Blog 2 – Facilitating Fair and Productive Conversations

This week’s readings got me thinking a lot about a workshop I conducted a few years ago. The workshop focused on identity and culture – the idea was to get first-year students to understand their identity and how they can work with other people who may have identities that are different from their own. Discussion was a critical part of the workshop, so we began by setting a few ground rules and emphasizing a few guidelines using the acronym RESPECT. This is what it stood for:

R – recognize your communication style (we did this in an earlier workshop)

E – expect to learn something about yourself and others

S – speak clearly and use personal examples when making a point

P – participate honestly and openly

E – engage in the process by listening as well as speaking

C – confidentiality/curiosity/charity

T – take responsibility for yourself and what you say

The workshop ended up being a bit of a challenge. As the facilitator, I was asked to keep my ideas and opinions out of the discussion. This didn’t seem difficult at first, but it became quite hard when I realized that the conversation was becoming very one-sided. Though we had several students from minoritized groups in our classroom, the majority of the room consisted of people who identified in the majority. Students in the majority tended to dominate the conversation, making statements that most likely made other students uncomfortable. As the facilitator, I tried to steer the conversation back in a more productive direction, reminding the students of the guidelines we set at the beginning of the session. Nevertheless, it was difficult to do so with such a large proportion of the classroom in agreement (and not in a good way), especially since I was asked to keep my ideas and opinions out of the discussion.

I’ve reflected on this situation many times and still struggle with the best way to handle it. I’m interested in your thoughts. Do you have any suggestions for handling these difficult situations? How do I remain neutral as the facilitator, but ensure that the conversation is productive and not one-sided?

5 comments:

  1. This was wonderful to read! In the counseling department, we use a similar acronym for the concept of broaching differences and similarities between the counselor and client, or counselor and their supervisor – but I really like this acronym for setting healthy and (hopefully) safe expectations for conversation and discussion. I think it can be incredibly hard to steer conversations when dominant voices want it to go in a certain direction and/or do not want to participate in the acknowledgement that something they have said could be harmful to another party. I think guiding them back toward the RESPECT guidelines is a great intervention. I also imagine it must be very frustrating when, as a facilitator, you are trying to be neutral and allow an organic process to happen. I think when it comes to realizing marginalized voices are continuing to be marginalized, then those with some form of power have a responsibility to speak up about it and point out that it is happening – which causes tension, but I believe discomfort can prompt (hopefully) change. So, my only thought for any future workshops would be to speak out exactly what is happening in the space, name what is happening because those marginalized individuals might not feel they have power to do so.

  2. Hi Logan,
    Thanks for sharing your learning experience! I think one of the most important things about these discussions is establishing ground rules (which it sounds like you did!). Some of the readings this week had some good suggestions for the very relevant questions you are asking. One particular tip for diffusing tension that I remember was to “separate the comment from the person,” by taking the idea and writing it on the board, and then asking for critiques or ideas from other students in the classroom. Aside from that, I think it is okay as a facilitator to step in when things start to get out of hand. You could ask the class to take a break from the discussion, or you could ask challenging questions to those people who you think are pushing forward a one-sided conversation, without actually imposing your own viewpoint on them.

  3. Thank you for your blog post and questions. It is an interesting dynamic that is hard to navigate. One thing I would suggest is maybe if you find yourself in a situation where you have a majority of the people in your conversation representing a majority view or community try to directly ask the people in the minority what they feel or what their perspective is. You might in the process make them or the whole group feel uncomfortable but sometimes uncomfortable conversations are necessary for others to see differing perspectives and hopefully start to make change. As the facilitator you have the liberty to probe people and play devil’s advocate if necessary. Hope this helps next time you are in that situation!

  4. Hi Logan,
    Thanks for your post this week. I have never heard of the RESPECT model for helping folks tap into their identity and culture. Thank you for sharing that. At the end of your post you asked if anyone had ideas for facilitating difficult conversations and I wanted to offer an idea for you to consider. You talked about how you set up ground rules and expectations in the beginning. I have had success in situations like this when students are guided to: (1.) speak only for 2 minutes tops–or one minute–or whatever works for your format (2.) speak only twice–until (3.) everyone has had an opportunity to weigh in on the issue. I also tell students that I will enforce this because it is important for everyone to be heard. So this does work fairly well, most students will respect the boundaries…and if they don’t, then you have already laid the groundwork for being able to speak up and say something like “I can tell that this topic means a lot to you, but we do still need to hear from other voices, so if you can just make a note about what you want to say, we can get back to you later…” or something like that. I have definitely observed what you described in face to face class discussions as well as online discussions on zoom–and while I do appreciate folks being into it, I know that there are plenty of folks who are frustrated because they can’t get a word in edgewise (been there myself).

  5. Hi Logan,

    Thanks for sharing your experience on facilitating a conversation, and the challenges you faced. My thoughts that the endeavor to be a neutral facilitator is a farce. When, like in your example, the majority comes to a point where they are saying hurtful/incorrect/racist/etc. things, are you being a neutral facilitator or are you being a bystander? Especially when you, as the facilitator, may not be a part of that majority is it neutral to not express your experiences? No matter what, these conversations are going to be challenging.

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