Managing Group Conversations
Conversations are often the highlight of EA events, but uncomfortable and unwelcoming conversations can put people off from the effective altruism community and your group. We highly recommend thinking about creating a healthy environment in your group well ahead of any problems, and creating a plan for dealing with problems just in case you need it.
Establishing a Healthy Environment
Organisers can do many things to help people avoid, leave or de-escalate a sensitive conversation, including setting conversation norms, keeping topics relevant to EA, and creating spaces for people to avoid discussions if they wish to. Some EA communities have created codes of conduct to set expectations early. See our page on Codes of Conduct for more information about this.
Explaining guidelines before you get started can improve discussions by putting conversational norms in the forefront of people’s minds, and encourage quieter people to speak up. Guidelines should be short, positive, and framed as suggestions for having a productive conversation, rather than a list of ‘don’t’s. Use your judgement as to whether you want to do this. It is particularly useful if you have a large group, have a few new people, or know there are a couple of people who need reminders. However, it may be unnecessary to give guidelines if you have a regular group of people who participate harmoniously.
Here are the suggestions from one group:
Go into discussions with the assumption that you will learn something valuable from each person in this room. Give everyone space to share their perspectives, and listen attentively.
If you disagree with an idea, aim to understand the other person’s position clearly by asking clarifying questions, or restating the other person’s opinion. Explain your alternative point of view after this clarification.
If you agree or have learnt something from someone, say so. And of course, be patient and kind to each other!
Making people feel welcome
Use people's names often to help others remember, especially if you're not using name tags.
Seek out people who seem sidelined or unsure. Ask if they have questions or subjects they want to discuss. Of course, they may just not feel like talking, so don’t force it.
Ensure new people feel welcome by assigning a friendly member of the group to talk to them, listen to their interests, and introduce them to other people in the group at in-person or Gather.Town events, or perhaps send a message over Zoom for virtual events.
Make sure that everyone is involved and understands what is going on.
You could ask new people over to a part of the room at the start of a social event, or add them to a separate breakout room in Zoom, to give an introductory explanation of EA, and get people chatting.
Make sure to introduce yourself and anyone in a conversation with new people before you begin.
Try to avoid jargon and acronyms, and when they come up, explain it rather than making new people guess or ask. You could designate “jargon catchers” who keep an ear out for jargon.
Keep an eye out when people who have very different interests or levels of knowledge are talking to each other. For example, if one person has never heard of EA before, and looks uncomfortable in a conversation with a hard-core AI enthusiast, you may want to intervene. You could join the conversation and ask the newcomer what they’re interested in, find out if they have questions, or steer them toward another conversation partner.
Managing Different Personalities
Don't push them to say anything. Some people may not want to or may feel uncomfortable talking to groups.
When they say something for the first time, respond positively and avoid criticism.
If someone is hanging out at the edge of a conversation, looking uncertain, ask them what their thoughts are. They might be trying to get into the conversation but aren't sure how.
People Who Dominate the Conversation
Jump into the gap when the person takes a breath and say "That's an interesting thought [person]. What do you think, [less assertive conversationalist]?"
Try to draw others in (“Dev, I wanted to hear more about what you were saying a minute ago”).
If two people are dominating a conversation and the other people don’t seem interested, suggest breaking up the group by suggesting another conversation topic, and move interested people to another part of the room.
If you're using Zoom and the above measures don’t work for you, you can mute the person dominating to invite others in. This is best used as a last resort, in a structured discussion, ideally when other attendees are also muted.
Someone talking about a topic no one else is interested in
You may want to designate a person to take them aside and let them talk about the topic so everyone else can have a more varied conversation.
If this is a recurring problem with a single person and a single topic, it may help to have a private word with the person to point out the benefits of having a variety of conversation topics. Gently ask them to help other conversation topics to flow.
Ideological and psychological diversity
People with a wide variety of ideologies can be interested in effectively improving the world. However, the EA community contains a large proportion of people interested in similar things, such as maths, computer science, philosophy (especially utilitarianism). For people without the same background, conversations can become uninteresting or inaccessible.
Read more about this in our Community Health Guide
If the topic is likely to be sensitive, emphasise the need to be considerate of others, and mention that this discussion could become uncomfortable for some. Sensitive topics could include those that relate to population ethics, death, disability, or relating to an under-represented community.
Julia Wise from CEA has the following suggestion for facilitators and organisers:
Facilitators could say: “In EA discussions, we tend to get into difficult topics around life, death, and disability. I want to flag that it’s very normal for people to take these discussions differently. Right now, no one close to me is facing major health struggles, so I’m finding it okay to have abstract discussions about difficult topics. I imagine that if I were going through personal struggles right now, they might cut closer to the quick, and I might not be up for having those discussions in a group. If there are days when you find it’s not a good idea for you to be doing group discussions around some of the heavy topics, that’s absolutely fine. We want you to do what’s right for you. EA is not a sprint. It’s about nurturing yourself to do more good over the long term, which means taking care of yourself. So we’ll try to have points during discussions where it’s easy to take a break if anyone needs to.”
More personal examples from organisers can make it feel like a real and not just a hypothetical person you’re benefitting. They also make it clear that people might want to avoid a topic not because they’re too wimpy to handle it, but because they already think about it a lot.
A more personal example might be, “When I was living with a family member with end-stage cancer, I thought about death a lot. Because it was so raw, I didn’t want to discuss it in public as well.” (It’s fine to give me as an example if none of the organizers has something to share.)
Ideas for giving people chances to decide what they’re up for:
“We’ll be talking about population ethics in this part of the room and ethics of gene drives in that part of the room.”
“I notice the topic is getting pretty intense, and I want to give people a chance to think whether this is a conversation they want to have right now. Let’s break for snacks and resume in a couple of minutes.”
The page on community health provides more information.
Commonly Discussed Sensitive Topics
It can be challenging to predict which topics will affect people negatively, but here are a few commonly discussed subjects in EA, which can raise issues.
Ethical Discussions. During discussions of population ethics or other ethical questions, the topics of death, the value of life, child mortality, murder, or suicide can arise. Depending on a person’s personal history, they may be sensitive to one or several of these topics. In addition to being troubling for some, ethical thought experiments can be uninteresting or alienating to some group members. Animal ethics can also raise sensitive points, especially regarding in-depth details of their suffering in factory farms.
Social Justice. The intersection of social justice and EA can be a point of contention as there is a wide range of opinions within the community about the efficacy and importance of popular social justice movements. Here are some articles on this topic: SJ & EA, Privilege of Earning to Give, An Embarrassment of Riches, The intersection of EA and SJ, Kelsey Piper interview (see section: Effective altruism, existential risk, and social justice).
Inclusion and diversity. Issues relating to diversity of faith, race, gender, sexual orientation, and other dimensions may arise. Such topics can be controversial within the EA community, as well as in society as a whole. They are certainly worth talking about, but we recommend being aware that these discussions can sometimes get heated and upset people. Staying in touch with the goals of the conversation can be helpful.
When considering whether to start or continue a conversation on a potentially sensitive topic, it is worth considering whether the benefits of doing so will outweigh the costs. Keep the group’s goals in mind, minimise harm wherever possible, and ensure that conversations are genuinely useful. If people are bringing up hurtful topics in cruel ways without providing gains to the community, it may be better to move on.
For example, a discussion on Peter Singer’s views on infanticide of very disabled newborns could be off-putting to members of the group and is unlikely to provide actionable outcomes. Alternatively, it may be worth discussing diversity within the EA movement. Thoughtful conversations may well lead to improving the inclusiveness of your group.
When the situation appears uncomfortable
Sometimes, you can’t prevent a conversation from becoming uncomfortable. It can be challenging to choose between stepping in or letting people handle the situation themselves. You can avoid the tension that comes with calling people out by using indirect interventions. However, if you know the participants well, direct interventions are more explicit and less likely to create social awkwardness.
Indirect or Logistical interventions: Switching conversation partners (helpful at dinners where it may be difficult to leave the space physically), inviting others to join you getting snacks or refreshments, or announcing that another conversation is going on.
Direct intervention: Open it up - “Hey, this is getting intense, do we need a break?” or, “I notice this topic is getting heavy and I want to give people a chance to think whether they want to be part of it right now. Let’s break for snacks and resume in a couple of minutes.”
Scenarios that have caused discomfort in groups:
Two people have engaged in deep, philosophical conversation that made others feel uncomfortable.
Two group members hold strong views about an identity-related topic and started a heated debate.
When a religious person offered to answer questions about their faith, questions from the group got more and more pointed, making the religious person uncomfortable.
A suffering-focused EA tried to persuade someone that their life is net negative.
People from a range of underrepresented groups wrote an EA forum post about sensitive topics.
A response to the post argues for the importance of open discussion.