Talks About Talks – Facilitating Difficult Discussions

Karen Murphy, Program Associate, Facing History and Ourselves

This spring marks the tenth anniversary of democracy in South Africa. Long before 1994, however, South Africans from many sides of the conflict were coming together to talk to each other about the new political realities of post apartheid South Africa, and to talk about forging new relationships. These "talks about talks," a term used to refer to the period of talking that occurs before formal negotiations, paved the way for the transition from apartheid to democracy. Importantly, the "talks about talks" did not just take place between high-level leaders. It also was the work of grass roots activists, students, parents, schoolteachers, religious leaders, and many other South Africans from diverse backgrounds. They found ways – in the most dire conditions – to cross boundaries and begin to talk to each other.

In any part of the world, before action there is discussion. In Northern Ireland, there are groups made up of people from all sides of the conflict that have met in each other's living rooms for years to discuss ways peace can happen. They meet in defiance of the conflict. In the former Yugoslavia, most schools have re-segregated, but a school in Vukovar is trying to challenge these separations. In Rwanda there has been a full moratorium on history education since the 1994 genocide. But in 2004, scholars, teachers, ministry of education representatives, students, parents and consultants have begun to meet to talk about bringing history back into the curriculum. In South Africa, students are learning about apartheid and human rights as part of their curriculum for the first time. In classrooms around the U.S., students are asking their teachers about topics in the headlines such as gay marriage, the war in Iraq, and the elections.

Talking is not the solution for any of the issues listed above, but it is a strategy – a necessary one if we are to begin to imagine how peace, freedom and justice can prevail. In facilitating discussions around difficult subjects, there are a number of strategies that can help make the talk more productive. A discussion can lead to many things: to the breakdown of stereotypes and prejudices; to the formation of alliances; to the decision to work on a shared project; and to more discussions. However, while a facilitator comes to a discussion having thought about his or her goals, it is also important to think about the group's goals for the discussion. In some situations, like several of those listed above, "just" getting people in the room together and creating a safe space for exchange is a huge step. Critical discussion is not a modest goal.

Recently I met with facilitators to train them to lead discussions around the exhibition Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America. This exhibition of photographs of lynchings in the South between 1890 and 1930 confronts audiences with brutal images from a tragic episode in American history. I began with deceptively simple "why" questions: Why are you using this topic to address particular issues? Why are you using a discussion format? Then the group moved on to address some questions that began with "what:" What do you hope to achieve within the course of the discussion? What are your personal goals vis à vis the goals of your organization? What role(s) do you plan to play in these discussions? What do you hope participants will leave with?

Before leading public discussions, taking time to reflect on these issues alone and then with a partner or a community of facilitators is critical. It is helpful to record in a journal your inner dialogue prompted by the questions listed above. Continue to write in the journal before and after your facilitation sessions.

Documentary films offer us valuable tools that make it easier to initiate discussions around difficult subjects. One advantage of film is that it represents a distillation of ideas, images and perspectives. The filmmakers have worked for perhaps years on the project. They have gone through hundreds of hours of footage. The result is a compelling narrative that presents the essential issues at stake. A second advantage occurs during the viewing process. People are able to use the time during a screening to reflect on the ideas and emotions that are raised for them. They can take the time to contemplate and articulate their thoughts before discussing them in a group. After a screening, a facilitator has an opportunity to use the images and stories presented in the film as starting points for initiating a constructive discussion around a controversial topic.

Before the participants arrive to a viewing and discussion session, look at the space the group will use. To inspire discussion, help people to see each other by putting the chairs in a circle. If the venue is a theatre setting, be prepared to ask people to turn around in their seats and/or to use the aisles, stage and extra space for discussion. Also consider where you will stand.

With a film screening, you can begin with a brief introduction to the film and perhaps a question to the participants to consider as they view the film. Following the screening, give people some time for silent reflection. Then, an excellent way to begin a discussion is to establish a "contract." Acknowledge the fact that the discussion will be difficult, that some people will feel threatened, but that everyone is to feel safe. The goal is not to make everyone feel comfortable – that is not possible or perhaps even desirable. The challenge is how to help people feel uncomfortable but safe, how you develop a "safe space for being unsafe." Themba Lonzi, a facilitator for the Institute for the Healing of Memories in Cape Town, South Africa, calls it a "community commitment." He asks participants to reflect on ways they want to act toward each other, and values they hope to uphold for their community during the discussion.

The "contract" for the discussion should be a living document for your group. It is a tool of participation and empowerment. The group not only contributes to developing it, they have the capacity to draw upon it to keep the discussion on track, productive and safe. The facilitator should make sure that the contract does not languish once the group gets going. The facilitator models behavior for the group by his or her conduct as well as through reminders to participants to follow the rules of the contract. If there is not time to develop a community contract, then be prepared to list some communal values that you will uphold as a facilitator. These might include asking participants to use "I" statements instead of making generalizations; avoid "one on one" discussions (including between a facilitator and a participant); remember to disagree with the idea, not the person; avoid interrupting someone, and acknowledge that these "rules" will be difficult to maintain in a heated moment. Also make the point that the entire group is responsible for making the group work; it is not just the job of the facilitator.

Following the formulation of the contract, give people a chance to talk in small groups about the issue before the larger group discusses the topic. Begin by asking people individually to reflect on and write down what brought them to the discussion and what they hope to achieve (make sure you have paper and pens available). Then, break them into pairs, asking them to introduce themselves to someone they do not know and share some of what they have written. Hearing the ensuing buzz in the room is a reminder that people have a lot to say to each other. The facilitator can circulate and listen in with various groups. After a few minutes, the group can be brought back together and asked for some feedback about what they discussed in the smaller groups.

The moment the larger group re-convenes is a crucial moment in facilitating a successful discussion. There are many ways to begin and it is important to be clear about the goals for the direction of the discussion. Consider, for example, making eye contact with a pair that talked about some of the issues you want to raise. The eye contact might inspire the pair to share their comments. A facilitator also needs to be flexible – the pairs might raise issues not anticipated. It is important to be willing to change a pre-planned agenda to accommodate an issue that might be more relevant to participants than the issues you had intended to cover.

It is essential that you consider the question, "what kind of facilitator do I want to be?" If you really want a discussion and not a lecture, then your voice should not dominate. There should be moments when only the participants are heard and the facilitator nods or gestures to encourage participation. Sometimes facilitators fall into the trap of feeling like they have to respond to each comment; this is not desirable. Allow people to talk to each other. At the same time, you do not want to be "the facilitator that wasn't" by being too passive. You also might want to consider the advantages of having two facilitators. A team of two can demonstrate the diverse perspectives and approaches to an issue since each facilitator will have their own style and ideas.

A facilitator is there to provide direction, to move the group through difficult junctures and keep them on the issue when they become sidetracked. As a facilitator, you want to make sure that you have resources to ground you in a particular conversation. The films in this and other National Video Resources collections are designed to do that. A clip from a film can be a powerful way to begin a conversation. Have several clips on hand that you can turn to in order to illustrate a point, push a conversation in a particular direction, or raise an issue. If you are showing an entire film, make sure that you allow time at the end for the steps above. Plunging straight into discussion will favor those participants who are quickest on their feet or the most vocal. You probably will not have much of a discussion if they take over. Ideally, from the particular, your participants will make connections. How comfortable are you with these connections? What about when they are "off-track" from your perspective? For example, in the work around the lynching exhibition, participants would often raise the murder of Matthew Shepherd, the gay youth who was murdered and left to die in the middle of a field. For some participants this connection was important because it shed light on patterns of discrimination and hate crimes. For others, the connection was a diversion, taking participants off the subject of race and racial violence. Reflect on the types of connections that participants might make and anticipate the range of topics that might be explored while keeping the discussion on-track.

Can you make space for a discussion that becomes heated? How will you respond when someone cries or when voices are raised? Difficult conversations contain rocky moments. Your success as a facilitator is not determined by your ability to prevent these tensions. Some facilitators resort to lecture in order to maintain control of the group. Others choose to take an intellectual route, suggesting that the topic is for the head, not the heart. Still others let the group take over. Think of the tools you have at your disposal to help a group work through a difficult moment in a discussion: time to be quiet, to write silently or to reflect; pairing or putting people in small groups; creating graffiti boards on the walls (put paper on the walls and provide markers), then allow participants, in silence, to continue the conversation; screening a film clip that expresses another voice or perspective. All these actions can help you to refocus the conversation or go deeper when it seems too raw.

If your participants are only coming together this one time, then make sure that they have time at the end to reflect on how they might integrate this experience into their lives. The people who attended Without Sanctuary discussions sometimes talked about forming interracial discussion groups at their places of worship, joining a group such as the NAACP or investing in history books so that they could continue to learn. Give your participants time to think about what they can do. After a difficult discussion, they might feel energized and awakened to new issues; they might also feel tired, emotionally overwhelmed and angry. In closing a difficult discussion, acknowledge the challenges but offer concrete ways to get involved – and encourage the group to share their ideas for action as a positive conclusion to the event.

If you are facilitating alone, take a few moments after everyone has left and reflect on what happened. Write about what you heard and what you did not hear. Reflect on the resources you used and the discussions they inspired. Think about what you did that worked and what needs more work. If you facilitated with a partner, do this together but begin by reflecting on your own.

There are not many places for a group of people who do not know each other to meet together and examine critical issues. People want to talk about difficult subjects. They want to use the dialogue to think about ways that they and their community might make a difference, but often people do not know how to begin discussions. In further developing your skills as a facilitator, you are providing a safe place for dialogue, an invaluable gift to your community.



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