Three intermediate facilitation techniques

Three intermediate facilitation techniques

Summarising & stepping in

  • It seems pretty counterintuitive, but by summarising the discussion so far, or the divisions in the topic, you can clarify the points being made, and/or fast-track the group through less challenging areas to unearth new and exciting disagreements among them.
  • It makes sense for facilitators to want to step back from the conversation: there’s a direct trade-off between you talking instead of the participants.
  • But there are a few cases where it can either overall save the group time, or substantially improve the quality of discussion.
  • We’ll look at how summarising can lead to more stimulating discussions in the next section, but here are some more general examples of good times to summarise:
    • Stepping in to clarify any jargon used by one of the participants;
    • Helping to reorient the discussion when it’s become too messy for the group to follow;
    • Jumping in to explain a long and/or confusing point, e.g. by saying “I think what you said was X, which is different from [the preceding discussion] because of Y.”
  • Sometimes, you might want a participant to do this instead, so you get the win-win of not taking time away from the discussion yourself. But, the cost of this comes in how well they can clarify the situation - often you, the facilitator, are in the best position to bring the most clarity to the discussion (it is your job after all!).

Moving on from intellectually un-challenging conversations.

  • Especially if you’re running an advanced discussion program, you’ll probably want to work a bit harder to make sure your group is being stretched by the material.
  • As the facilitator, you want to guide the group to discussions where conversations challenge them to develop their thinking faster than they otherwise would.
  • You can often achieve this during an in-process conversation by redirecting the focus of discussion - Ask tough questions that prompt the group to consider the ways in which the topic could, or perhaps should, be changing how they think.
  • You can prepare these topics ahead of time - you normally want challenging conversations to happen naturally, but it helps to know where the tricky or most important topics are within each week’s material, so that you can help the group find them if needed.
  • There are two general situations where you can identify that the group isn’t finding the discussion as challenging as they should be:
    • They’re responding less critically to the content, and more in the style of “this is a neat idea.”
    • Instead of needing to generate fresh thinking about an issue or disagreement, they’re deferring to thinking that they’ve done before the session.
      1. This is usually a sign of an engaged group, but you want to make sure that you’re finding topics/questions that encourage them to do more than act out a conversation they’ve mostly already had in their minds.
  • In both of these cases, you want to encourage them to challenge their internal models.
  • A pretty reliable way to makes things more challenging is to move from the hypothetical to the object level (in a reasonable and not strawmanning way!)
  • Some examples of questions you can ask to do this are:
    • “ So why aren't we working on this?”
    • “Are too many/not enough EAs working on this?”
    • “Are there ways an EA aligned funder could make this happen if we think it's useful?”
    • “How does this weigh up against X?”
    • “How could someone dedicate their career to this?”
    • “Could we solve this problem?”
  • You can come up with your own questions by thinking about what you can ask that makes people reorient their thinking to 'how does this idea affect what we do?'

Handling sensitive discussion topics.

  • Especially in discussion groups revolving around philosophical issues, you’ll often find that what you’re discussing academically is also highly emotionally charged, and is a huge part of the lives of real people - some of whom might be your participants.
    • Often these topics relate to population ethics, death, disability, equality, or to an under-represented community.
  • As the facilitator, it’s vital to your role that you make sure all participants in your group are made to feel welcome and safe.
  • People handle different topics differently - for example, even though someone was fine talking about X, talking around related issue Y causes genuine discomfort, distress, or other strong negative emotions.
  • If you’re concerned that the conversation is seeming generally ‘heavy’, or if one or more participants are showing signs of discomfort, you can try some combination of the following options. The more discomfort in the room, the more urgently these should be employed.
    • Finding the next possible point in the conversation to steer it away from this material, either back to the discussion points, reading list, or previous unresolved disagreements.
    • Explicitly stating that the conversation is becoming quite dark, and asking whether people want to change topic.
    • Checking in with the room and asking if people need a quick break.
  • In all cases, it is vital that the facilitator makes an active adjustment to the conversation, as very often people who are uncomfortable are unlikely to voice this discomfort, or show it very obviously.
    • Taking proactive steps sooner, even in uncertainty, seems unlikely to be worse than letting a potentially uncomfortable conversation continue:
    • The worst-case scenario when changing discussion topic in this way doesn’t seem that bad (maybe missing out on some amount of discussion) when compared to possibly allowing what could cause serious emotional harm.
  • Finally, you should also be looking out for your own discomfort levels during the conversation. Your discomfort is enough to merit a change of topic, and the group almost always won’t mind, and can always talk about it another time.