Discussions are at the heart of democratic deliberation. They help everyone to discuss the issues, share their experiences and find common ground.
Thinking about language
- Being able to speak in the language you are comfortable with is essential if we are going to open up politics to everyone.
- While few people speak English as a first language, it is often the most common language spoken when bringing together people who speak different languages. If you decide to hold a meeting or event in English then make sure that everyone knows they can still speak in their own language. Ask what language people will be speaking in during any group agreements and ensure there is someone who is able to translate where necessary.
- At the same time, if only one person doesn’t speak the majority language, then it is not necessary to conduct the discussion in English. Hold the discussion in the language that the majority speak. You can support anybody who doesn’t speak that language by having someone who can translate sit next to them or periodically summarising the conversation.
- When translating, try not to translate every line, this breaks people’s thoughts. Don’t translate at the end of a contribution, this often leads to a very basic translation without nuance or detail. Get used to speaking and translating in conceptual blocks.
Introducing new information
- Meetings are called to discuss a response to an issue. But often not everyone starts on the same page understanding what has happened or knowing how to understand the problem. It helps to find ways to bring everyone up to speak if everyone is going to participate.
- We often revert to certain forms of knowledge when bringing people up to speed such as written documents. There is an important place for reading before discussions, and it can be useful to read original texts or aspects of law or policy. If the discussion requires reading then make time to read together. Make sure everybody has a copy so they can read along.But this should not always be the most dominant form of information sharing.
- We often invite speakers to introduce a topic. Try to be careful about setting up people as experts when most people will have an experience of an issue that is equally as important. A short snappy talk can do the trick every now and then but should not become the dominant form. Panels are only useful when speakers are talking about the same issue and have different viewpoints. No more than three. Panels are best if speakers sit in the circle rather than up at a table.
- Oral history and experience, storytelling and witnessing, visual and physical expression are all equally valid ways to stimulate a discussion. A well-rehearsed skit is very inclusive and can help open up a discussion. Everybody loves stories. Sharing a story or experience is a good way to start a meeting.
- It can be very effective to use props such as a photo, a news article or a song to help stimulate a discussion.
Working in pairs
- Many people know what they want to say but don’t feel confident they will be able to express it well. Talking in pairs is very good as it helps people practice and arrange their thoughts. Pairs help everybody to share a reflection that needs to be spoken out loud.
- We don’t always need to hear as a whole group from all the pairs. Just speaking is enough to bring people into the conversation.
- A facilitator can walk around and listen in to gather the gist; or you can choose to popcorn a few to share to give an indicative sense of the conversations.
Working in groups
- Breaking into groups can be useful to ensure that everyone is able to contribute. It’s important to think carefully how you want to group people. If you want people to talk with those that may have a different perspective then group everyone randomly. If you want people with similar experiences or interests to sit together then group by theme. Self selection is useful to test which ideas have the most traction. Feel free to subdivide a group working on a similar theme if it’s too big.
- Giving people numbers often leads to confusion as people forget or they change their number to sit with a friend. Rather hand out numbers on a piece of paper.
- The most common form of group work is where people are asked to discuss a question and then report back on their discussion. It is useful but can also lead to repetition where groups come up with similar ideas – the audience then hears the same idea multiple times. If you follow this format then get into a habit of affirming ideas rather than repeating them. Make it clear who will report back and how before the group gets under way. It can also be useful to write up a summary and display these, giving other groups the opportunity to circulate and read them.
- Often we expect people to answer a question in a group but it’s also possible to work on definitions, resolutions or affirmations, decide actions, make proposals or agree on commitments. Groups are useful for telling stories and sharing experiences. Make sure the facilitator models what everybody is expected to do. Groups are useful for sorting and sequencing information that need simplifying.
- If talking about a difficult issue, it can be helpful to do a problem tree. On the roots write the causes of the problem. On the trunk write how the problem manifests. On the branches write the symptoms of the problem.
- There are different ways to report back from a group discussion or activity
- Summarising the main discussion points is common practice but can often be repetitive and drawn out. It’s not always necessary to listen to every group in turn present.
- An alternative would see each group elect a speaker who then sits in a circle with everybody else observing. These speakers then have a summary conversation sharing insights from their group. Conversations that demonstrate convergence and divergence are easier to follow and help to make meaning than repetitive summaries. This is called a “fish bowl”.
- Drawing diagrams, situations or stories can help to represent ideas visually and are fun to look at. Making up a role play is fun and entertaining in some situations. It forces people to think of everyday ways to explain complex ideas and is memorable.
- Rather than summarising bullet points in order of what was said it may be helpful to pre-digest a conversation for others and group what was said in useful ways. You can summarise points that everybody agreed on and point that there was disagreement around; you can split ideas into categories (like values and actions items); or you can rank ideas in terms of urgency or importance.
- If each group rights their main discussion points on separate pieces of paper these can then be put up on a wall. Similar points from different groups can be clustered as they come up and help to make sense of the overall shape of the conversation. This is called “cloud sourcing”.
Keeping discussions inclusive
- Meetings feel open and inclusive when a culture is established that helps everyone contribute and be heard while avoiding attacking or excluding anybody. Differences of opinions and tensions are normal in groups and managing them is a normal part of any meeting
- Group agreements help to set the objectives, principles and behaviour that make our values clear when it comes to working together. It helps to have some basic agreements and add to them. If we all agree to abide by the rules it makes facilitating and helping each other a lot easier.
- Meetings require discipline. It’s not fair to others if you can’t stick with the group agreement. We’ve all come together to achieve something together. Anything that distracts us or takes us off course isn’t helping us. Let’s gently remind each other and keep the meeting on track.
- Sometimes it’s clear a particular person or group is managing to assert themselves very strongly. Don’t silence people, but encourage those who may not have spoken yet to join in the conversation. This could be for many reasons. They may be nervous, not feel what they have to say is important, or feel uncomfortable saying what they think publicly for fear of offending or saying what they feel is the wrong thing. It helps to invite people into the conversation proactively or change the activity up so that others can get involved.
- Polite interruption is OK. It is the facilitators job to make the meeting easy for everyone. This may involve interrupting people who are breaking the group agreement or encouraging people who need some help expressing themselves.
- It’s useful to invite people to play an active role in asserting themselves by saying: “If you are a person who likes to speak or is often listened to on this topic then try to take a step back. If you are someone who doesn’t often speak then try to step up.”
- Pay attention to your and others body language. Make eye contact with everyone you are talking to. It helps to keep them engaged and follow what you are saying.
- Try not to repeat what other people have said already. It’s enough to say that you agree, don’t try to say what they said in your own way. Men especially have a habit of repeating what other people say rather than just acknowledging what has been said or saying nothing at all.
- Make what you have to say personal – use “I” language wherever possible. It makes what you have to say easier to listen to and relate to. Try not to say “Sewerage is a problem”, but say “I’m upset because of the sewerage running in my street.” Try not to say, “You are being offensive!” but say “I’m feeling upset at the moment because…”
- Don’t wait for others to deal with a situation that is disruptive, uncomfortable or inappropriate. Everybody help demonstrate the culture we expect.