Group discussions: learnings on facilitation

10 May 2016

Over the past year or so, I’ve been trying out a couple of informal event styles to bring people together around a certain topic, and enable a deeper style of discussion than often happens at bigger conferences.

My desire to do this was born out of a couple of frustrations: primarily, that at many traditional conference sessions (eg. panels or presentations), the ‘questions’ part either gets cut if they’re running over time (which is often the case) or, gets dominated by people (usually men) who open with “I’ve got a comment, rather than a question” and then use up most of the Q&A time. In other cases, where there are open discussions, a similar dynamic can occur. In open meetups around a certain topic, there is almost always that guy who talks for at least 50% of the time, dominates the conversation and doesn’t understand the concept of participatory “group” discussion at all.

So, last year my dear friend Julia Kloiber and I organised a small event when Ethan Zuckerman was in town, around re:publica. We invited around 12 people we knew who worked in civic tech in some form, most of whom were based in Berlin to join us for 2 hours with Ethan. This year, we did the same thing, inviting Kate Crawford as our ‘special guest’, with 12 people who work on artificial intelligence, machine learning and data ethics in some shape or form. Both went really well.

From these, and some other sessions I’ve participated in (but not organised), here are some (ongoing) learnings and tips that I’ve found to help:

  • Make it invitation only: this sounds counterintuitive to the accessibility and openness that I appreciate a lot, but it actually helps a lot. Knowing that the people you’ve invited will be thoughtful participants (not not be “that guy” I mentioned above) makes a big difference, and contributes to a much nicer group dynamic. It also helps to make attendance a bit more ‘special’ than just

  • Facilitate: even if it’s informal, have someone whose mandate is to lightly facilitate the group and keep an eye out on group dynamics - just in case. This person’s role is to make sure conversation is ongoing, keep to time, and cut anyone off in case they’re dominating the conversation too much.

  • Give everyone the chance to speak: this might mean actively asking someone, or catching their eye to see if they’re interested in piping up. But bear in mind that ‘active participation’ doesn’t just mean speaking, and some people might not want to say anything because that’s not their preferred way of participating.

  • Be respectful of everyone’s time: if you say the discussion is going to last for 1.5 hours, keep to it. Even if the discussion is in full swing, or there’s lots of last little points that you wanted to say - don’t do it.

  • If you’re inviting a ‘speaker’ or a special guest, find out from them what they want to be talking about. From our experience, the thoughtful invitees we spoke to had topics they wanted other people’s perspectives on, and these kinds of discusisons can be great opportunities for them to bounce ideas off a new set of people.

  • Don’t just invite friends: again, counter-intuitive as it’s ‘invitation only’ - but use these as an opportunity to reach outside your usual network and get people to the table who you wouldn’t otherwise have contact with, but whose work you’ve followed.

  • Get people to think of questions/topics in advance: in most cases, this hasn’t proven to be so necessary when it comes down to it, but it’s good to know as a back up that you have in your inbox 5-10 questions from each participant that the facilitator can throw out to the group, in case there’s a lull in conversation.

I don’t doubt there’ll be more of these as time goes on - but in the meantime, I’ve really enjoyed these styles of events as an opportunity to dive into a topic in much more depth than you can usually get at bigger conferences.


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