Discussion Impossible

October 7, 2011

Discussion Impossible

October 7, 2011

A few weeks back I participated in a public discussion on education policy. It didn’t go very well. In fact, the experience served more as a cautionary tale or a lesson in what not to do rather than as an opportunity for honest and robust interaction on this important topic. It also reminded me of the importance of some key characteristics of IF public discussions–not that we always achieve them or that they are the sole components of a good discussion (there are many and several that are hard to predict or control).

To be fair to the facilitator and the organizers for this event, there were a number of gremlins working against good discussion from the very start. First, the scheduled facilitator was unable to be there due to weather related travel delays, and an unprepared staff person had to fill in at the last moment. Second, there were “technical difficulties” as the video presentation that was supposed to begin the discussion simply wouldn’t work despite the concentrated and earnest efforts of several geek squad mercenaries.

When it became obvious that the technology wasn’t going to cooperate, the staff member bravely went ahead and started the group discussion. At first things went reasonably well. She did a good job of soliciting comments from a number of participants, and it was soon clear that there were a number of interesting and different perspectives in the room. But after a few minutes things went south. As the facilitator began to summarize and/or clarify some of the comments and perspectives, she also begin to significantly and, I felt preemptively, editorialize at some length on “what we all know” must be “the right answer” (as well as the wrong answers) to the challenges facing American education. In short order–and likely unintentionally–she effectively shut down any chance for open-ended discussion and the expression of differing concerns and perspectives in favor of “well known truths.” While I likely agreed with her politics and many of her comments, I was frustrated that the facilitator was editorializing and dominating the discussion rather than facilitating the discussion of others and the development of their ideas.

There were other problems as well. There were about 30 people in the room–too many in 1 large group for a comfortable and meaningful discussion, especially since there were no introduction and no opportunity for people to get to know each other before diving into the policy substance. With this size group, I could tell that many participants weren’t comfortable speaking up, which left the comments to the more strident, opinionated, and domineering personalities in the room. And there were a few of those. As this discussion followed (in time and location) a significant attack on teachers unions, there were some very strong and differing feelings in the room about the role of those unions–both in the classroom and in the recent budgetary battles. This discussion offered little opportunity to explore legitimate differences and lots of opportunity for angry, even accusatory comments and hurt feelings.

So what’s the “take away”? What did I learn from this failure, this teachable moment? I was just reminded of some basic dos and don’ts for all facilitators.

  • Do prepare, know the subject matter, test the logistics (make sure the video equipment will work, for example).
  • Do control the discussion, be prepared to cut off angry or other emotional exchanges and keep the discussion on the substance.
  • Do allow time for the participants to introduce themselves and get to know each other before jumping into difficult topics.
  • If you want a more in-depth discussion where most will feel comfortable participating, do limit the group size (or break larger groups into smaller ones)
  • If possible, do learn a bit about the participants in advance so you can be prepared for pet issues, one-trick ponies, and have an idea of who might offer alternative perspectives.
  • Do remain relatively neutral, limit your own comments on substance, and  if needed openly acknowledge your own perspective or bias.
  • Don’t editorialize, especially at length, don’t assume that “everyone knows” or agrees on the right answer.
  • Don’t allow angry, accusatory exchanges that produce lots of heat and almost no light on the subject.

IF discussions and facilitators don’t always succeed. Sometimes things don’t go well, and there are lots of other key elements that all have to come together for a good discussion. But we can learn from our mistakes and those of others.  Sometimes seeing a failed discussion can help remind us of the importance of doing lots of little things right.

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