Friday, September 14, 2007

Guidelines for leading discussions



Read the reading for the week and the blog entries for the week's readings in search of engaging themes, questions, or dilemmas that seem critical to what we are doing in the course and what we need to do to effectively create sustainable cities in this country. Consider introducing the discussion topic with a thought-provoking question (or short statement or quotation) that addresses one of these significant issue or dilemmas - and that stimulates people's creative thinking and engagement with it. (Have another stimulating question handy, if needed). You can even do this a day in advance through the blog to warm things up.
Alternatively, summarize for the group the main concerns and interests that came up in the blog reflections and let the group decide what it wants to focus on.
A third option is to warm up the conversation in pairs, triads, or small groups
with the same approach you were going to use in the large group or with a more specific topic or task suited to a smaller unit, e.g. apply the readings & reflections to improving a real or imagined urban situation and then share in the large group.

Be clear about the goals of the conversation. Among other things, they could include:
• Group Learning - to learn collaboratively (from each other and together) about an aspect of the readings you think participants will really care about.
• Resource Sharing - to discover new approaches from each other & together
• Engagement/Application- to engage people in the relevance of the material to enhancing their lives, their professional development, and their community
• Hope/Empowerment - Bonus (may not be possible in a short session): thoughtful, heartfelt conversations about issues that really matter to people, can build, hope, empowerment and sustainable community.

Your primary role is to facilitate and support the group in having a substantial and satisfying conversation where as many members as possible participate and interact. (Ideally, for the group to experience itself as a creative, self-regulating system or “learning community”).
Creating a relaxed, trusting and inclusive atmosphere (not a rushed, heavily task-oriented feeling) is essential to the success of the conversation.

Participate but don’t dominate- If you have experience and expertise in the area being discussed, it's OK to let people know you are a resource and to respond as one when it seems especially helpful to the conversation. Be sure, however, NOT to become the center of the conversation. Similarly, if you have perspectives you'd like to share on the topic, participate respectfully and sparingly as a member of a circle, but don’t use your role as discussion leader to dominate and direct the conversation.

Note: It’s hard for one person to do all of these functions well, so divvying up tasks with a co-leader is a great way to go. Either way, do you best and that will be fine.

Model the openness, respectfulness, inclusiveness and engagement you'd like to see happen in the conversation.

Read the group energy and people’s “body language” to sense what it needs next and to see if hidden issues, disagreements, or misunderstandings need surfacing and clarification.

Summarizing- Sense if and when it may be helpful to summarize where the conversation is going part way through, or near the end, but avoid giving your slant about what it all means.

Inclusion- Choose whether to use a “go-around” or anyone-goes/”popcorn” discussion format. If using the latter format, notice over time who is not speaking at all and draw them out by asking for comments from those who haven’t spoken yet.
If someone keeps dominating the conversation, you can: state clearly that we want to hear from as many members as possible, and/or turn to others and draw them out, and/or, gently but firmly ask that person to give others a chance to speak.

Drifting Conversation- If the group seems to wander off in many directions incoherently, you can:
a) Remind people of the main theme and ask them to come back to it. b) Summarize (or ask the group or a group member to summarize) the major thread(s) of the conversation so far, and invite people to build on it (them)them or move on to the next piece that seems appropriate. c) Gently but firmly rein in the 1 or 2 members who may be derailing the focus.

Airy conversation- If the conversation feels nebulous and abstract, remind people of the special opportunity they have to learn from each other’s experiences, resources, connections, etc.

Closing - Optional, very satisfying: Use the last 5 minutes to do a short (20 second or one sentence each) go-around on what people got from the discussion and/or what’s an action step they’re going to follow-up on/try on, when they get back home or back to work.

Thanks for eagerness to share leadership and learning!

No comments: