As post-show discussion facilitators of The Defamation Experience and DefEx Online, we have facilitated many of the over 550 discussions to over 150,000 people spanning subjects like race, class, religion, and gender. The number of participants has ranged from as many as 800 high school students to as few as 20 lawyers.
Discussing these subjects can often be difficult, particularly in a large group of relative strangers. Our audiences are experiencing a wide range of emotions, from uncomfortable and hesitant to eager and curious. We always attempt to put people at ease by creating a space that allows them the opportunity to either engage right away, or to just observe until they are ready to more actively contribute. For some, it takes time, others just dive in. Either way, we know that everyone should feel safe and secure in knowing that their thoughts and ideas will be heard by a respectful audience. As facilitators, it’s our job to create this feeling of safety by setting ground rules for a mindful and respectful discussion and by modeling active listening.
Here are helpful tips to successfully facilitating a discussion:
1. Setting The Tone
We have a clear opening for the post-show discussion. Audiences are informed that rather than striving for objectivity in their comments, the goal is to shine a light on that process of recognizing their own personal thoughts, feelings, and biases and how it can affect their objectivity. Experience has taught that the best discussions unfold organically. So, it’s important to be patient as the audience gets comfortable with participating. We ask for a show of hands in a series of questions like: “Did anyone have difficulty making a decision?”, “Did anyone struggle with their objectivity?”, etc. In this way, people are pulled into active participation without feeling singled out in having to stand up and speak right away.
2. Prompts Are Your Best Friend
We use prompts to help trigger the conversation, keep it moving, or deepen it from a superficial level. Prompts are open-ended questions designed to stimulate contemplation and elicit thoughtful responses that extend beyond a simple yes or no. Preparing a list beforehand helps achieve this goal. Prompts are not intended to structure a conversation in advance, but they help the conversation flow organically from the thoughts and interests of the audience. A well-designed prompt can create a through line between topics or shifts in the conversation and can also introduce thoughts, feelings, and emotions without the audience member having to initiate the topic.
When conversations happen with the audience sharing the same physical space, we strive to put the audience at ease by stepping off the stage and moving closer to create an intimate space. This also has the subtle effect of indicating that the focus has shifted from the fictional action on the stage to the lived experience of the audience. Maneuvering throughout the audience, making eye contact and maintaining a relaxed tone conveys genuine and sincere interaction from us.
In a virtual setting, things are a bit different. The feeling of an intimate space is already created – we’re most likely seeing into a snapshot of audience members’ homes. It’s important to note that the norms and actions of people change while meeting virtually. There are some benefits, like being able to call on people by name to speak and spotlight their video for the rest of the audience. There are also some challenges, like missing out on facial expressions and body language of other audience members while another person is speaking. Stay aware of the differences in virtual settings, and make sure you create an environment for conversation that allows everyone to be seen and heard in a respectful way.
4. It’s Not About Us
The discussion is a very organic process with the audience. As facilitators, we try to speak only as much as necessary to keep the conversation flowing. We want the audience to have their own moments of realizations through self-examination. However, making a connection between the comments of two or more audience members can help in getting people to respond directly to one another. We want to encourage the flow of ideas and self-discoveries.
5. Maintain Control
We know it’s important to not relinquish our roles in managing the discussion, calling on people to speak, and – if necessary – jumping in if a provocative statement calls for a request for clarity. That includes intervening quickly if an exchange threatens to grow heated and remind the audience that disagreeing with each other’s ideas is realistic but should remain respectful. That said, we are proud to say in the over 550 discussions, we’ve never had a contentious conversation. People genuinely want to have these conversations. Sometimes they just don’t know how, and a facilitator’s job is to help make that happen.
6. Closing On A Positive Note
It’s very important to acknowledge the progress of the discussion from the audience. Whether they leaned into the conversation or dove in, they participated, and that first step is huge. Furthermore, we encourage them to continue having these conversations by listening mindfully and respectfully, then expressing themselves mindfully and respectfully.
Keep these keys in mind as you look to inspire meaningful conversations in your organization or community. If you’re looking for a catalyst to get things started, consider hosting DefEx Online, developed with the power of civil discourse in audience deliberations and facilitated discussions. Watch the trailer to see how The Defamation Experience brings a unique opportunity to engage in civil discourse about the most pressing issues of our day.