EVENTS

Tips for Running Discussion Groups

Updated 5th May 2021

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

Contents

Goals

It may be worth clarifying your group’s goals to ensure you meet them. Some goals might be

  • To inspire action towards doing the most good
  • To support the development of people committed to the effective altruism community
  • To promote the importance of critical thinking and knowing how to change your mind
  • To create a sense of enjoyment and community

Choosing content

  • There are many articles, books, videos, and podcasts to select from.
  • Some people are happy to read, watch or listen to material in advance. But if your text is short, consider looking over the content at the event, rather than as preparation.
  • Check that your content is suitable for the audience. Too much jargon and assumed knowledge can throw off newcomers.
  • Unless you know you’ve got a dedicated group of time-rich people, 30 minutes is usually a good amount of preparation time. Reading speed varies a lot, but about 200 words a minute is reasonable if the text isn’t too difficult.
  • Some people have felt alienated by certain discussions and reduced their involvement in the community. Discussions about underrepresented groups, either in EA or the wider community, can be alienating to members of that group, or people who have loved ones in that group. Think carefully before assigning readings and questions that could be overly controversial or personal, weighing up the benefits and risks. Many potentially alienating discussions are not particularly useful for effectively improving the world, so it can be better to choose other topics. The page on community health provides more information.

Choosing questions

There are a few strategies for coming up with discussion questions:

  • Ask attendees to come up with questions and topics of discussion during the meetup, then prioritise these before starting the discussion. This helps to ensure the discussion is centred on the topics the majority finds the most interesting and can avoid getting stuck on a single topic. Always have a few pre-prepared questions in case the attendees can’t think of many. Two ways you could do this:

    • For virtual events: Create a shared Google doc for the event, and give everyone ~5 minutes to write down their questions or topics they’d like to discuss. Tip: Pre-populating the doc with bullet points helps to avoid people writing on the same line. After people have finished writing questions, ask people to read through and put a “*” in front of each question they particularly want to talk about. Then start the discussion with the highest rated questions.
    • For in-person events: Questions can be chosen in a similar way by providing pen and paper (or use a large whiteboard with several pens) for people to write down their questions or topics. Then pass around the paper to get people to put “*” on their favourite questions. Tip: Ask people to quickly clarify their questions if needed, but note that you might need to actively moderate to avoid the clarifications don’t turn into a discussion prematurely.
  • Use questions already prepared by other EA groups

  • Prepare questions specifically for this reading. Factual questions can ease everyone into the discussion. Afterwards, allow more interesting questions to take over, such as why people agree or disagree with a point, or how the information might influence the actions we take in our lives.

  • Consider using this model for a high discussion structure reading group, which provdes everyone with a role.

  • Before the event, consider providing questions alongside the reading and ask people to bring in their answers. These questions can focus the reading and act as a starting point for the discussion. Some generic questions are listed here.

Planning

Marketing

  • 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. We recommend encouraging people to attend regardless, especially for more general discussions. Get people up to speed and help newcomers feel welcome by summing up the material at the beginning.
  • Some groups may wish to organise smaller, more intense events, where almost everyone does the reading in advance. This approach works for people wanting to go through a particular book or subject area more thoroughly. To start, publicise your group as a regular discussion group on your chosen topic to see who’s interested, and then make each meeting private.

Group size

  • The ideal group size is 5 to 8 people. You allow for rich discussion, several points of view, and enough space for everyone to contribute.
  • Larger groups can split up for most of the event. In the end, the smaller groups can reconvene and report the takeaways from each discussion.

Pick a facilitator

  • There should be one person to facilitate the discussion for each meeting. Facilitators should model friendly, constructive behaviour, redirect monopolized discussions, end unhelpful tangents, and reign in off-putting behaviour.
  • The facilitator would ideally be well-prepared with notes, possible discussion questions, and comments.
  • The group organiser doesn’t have to fill this role.

Decide on a start and finish time

  • Think about a reasonable length for a discussion and decide when the finish time is. After that, allow people to hang around for more casual chatter.

During the event

We suggest this outline for a typical discussion event.

Start

  • Start with welcoming people and providing drinks and snacks if you have them.
  • Unless you all know each other well, use name tags to make it easier to refer to each other.
  • Let everyone introduce themselves to start. You can pose a simple question for people to answer during their introduction. It can be useful to set a time limit in advance to remind people to be concise, but there’s no need to look at your watch and police time. Here are some suggestions:

    • What do you study and why? (for uni groups)
    • What appeals to you most about effective altruism?
    • How did you get involved in effective altruism?
    • If you could have one superpower, what would it be and why?
  • At this point, the facilitator can share any guidelines for the discussion or discussion norms you want to make explicit.

  • Have the facilitator introduce the topic. If there was pre-reading, let the facilitator or attendees summarise it.

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

Preparing questions

  • If you have made a sheet of questions, allow people a few minutes to think on them.
  • If you haven’t prepared a set of questions, you can let people raise questions and start discussing. Discussions will be more productive if there’s a process for selecting the best questions. To do this,

    • Ask attendees to brainstorm questions or topics of discussion individually. If your event is online, everyone can type the questions into a shared document. Otherwise, you can get people to write them down on paper. If needed, you can prompt with general questions like “What didn’t you understand?” “How did this part make you feel?” “Which arguments were strong or weak?” and “Do you now think differently about an idea?”
    • Ask attendees to signal which questions they want to discuss. With online events, do this by asking people to write “+1” next to their favourite questions. With in-person events, you can pass around the papers with questions on them and ask people to draw a star.
    • Select the top questions. You may wish to group similar questions.

The discussion

  • Launch into the questions! You can ask the person who suggested the question to clarify if needed.
  • 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.
  • Taking notes can be handy. It’s often better to use a pen and paper and transfer the notes to a computer later. Using a laptop, while seemingly more convenient, can reduce eye contact and engagement.
  • More tips for the facilitator.

Wrapping up

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 you’d like to cover?
  • What is the most important thing you’ve learnt during the reading and discussion?
  • What actions are you planning to take in the future as a result of what we discussed today?

Follow up

Get feedback from the group regularly. One-on-one and short surveys are ideal. It is particularly worth soliciting feedback from quieter people and those who attended once or twice and then stopped. These people often inspire better ways to engage attendees.

You can ask how much the attendees enjoy the events, how much they learned, how much it has influenced their beliefs and life choices, and whether there are ways to improve.

Regularly ask attendees for input to decide future topics. Some groups do this by asking for suggestions or creating a poll on Facebook.

Tips for the facilitator

This role exists to keep conversation friendly, inclusive and on-track, not too broad or narrow. Facilitators should use their judgement to keep conversations in a productive, focused range without dominating the discussion.

  • Consider setting up discussion explicit norms, particularly if your group has more than 6 people in a single conversation, or if one or two people tend to dominate. These norms are popular:

    • Raise your hand (or * in the chat in an online event) means “I want to discuss a new point”.
    • Raise your finger (or ^ in the chat in an online event) means “I want to comment on the existing point”.
    • Raise your fist (or ? in the chat in an online event) means “I am confused, you’ve used jargon I don’t understand” (otherwise known as the fist of confusion).
    • Facilitators then can ask those raising their fists first, then those raising their fingers until it feels time to move on from that specific topic.
  • Sometimes ask people by name for their input, especially if they are usually quiet. Often quiet people have great contributions but are just less motivated to talk.

  • Keep comments to 2 minutes at most.

  • Try to keep back-and-forths to at most two 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 keen to head the discussion in a different direction.

  • Keep things light-hearted - humour is good.

  • Occasionally ask people who haven’t spoken for a while for their thoughts, and give them a moment to respond (a little bit of silence is okay).

  • If your group has more than eight people, consider suggesting breaking off into pairs. After a few minutes of discussion, each group shares what they came up with. This arrangement gives people more thinking time and 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. You can open the floor to objections, agreements, or 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 can suggest that people break off and have separate discussions.

  • Steer conversation to safe ground if it may be becoming controversial. Explicitly change the topic if needed. Remember that uncomfortable people are unlikely to voice their discomfort. It can be helpful for a facilitator to shift the discussion even if they are unsure whether anyone is getting upset.

  • If anyone 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 the speaker privately after the session to let them know. Some people may genuinely not realise they acted offensively.

  • Sometimes, individuals will dominate discussions. It is worth having a quiet conversation after the event to let them know how they came across and ask them to reduce their contributions in the future.

  • Ensure you wrap up the discussion by the event’s stated end time, even if people are welcome to hang around and chat further.

Guidelines for the discussion

General guidelines

Explaining guidelines before you get started can improve discussions by putting conversational norms in the forefront of people’s minds, and encourage quieter people to speak up. Guidelines should be short, positive, and framed as suggestions for having a productive conversation, rather than a list of ‘don’t’s. 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. 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 opinion. Explain your alternative point of view after this clarification.
  • If you agree or have learnt something from someone, say so. And of course, be patient and kind to each other!

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 take these discussions differently. Right now, no one close to me is facing major health struggles, so I’m finding it okay to have abstract discussions about difficult topics. I imagine that if I were going through personal struggles right now, they might cut closer to the quick, and I might not be up for having those 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 absolutely fine. We want you to do what’s right for you. EA is not a sprint. It’s about nurturing yourself to do more good over the long term, which means taking care of yourself. So we’ll try to have points during discussions where it’s easy to take a break if anyone needs to.”
  • More personal examples from organisers can make it feel like a real and not just a hypothetical person you’re benefitting. They also make it 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.
  • A more personal example might be, “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 want to discuss it in public as well.” (It’s fine to give me as an example if none of the organizers has something to share.)
  • Ideas for giving people chances to decide what they’re up for:

    • “We’ll be talking about population ethics in this part of the room and ethics of gene drives in that part of the room.”
    • “I notice the topic is getting pretty intense, and I want to give people a chance to think whether this is a conversation they want to have right now. Let’s break for snacks and resume in a couple of minutes.”

The page on community health provides more information.

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 long and has too many “don’ts” to share out loud as part of the goals and guidelines. Still, it 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. Spencer Greenberg has some great suggestions.
  • Most people want to appear intelligent, so interact with people in ways that allow others to see them that way. Avoid making people appear unintelligent.
  • Be polite and avoid interrupting others.
  • Maintain an open mind - assume that you will learn something from each other person.
  • Acknowledge other people’s points, especially if you’re building on them.
  • Avoid starting side conversations parallel to the main discussion.
  • Avoid presenting objections as flat dismissals. There are more constructive ways to object. Also, object to ideas, not people.
  • Attempt to re-express other’s views so clearly, vividly, and fairly that they think, “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.
  • When you’ve learned something from someone else, mention it.
  • It’s OK to question the presuppositions of a project or an area, but dominating a discussion with those questions can be unhelpful.
  • Don’t keep pressing the same objection, either individually or collectively.
  • Let others have their say and try not to let your questions or answers run on.
  • It’s OK to ask awkwardly phrased and uninformed questions.

More reading


NEXT: Content for Discussion Groups


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