Running Sessions Well

Running Sessions Well

Facilitation: Advice and Tips

Before Each Session

The key thing to reflect on each week is: “What is the main thing you want fellows to take away and think about?"

Think about how you want to structure the discussion questions and activities, encourage thoughtful, deep engagement from participants, and make people feel welcome and respected. Use the week-by-week guide provided below, as well as the readings from the curriculum, to help with this.

You should also read the core and recommended readings for the week, or re-familiarise yourself with them if you’ve read them before. Think about how each contributes to the key points listed in this guide.

Some other things that may be useful for preparation:

  • Look up any relevant definitions that you’re uncertain about.
  • Think back to how the facilitation of last week’s session went and what you might try doing differently this time.
  • Draw up a rough structure for the session with time estimates for each activity or topic. This is useful for keeping an overview during the session, although you don’t need to stick to it exactly – deviate whenever something else feels more useful.

During Each Session

Setting the group culture

By ‘culture’, we mean ‘the way we do things’. As the leader in the social context of the group, you have quite a lot of power to set the culture of the group, especially early in the sessions. Think about things like:

  • Your tone of voice and body language
  • How friendly and kind you are towards other people in the group
  • How enthusiastic you are about EA (and how enthusiastic you are in general!)
  • How you behave when you disagree with someone.

In addition, think about what discussion norms you would like for the group to exhibit. We have written a suggested policy here. We suggest talking about these explicitly with participants in week 1, as you will see in the week-by-week guide.

For example, consider whether you would like to have a hand-raising system for moderating who speaks when. This will depend on group size and dynamics, but we generally recommend using a hand-raising system if there are more than 4 participants in the group.

Building a social atmosphere

We think one of the most important things to focus on as a facilitator, especially in early sessions, is to get the participants to know one another socially. This makes people feel more comfortable participating, and have more fun. We suspect that people are more likely to stick around after the program if they feel that they know and like people in the community and if they feel respected by other participants and by you.

We suggest spending a reasonable amount of time each session (20+ minutes) on letting people get to know each other, especially in the first 2 sessions. The curriculum includes icebreakers for the beginning of some sessions, but there will be opportunities at the start, during the break, and after the session for casual, unstructured conversations. You might want to think in advance about what questions you could ask people. If you are facilitating online,  we also recommend leaving the Zoom call running after the sessions, in case people want to continue chatting.

Facilitation tips

We said at the beginning of this guide that facilitation is about making the discussion useful and pleasant. Here are some more tips on how you can do that in practice:

  • Explain jargon used by you and the participants, either giving definitions yourself or asking participants to provide them.
  • Keep track of whether the discussion feels useful for the majority of the group, and move on if not.
    • Don’t hesitate to interject and change topics if a conversation gets stuck in an unproductive place ("This seems like an interesting point, but I think we should move on for the sake of time").
    • Conversely, if the discussion flows naturally and seems useful for most of the participants, feel free to let the group speak uninterrupted. Straying off-topic to explore interesting side-roads can be fine, as long as:
      • The discussion feels “alive”.
      • You’re making progress.
  • Ask questions that help further the participant’s understanding of the key ideas – this is what the discussion questions in this guide are designed to do, but feel free to complement them with questions you think seem helpful in the context.
    • There are a bunch of questions listed in this discussion guide. You do not need to get through all of them or cover all the points in all of the readings. In fact, it is very likely not a good idea to try to prioritize “completing” all the questions. Spend as much time as you think on the questions and the readings that are most energizing or interesting or challenging for your group.
  • Use what the participants say themselves to further the discussion, for example:
    • Repeat back what people say in your own words - this is a powerful method for clarifying understanding for yourself and others, as well as ensuring that participants feel heard and understood.
    • Ask participants to clarify – especially when someone makes a point that seems novel or interesting, but you don’t quite understand.
    • Ask participants to comment on each other’s points – When reacting to ideas or disagreeing, it is often helpful to use a “depersonalized” framing (e.g. “What do you think of this idea?” rather than “What do you think of this person’s idea?”)
  • Remind participants of practical framings of ideas.
    • One goal of the program is to help participants feel comfortable with prioritising career paths and donation opportunities, it’s sometimes useful to reframe the debate around this.
      • “This has all been quite abstract so far - I’m curious to hear your thoughts on how all of this might affect decisions we might have to make in our careers/lives?”
      • “How does this affect the value of a donation to Y?”
      • “[Give hypothetical decision] How would you choose between these two options?”
      • “What would change your mind?”
  • Promote good discussion and communication norms, both in the way that you present arguments yourself and by encouraging them in participants.
    • “Should we take that as strong evidence for the claim?”
    • “Seems like we agree on this, what are some reasons we might be wrong?”
    • “This seems like quite an unconventional view; should that make us worried that we’ve gone wrong somewhere?”
    • “A lot of people who have spoken have had view X. Is there anyone who disagrees?”
  • Clarify simple misunderstandings and provide factual information, for example:
    • “Yeah it’s true that GiveWell does consider more than just overheads”
    • “I think we’re stuck on X - I’ve made a note that we’re confused about this. Let’s move on to the next question and we can do some research on this between sessions”
  • Present arguments where you find them useful. While the sessions should centre around the participants discussing and presenting arguments themselves, prompting the participants with an argument to respond to or a new idea can sometimes be helpful.
    • If you’re making the case for something, think about who you’re speaking for and try to clearly distinguish between the following:
      • Making the case for something because it’s a fundamental part of EA and you want the participants to understand it (“a really key point is that…”)
      • Making the case for something because some people believe it and you want the participants to understand the argument, even if you may disagree with it personally. (“Some would argue that…”)
      • Playing devil’s advocate for the sake of the discussion
      • Speaking as yourself (“my personal opinion is…”)
  • Be sincere - don’t pretend to be more confident or knowledgeable about something than you actually are. If you have a concern or doubt, you shouldn’t pretend not to. If you don’t know the answer to a question, don’t make it up.
  • Signal early and often that it’s okay to disagree and offer critiques We don’t want participants to feel like they are supposed to nod along even when they are unsure or disagree with something they’ve read or heard. Telling people explicitly that disagreements are welcome and even sharing your own uncertainties when relevant can help communicate that we are hoping to invite people to reflect seriously on important ideas rather than convince them to agree with us.
  • At the end of the session, encourage participants to reflect on the week. Either aloud or in writing, you might ask each person to say e.g. one takeaway for them for the week, one confusion or uncertainty they still have, one piece of feedback on the session, or any combination of these.

After Each Session

Spend 10+ minutes reflecting on a few key things after each program session:

  • Lessons and takeaways to share with others for when they run this session.
  • Writing down some notes to help build your understanding of the participants.
  • Reflecting on how you might be able to improve as a facilitator based on the session (see the EA Forum post Deliberate Performance in People Management by Ben West for some context on this point).

You can also check in with the program organisers if there is anything you’d like to discuss.

Ending the Program

Much of the last session should be taken up by the participants completing a feedback survey - this is really important to work out how to improve the program in the future. It’s also worthwhile to informally chat with the participants to get a sense of any improvements you think should be made.

Consider what improvements might be worth trying in future iterations of the program, and pass these on to the organisers of the program.

We hope you take the time to appreciate and feel good about your significant effort to make the program a success!

If you want to learn even more about facilitation skills, check out the guide for the Virtual Programs Facilitator Training.