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Facilitating for Democratic Discussion

IF’s mission is to “promote and enhance democratic discussion.”  Not just any discussion, but democratic discussion.  IF’s facilitators have a significant role to play in achieving this core aspect of IF’s mission—both before and during public discussions.

Before IF’s public discussions even begin, facilitators can do a lot to ensure that discussion has a truly democratic character.  They can work to stimulate interest in public discussion among those who might not already appreciate it—or even know what it is.  This kind of outreach is likely to be ongoing and largely informal, but it’s critical.  So is getting the word out to all who might be interested, not just those with easy access to familiar modes of communication. Facilitators can and should do more than open the door to public discussion.  That’s their minimal responsibility.  They should make sure that people know what’s behind it.  IF’s mission isn’t just to hold discussions among those who happen to be right at hand, or easiest to invite, it’s to broaden the circle of those included.  That takes work, at least as much as actually directing the flow during a meeting.

Once public discussions are underway, the democratic work of the facilitator becomes more obvious, and is usually well-appreciated by all but the most talkative participants.  The catalogue of tasks includes the usual ones of ensuring that all get a chance to speak and that conversation remains civil.  But it really goes beyond that, because to qualify as “democratic,” a discussion must be among persons who treat each other as equals.  The facilitator can’t force that attitude on people, but can enforce behaviors that exemplify, reinforce, and sustain it.  In the end, it’s up to the facilitator to make sure that people not only have a chance to speak, but listen to each other.  And notice that, when they do, the discussion is likely to be far richer.  In this way, to promote “democratic” discussion is also to “enhance” it.