • Because of this, you should explain when you're setting out the structure of the program in the first sessions, that people normally have a good idea by (eg session 4 of a 7-8 week course) of whether they want to stay with the program.
    • Then, at the end of the pre-announced session you can say something along the lines of “This is a normal point to decide the program isn’t the right fit, we’ll start up again next time with x topic (or more intensely, y set of assumptions or people who are interested in weeks 5-8)”

3. You should be aiming to foster an EA discussion mindset.

  • As the facilitator, you’re not a teacher, and you shouldn’t dominate the discussion. Instead, you’re supposed to function as a guide, encouraging stimulating and pleasant conversation. You should be aiming to show your participants that they’re being listened to and learned from, even and especially by you. This will help them feel comfortable sharing their ideas honestly, and can help foster an environment of genuine intellectual curiosity, where their actual held beliefs are up for grabs.
    • That said, you can and should still clarify and correct simple factual misunderstandings. If someone claims something that isn’t true, or offers a muddled picture of something, you should be ready to step in and gently correct it yourself.
    • Not only are you not a teacher, but you should be learning from and critical of the readings even as a facilitator:
      • It’s unlikely that you’ve read all of this material before, or understood it perfectly.
      • Even if EA is right about a lot of things, we've been wrong about a lot, such as:
        • Thinking earning to give was the best way to impact the world
        • Thinking superintelligent AI would be a good thing to create, without worrying about safety much
        • Thinking global health and development was the only plausible best cause area
      • EA is also a relatively insular community and can be prone to groupthink - Sometimes people put its intellectual leaders on a pedestal and don’t feel comfortable critiquing them.
        • Encourage an atmosphere where people can offer critiques freely & frequently.
    • Your participants can add a lot of value to the discussions, and are likely to be right a lot more of the time than you’d expect:
      • They’re most likely doing your program because they’re intellectually curious, and have a decent chance of becoming part of the future of EA.
      • You’re not in your role because you’re smarter than them, you might just have spent more time so far thinking about these ideas, or you might have been introduced to EA at an earlier stage.
      • So, treat them more as peers than students: be charitable to their perspectives and ideas. Focus on their best ideas instead of their worst.
      • Even if you succeed in doing this, you still need to be aware that they might not see the dynamic in this way (at least at first). Because you’re placed in a position of logistical authority, your participants might be hesitant to disagree with you, and the way you frame their ideas and responses will have an outsized impact on how they get received.
    • You shouldn’t be aiming to show off your knowledge of EA, to persuade people to agree with EA, or to convince people that EA has a faultless analysis of every issue. You should want to encourage the group to consider ideas and arguments seriously, to explore new and important ideas collaboratively, and seek the truth instead of being persuasive.
      • Be fair to every idea you bring up and to present it in a palatable and positive light, especially ones you might not agree with. People are usually biased against new ideas, and having them seriously consider more new ideas is usually really good.
      • Moreover, presenting an idea in a negative light can inoculate someone against that idea such that they won’t consider it seriously even if they hear a better presentation of it later! This is very bad when we’re trying to foster norms of intellectual curiosity and excitement, so don’t jump to the most controversial edge case or the most crazy, alien framing you can right away (though after they’ve heard the idea explained well you may want to bring these up - they can be fun and add to the group’s curiosity and excitement).
    • In general, facilitators look to ask questions, since it’s a reliable way of getting somebody who isn’t you to speak. Your questions can start a topic, clarify a point that was just made, encourage participants to compare their perspectives, or move the conversation in whichever way you judge to be best for your group. Some examples of good facilitator questions:
      • “Seems like we agree on this; what are some reasons we might be wrong?”
      • "I think a summary of what I heard you saying is X, is that right?"
      • “So what [Person 1] seems to be saying here is X. That’s quite different from what you were thinking about this [Person 2], what do you think?”
    • Just as we think it’s valuable to set a good example of acceptable social norms in discussion, we also want to establish some academic ones.
      • Most of all, it seems especially important that you encourage your group to really try to figure out the readings and their problems and to update their beliefs independently.
      • It’s also helpful for you as a facilitator to stress that Effective Altruism doesn't have the answers (we’re a community trying to figure things out, so disagreement is not only good but encouraged)

4. You need to be prepared in the right way to have the most impact.

  • It’s much easier to achieve your goals when you’re properly prepared for it. While your style may differ, we suggest that you at least find ways to work out how to:
    • Plan your goals for the session
    • Plan your prompts
    • Plan their timings
  • Planning your goals for the session:
    • Consider what area the curriculum is aiming to inform the group about each week, and plan your goals accordingly.
    • This requires that you read carefully, and make sure you understand why the items on the reading list are important and relevant to your group’s understanding of the overall topic.
      • In some cases, you might want to go beyond the reading list. You’ll need to have a better than average understanding of these topics to write good prompts and explain complex ideas well.
      • Consider how different sources can help you prepare. Here are some rough examples:
        • The 80,000 Hours website is good at breaking down big ideas, and especially how they could relate to important career decisions.
        • The 80,000 Hours podcast can be useful for finding colloquial or conversational ways to think and explain tricky topics.
        • High-karma posts on the EA Forum or LessWrong can offer a quick summary of a position or concept.
        • The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is great for setting out the critical history of a broad mainstream philosophical idea in medium depth (and lists key influential papers in the footnotes).
        • Published articles can give you insight into the origins of an idea, and/or the most recent insights achieved in the area.
    • You should be examining the curriculum for each week, and using your own knowledge of the reading.
    • For example:
      • You set the goal that this week each participant seriously reevaluates their cause prioritisation
      • This allows you to have a clearer picture of what a successful discussion looks like, and therefore what ways you should shift the conversation to move towards your goals
        • It's easy for conversations to get off focus, go down tangents, or for unrelated ideas to pop up.
        • Having a central goal and focus can help you identify when this is happening and make the most of the short time you have together - eight weeks is really not that long!
    • You can supplement the goals you’ve planned for a session by asking your group what they want to get out of each week.
    • Here’s one highly successful way to incorporate your goals into a session:
      • At the start of a session (or you can send this as a prompt beforehand) ask your group what they want to talk about (e.g. if they have any specific questions they had, any uncertainties or confusions, or anything particular about the readings they wanted to resolve). Don’t move on until you've asked for a topic from everyone (but you can let people submit none or multiple topics)
      • Note these down and work out where your prompts might fit with these, or what the group might be neglecting to talk about. Work out which to start with based on your prompts and/or by briefly checking with what the group is most interested in.
      • Then, over the course of the discussion, go through topics one by one and ask people to introduce the topic they submitted. Use your knowledge of the reading and your own prompts to guide the discussion as we’ve outlined in this doc.
      • Generally, it’s very likely that these group-generated topics will cover most of the reading, and by letting your participants take the lead, they’ll be more engaged with each conversation, and you can feel more confident that the group is talking about something they’re really interested in.
    • Finally, ask your group for feedback on these goals at the end of each session, and whether they feel like they achieved them. You should also be reflecting independently on what you did to fulfil them and what was unsuccessful.
  • Planning your prompts:
    • Sometimes, your program leaders will provide you with discussion prompts for each week of the reading, other times you’ll have to come up with them yourself.
    • A good set of prompts can serve as invaluable structure from which you can hang the conversation. Your prompts should cover the most important points from each item of reading, and you should be ready with more challenging prompts for the most important topics, and the most enthusiastic groups.
    • Facilitators employ prompts differently depending on their facilitation style, but it’s just as important, if not more, to tailor them to your groups as well.
      • If you know your group is highly talkative, prompts may be more useful as a hidden checklist for the facilitator to make sure the conversation hits.
      • For quieter groups, especially if you send them the prompts before the session, they’re more useful as a structure for the conversation to lean against.
  • Planning their timings:
    • It’s also beneficial to break down the session into timed blocks, based on how much time you roughly think should be allocated to each topic.
    • This is useful during the session to help you keep the conversation on track and to make sure you aren’t going to run out of time before you’ve covered the most important parts of the reading list that week.
    • You shouldn’t be clock watching to force the discussion to be confined to rigid blocks, but you can use them as a guideline to match the flow of conversation to the importance of each topic that you want to cover to reach your goals.

5. Reflect to enhance your sessions and refine your skills

  • Reflection and feedback is crucial to make sure you’re hitting your goals and having the biggest impact you can in your role.
  • With that in mind, make sure to actively allocate time before the end of each session for you and the group to wrap up and reflect on the week’s discussion. Ask each person what their main takeaways were, whether there's anything they want to look into further, or whether they have any thoughts about how to make the sessions better.
  • One often successful way of getting feedback on the discussions is by asking the group to give feedback based on the ‘rose, bud, thorn’ structure, whereby you ask the group for a highlight, something they’re excited to find out more about, and a challenge/difficulty they’ve had arising from the discussion this week.
  • We recommend that you also reflect privately after each session. You can use methods like those outlined in deliberate performance in people management, or whatever works personally for you, to make sure that you’re making active plans and decisions about what approaches are the best for you and your group.