EVENTS

Tips for Running Discussion Groups

Published 17th October 2019

Contributions were made by the LEAN team, EA Estonia, Yale EA, and CEA.

Contents

Goals

Different groups and individuals will have different goals for discussion groups, and it may be worth clarifying your group’s goals to help ensure you meet these goals.

  • To exchange ideas, deepen learning and inspire action towards doing the most good
  • To support the development and participation of those familiar with and committed to the effective altruism community
  • To promote the importance of critical thinking and knowing how to change your mind
  • Enjoyment and community

Planning

Guidelines for planning events are coming soon. The following is specific to planning discussion groups.

Choosing readings and questions

  • There are many examples of readings and discussion questions to help you out with this.
  • Some people are happy to read/watch the material in advance, but if your text is short consider doing the reading/viewing/listening at the event, rather than as preparation.
  • Check your readings don’t have too much assumed knowledge. This is particularly important if you are expecting people who are new to EA to attend the event.
  • Unless you know you’ve got a particularly dedicated time-rich group of people, then 30 mins is a good maximum amount of preparation time. Reading speed varies a lot, but about 200 words a minute is reasonable if the text isn’t too difficult.
  • Go through the content thoroughly and come up with relevant questions to start the group off with. It is often useful to have a factual question at the start (e.g. asking people what the key points are), before spending the bulk of the time on more interesting questions such as asking people why they disagree or agree with a point, or how this information should affect how we act. It is important to treat these questions as a guideline or starting point, but it is worth sometimes allowing the discussion to go on useful tangents, and asking others in the group for questions they’d like to discuss.
  • There are a few strategies for coming up with discussion questions:

    • Prepare questions specifically for this reading. Examples here.
    • Ask attendees to come with questions, and go through the questions at the at the start of the meetup to choose the best ones to discuss.
    • Before the event set questions for people to answer while reading. This can provide focus while reading, and provide a starting point for the discussion. Some generic questions are listed here.
  • A number of people in the community have reported that they’ve felt alienated by some discussions, and for some people this has reduced their involvement in the community. For example, discussions about groups who are underrepresented (either in EA or in the wider community) can be particularly alienating to members of that group, or to people who have loved ones in that group. Therefore, think carefully before assigning readings and questions that could be overly controversial or personal, considering whether the possible benefits outweigh the possible risks of the discussion. Many discussions that have the potential to be alienating are also not particularly useful for working out how to effectively improve the world, so in these cases it might be better to choose another topic. The page on community health provides more information.

Consider making hand out sheets

  • This is useful if you want to get through several questions or if you wish to have more structure.
  • Handouts could include a summary of the topic (or of the assigned material) and a list of questions to help frame the conversation. There are handouts on several topics already created that you can modify to suit your group.

Marketing

  • If your group is small, make an effort to reach out to and include people beyond your existing circle of friends or acquaintances - people familiar with EA or anyone you think might be interested. Diversity of background in your group’s members increases the likelihood you’ll be introduced to ideas and resources you’re not already familiar with.
  • If you are assigning pre-reading, make it clear whether or not people should come if they don’t get a chance to read in advance. If the event will be useful for attendees who haven’t done the reading, then it is best to encourage people to come whether or not they have done the reading, and have the first question asking for a summary of the reading to get people up to speed. This also makes the event more welcoming to newcomers.
  • Some groups may wish to organise smaller, more intense reading groups, where you do expect the reading to be completed in advance. This could be particularly useful if you have a small group of people wanting to work through a particular book or subject area together. If you choose to organise discussion groups like this it might be best to publicise that you are planning to start a regular discussion group on a certain topic/series of topics to see who is interested, but make each individual event private.

Group size

  • An ideal group size is 5 to 8 members - allowing for rich discussion, several different points of view, but also isn’t so large that people struggle to contribute their voice.
  • If your group is larger, split into a few groups and at the end you could have each group report back with any takeaways from the discussion.

Pick a facilitator

  • There should be one person to facilitate the discussion for each meeting. That person should be willing to model friendly, constructive discussions and be willing to redirect the discussion if one or more people dominate, head off on an unhelpful tangent or act in ways that may be off putting to others in the group.
  • Ideally the facilitator is well-prepared with notes, possible discussion questions and comments.
  • This role doesn’t have to be the group organiser.

Decide on a start and finish time for the discussion

  • Think about a reasonable length for a discussion, and decide when the finish time is. After that time people may wish to hang around for drinks or more casual chats.

What happens at the event

Overview

  • Start with providing drinks or snacks if you have them, and welcoming people.
  • Unless you all know each other well, use name tags to make it easier to refer to each other, get everyone to introduce themselves and consider a small icebreaker exercise.

  • Have the facilitator set a few brief guidelines for the discussion, especially if there are a few new people.

  • Have the facilitator introduce the topic for ~2 minutes, or if reading was completed in advance, ask some members to summarise the reading briefly.

  • Read or view the material if it wasn’t assigned as pre-reading.

  • Allow people to spend ~5 minutes looking over and thinking about the discussion sheet questions.

  • Then launch into the questions.

  • Facilitators can use their judgement as to whether to stick to the set questions, seek questions from the group, or allow moving off into tangents.

  • If you take notes during a discussion group, it is often better to use pen and paper, then transfer to a computer later. Using a laptop, while seemingly more convenient, can reduce eye contact and engagement.

  • Review and wrap up the discussion. One suggestion to do this: A few minutes before the planned finish time, the facilitator can mention that the group has been talking about topic X for a while, and then pose a final question for everyone to answer if they wish, before thanking everyone for their participation and letting them know they can stay and chat for longer (and have more drinks and snacks if available). Suitable final questions could be:

    • Any remaining questions from the list of prepared questions
    • What is the most important thing you’ve learnt during the reading and discussion ?
    • Whether anyone is going to act differently in the future as a result of what was discussed today (this could be learn more about a topic, talk to someone, consider donating to a different charity etc.)

Icebreaker ideas

When there are new people, or people don’t know each other well, ask people to introduce themselves, and answer one question, with a time limit (e.g. in 30 seconds or less) can get people talking. The time limit is useful to state in advance to make people think about being concise, but there is usually no need to look at your watch and police time. Start by telling the whole group the question, give people 30 seconds to think, and then select someone to start. Here are some suggestions:

  • What do you study and why? (for Uni groups)
  • What appeals to you about effective altruism?
  • How did you get involved in effective altruism?
  • If you could have one superpower, what would it be?

Guidelines for the discussion

General guidelines

Explaining guidelines before you get started can improve discussions by putting good conversational norms in the forefront of people’s minds, and encourage quieter people to speak up. It is best to keep these short and positive, and frame them as suggestions for having a productive conversation, rather than having a list of ‘don’ts’. Use your judgement as to whether you want to do this. It is particularly useful if you have a large group, have a few new people, or know there are a couple of people who need reminders. But it may be unnecessary to give guidelines if you have a regular group of people who participate harmoniously.

Here are the suggestions from one group:

  • Go into discussions with the assumption that you will learn something valuable from each person in this room, so give everyone space to share their perspectives, and listen attentively.
  • If you disagree with an idea, aim to understand the other person’s position clearly by asking clarifying questions, or restating the other person’s position, before explaining your alternative point of view.
  • If you agree, or have learnt something from someone, say so.
  • And of course, be patient and kind with each other. It sometimes takes a while to organise thoughts and responses, and while we may have different perspectives and beliefs, we all have shared goals.

If there are more than 6 or so people in the group, it might be worth suggesting the group uses hands-up to signal they wish to talk. Just raising your hand a little until the facilitator catches your eye is enough, so this doesn’t need to be intrusive.

Sensitive Topics

If the topic is likely to be sensitive, emphasise the need to be considerate of others, and mention that this discussion could become uncomfortable for some. Sensitive topics could include those that relate to population ethics, death, disability, or relating to an under-represented community.

Julia Wise from CEA has the following suggestion for facilitators and organisers:

  • Facilitators could say: “In EA discussions, we tend to get into difficult topics around life, death, and disability. I want to flag that it’s very normal for people to vary in how well that kind of discussion works for them. Right now, no one close to me is facing major health struggles, so right now I’m in a state of finding it easier to have abstract discussions about difficult topics like illness and death. I could imagine if I were going through more personal struggle right now, this might cut a lot closer to the quick, and I might just not be up for having those kinds of discussions in a group. If there are days when you find it’s not a good idea for you to be doing group discussions around some of the heavy topics, that’s totally fine and we want you to do what’s right for you. EA is not a sprint, it’s about nurturing yourself to be able to do more good over the long term, and that means taking care of yourself. So we’ll try to give points during discussions where it’s easy to take a break if you need to do that.”
  • If there’s a personal example that one of the organizers can give, that might be good because
    • it can make it feel like a real and not just a hypothetical person you’re benefitting
    • it makes it more clear that people might want to avoid a topic not because they’re too wimpy to handle it, but because they already think about it a lot. For example, when I was living with a family member with end-stage cancer, I thought about death a lot. Because it was so raw, I didn’t necessarily want to discuss it in public as well. (It’s fine to give me as an example if none of the organizers have something they’d want to speak about.)
  • Ideas for giving people chances to decide what they’re up for:
    • “We’re going to be talking about population ethics over here in this part of the room, and talking about the ethics of gene drives over here in this other part of the room.”
    • “I notice the topic is getting pretty intense, and I want to give people a chance to think about whether this is a conversation they want to be in right now. Let’s break for snacks and resume in a couple of minutes.”

The page on community health provides more information.

Tips for the facilitator

This role shouldn’t dominate the discussion, but exists to keep conversation friendly, inclusive and on track (not too broad or unproductive, but using judgement to allow for interesting conversation to flow).

  • Model good communication norms, as groups often follow the lead of the moderator.
  • Keep comments to at most 3 minutes
  • Try to keep back-and-forths to at most 2 iterations (so person A, person B, person A, person B, then move on to someone new)
  • Keep the conversation on common ground - make sure people are explaining technical terms and acronyms if they come up.
  • If the conversation has lasted too long in a particularly technical / expert domain, move onto the next question to bring the conversation back down to an accessible level.
  • You may wish to break the discussion in two if two or three people seem really keen to head the discussion in a particular direction.
  • Keep things light hearted - humour is good.
  • Sometimes discussions can be dominated by one or two people - moderate this by asking quieter members directly for their opinions or thoughts, and give them a moment to respond (a little bit of silence is okay). Alternatively suggest discussion in pairs, then after a few minutes of discussion each group shares what they came up with. This allows people to have more thinking time, and also puts less pressure on any individual to have something to say.
  • After one person speaks, ask others for their responses rather than responding to each point yourself - you’ll end up doing too much of the talking otherwise. This could be asking if anyone has objections, if anyone else agrees, or just for any other thoughts.
  • If side conversations crop up within the group, politely ask people to rejoin the main conversation, perhaps by asking one of the people to share their thoughts with the whole group. If this happens a couple of times you could also suggest the people break off and have a separate discussion.
  • Steer conversation to safe ground if it may be becoming controversial, or explicitly change the topic if needed. Remember if someone is uncomfortable in a discussion they are unlikely to voice their discomfort, so it can be helpful for a facilitator to move the conversation on even if they are unsure whether anyone is getting upset.
  • If anyone clearly acts inconsiderately it is worth saying that their comment isn’t welcome. If it is only mildly inconsiderate, or if you think bringing it up might make the discussion worse, talk to them privately after the session to let them know. Some people may genuinely not realise they dominated the discussion too much or caused offence.
  • Wrap up the discussion to make a clear finishing point.

Further information about productive reading and discussion

Things to remember when reading

  • Approach the text with an open mind, maintaining a neutral attitude while you give arguments full and fair consideration.
  • Go slowly and deliberately. Read carefully, track the argument closely, and stop to ask for clarification if you no longer follow.
  • Test your understanding and acceptance every step of the way. Summarise and evaluate.
  • Your reading ought to be able to produce a faithful summary, if you’ve understood the argument. At that point you can formulate a tentative judgment - whether you think the conclusion follows from the premises and whether the premises are true.

More points on having constructive discussions

This list is a bit long, and has too many “don’ts” to share out loud as part of the goals and guidelines, but may be useful for the facilitator to keep in mind, or to share with people who are interested in learning about constructive discussions.

  • Give the person you’re interacting with your complete, genuine, interested attention. A great suggestion of how to do that is described by Spencer Greenberg here.
  • Most people want to be perceived as intelligent, so interact with people in ways that allow others to perceive the person as intelligent (or at least not unintelligent).
  • Be polite, avoid interrupting others.
  • Maintain an open mind - make the assumption that you will learn something from each other person.
  • Acknowledge other people’s insights and points that have been made previously that you may be building on.
  • Don’t start side conversations parallel to the main discussion.
  • Don’t present objections as flat dismissals - Objections are fine, but can often be cast in a more constructive way. Also, object to ideas, don’t object to people.
  • You should attempt to re-express the other person’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target thinks, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”
  • List any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
  • You should mention anything you have learned from the other person.
  • Even when an objection is destructive with respect to a position, it often helps to find a positive insight suggested by the objection.
  • It’s OK to question the presuppositions of a project or an area, but discussions in which these questions dominate can be unhelpful.
  • Don’t keep pressing the same objection (individually or collectively).
  • Avoid dominating the discussion - let others have their say and try not to let your questions or answers run on.
  • It’s OK to ask a question that you think may be unsophisticated or uninformed.

Follow up

Get feedback from the group regularly, ideally one-on-one or through a short survey so people are more able to share their thoughts. It is particularly worth soliciting feedback from quieter people and those who attended once or twice but stopped attending, as there may be ways you could engage these participants more.

You could ask how much the members enjoy the events, how much they learned, how much it has influenced their beliefs and life choices, and whether there are ways the events could be improved.

Regularly ask participants for suggestions from the group for future topics.

More reading


NEXT: Content for Discussion Groups


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