Facilitating sessions well is a skill that you will develop over time. It isn’t easy, and there will likely always be room for improvement. For that reason, it’s important to spend time every week reflecting on what went well and what might be improved next time - and then acting on those thoughts. Talking to other people about how best to run sessions can also be very helpful.
Luckily, even someone who hasn’t run any sessions before is very likely to be adding a lot of value if they are reliable, thoughtful and reflective. The rest of this section has some tips on how you might run sessions well.
Before each session
The main thing to do to prepare for a session is to read the reading list. It’s not necessary to feel entirely resolved or be comfortable teaching the topic, but you should:
- know how each reading contributes to one of the key points
- be able to give definitions
- outline the key arguments from the core reading
You should familiarise yourself with the Week-By-Week Guide and the key points for the topic. You will probably find it very helpful to have thought in advance about the directions you want to take the conversation and about potential rabbit holes you’d like to avoid spending too long on.
It will be useful to think back to how last week’s session went, and what you might try doing differently this time.
The key points for each topic will aid you when steering the discussions towards the main takeaways and back towards the appropriate content.
The suggested discussion questions aim to help participants understand the key points for each topic. Questions we think might be more important to discuss are in bold.
We also want participants to develop their toolkit for thinking about EA, as a facilitator you can help with this by modelling good epistemic norms and by pointing these out when they come up in discussion. We talk more about this below.
Of course, as well as participants learning about EA, we want people to enjoy the sessions and to feel safe, welcome and comfortable. These are just as important as the key points. When running sessions, you play a large role in making this happen.
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. Discussion norms to help set the group culture.
Here are a few norms that you might want to explicitly tell your participants you are aiming for (they will be given a copy of these norms), as well as implicitly by setting your example and what you accept:
- Being nice, not interrupting others, not starting side conversations to the main discussion, objections to ideas not to people, not rolling eyes, laughing etc at others.
- In order to encourage constructive discussion we encourage people to not present objections as flat dismissals, and leave open the possibility there is a response.
- In the discussions, we’ll be clarifying our understanding of the reading, and talking through our perspectives. Naturally, some of us are therefore going to disagree with each other.
- Unconstructive responses to disagreement:
- Trying to convince everyone that you’re right
- Flatly dismissing objections or other points of view
- Constructive responses to disagreement:
- Trying to figure out what the other person thinks, and why
- A different worldview? Which part of this caused the disagreement?
- A difference in model? Can we find the crux of disagreement?
- Leaving open the possibility that you are wrong
- Leaving open the possibility that there is nuance
- Be mindful of dominating the discussion - after one person speaks, ask others for their responses rather than responding to each point yourself.
- Explain any technical terms or acronyms used that have not been explained
- Feel like it’s okay to ask for clarification on points or unfamiliar terms used
- Acknowledge and listen to points made by others
- Using a hand/finger/fist system, either with your hand or by typing into the chat box if done remotely:
- “Hand” or ✋ to mean “I want to discuss a new point”
- The facilitator of the discussion can collate these and then indicate the next person to speak.
- “finger” or ✌ to mean “I want to comment on the existing point”
- Should be directly relevant to the existing discussion
- “fist” or ✊ to mean “I am confused/jargon/clarification required”
- A simpler version of this could just be putting your hand up to speak next. It’s up to you whether you want to. If you use the hand/finger/fist system, respond to fists first (clarifying jargon), and fingers next (commenting on the existing point).
- The facilitator of the discussion can raise a hand if they want to speak next and the current speaker has some time to wrap up their points.
- This is mainly to make sure you have enough time to discuss everything on the agenda.
You might find it helpful to have the participants brainstorm some of their own discussion norms based on past experiences. This way they feel like they are contributing to the norms and are more likely to hold to them. There is a danger that this brainstorm is inadequate or awkward, though - use your judgement.
Modelling Epistemic Norms
One thing we want to develop in the program is useful tools for thinking about EA and cause prioritisation. For example, EAs often use the idea of counterfactuals to consider the impact of their interventions, this is a useful tool and can be learnt more easily by following an example set by facilitators during the sessions in the program. Here are a few examples of how we might model useful epistemic norms:
- “This might be a good time to use a Fermi estimate to get more of a feel for the numbers here”
- “Do we think we can trust our intuition here? We might be susceptible to the identifiable victim bias”
- “Great point Jack, I think it really helped me when you thought in probabilities”
- “Yeah thanks for taking an outside view there I think that really cleared things up for me”
Notice how we can model these norms both by pointing out whenever we’re about to use them and by pointing out when someone else has used them well.
Build a Social Atmosphere
It seems very helpful if participants feel that they 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.
We suggest spending a good amount of time each session (at least 5 mins) on letting people get to know each other. We provide icebreakers for the beginning of the sessions, but there will be opportunities at the start, during the break, and after the session for casual, unstructured conversations. It’s very helpful if you feel confident starting and maintaining these - you might want to think in advance about what questions you might ask people.
Who Are You Speaking For?
If you’re making the case for something, it can be very important 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
- Making the case for something, because some people believe it and you want the participants to understand how the argument works, even if you may disagree with it personally.
- Playing devil’s advocate for the sake of the discussion
- Speaking as yourself
Don’t expect to start on time - have a casual chat and/or structured icebreaker at the beginning of every session.
Make sure you don’t accidentally run out of time to talk about an important topic - think about when you’ll have to move the conversation on.
Have a break halfway through to let people get a drink, go to the toilet, etc. This can be another good opportunity to chat.
At the end of the session, it can be very helpful to encourage participants to reflect on the week. Either aloud or in writing, you might ask each person to say one takeaway for them for the week, and one confusion or uncertainty they still have.
Tips for Session Moderating
Moderating sessions is not about teaching. Effective altruism is a complex topic, and your goal as a session moderator is to give people the opportunity of engaging seriously with interesting arguments, but not to teach some particular worldview. Here are a few goals and heuristics to make this easier:
- Keep track of whether the discussion feels useful for the majority of the group, and move on if not
- "This seems like an interesting point, but I think we should move on for the sake of time".
- Don’t hesitate to interject and change the topic if a conversation gets stuck in an unproductive place
- Use the list of questions/things to discuss to move things on when you’ve exhausted one topic. Feel free to ask your own questions and direct the conversation to what you think is appropriate.
- Straying off-topic to explore interesting side-roads can be fine, as long as the discussion feels “alive” and you’re making progress.
- Clarify jargon and definitions
- If you notice a participant using jargon ask them to explain it even if you know what it means
- Minimise teaching
- You should be able to summarise the main argument from each reading and be able to define the relevant terms for people, but ideally, you want to minimise the amount of teaching and monologuing you do.
- Where possible, remind others in the group to define their terms the first time they use them, or ask others to summarise an article’s argument before stepping in
- Repeat back what people say in your own words - this is a powerful method for clarifying your understanding and summarising someone’s point in a more concise way, as well as ensuring that participants feel heard and understood
- Great to identify someone’s novel thoughts & ask questions to eke them out
- This can happen if someone expresses an idea you find a bit confusing at first - ask them to clarify!
- Remind participants of useful framings of ideas
- One goal of the program is to help participants feel comfortable with prioritizing 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?”
- Encourage participants to reason transparently
- When people make a claim it is helpful for them to explain where it is coming from. Did they take a class on it? Read an article? Had a personal experience?
- Promote good discussion norms (see section further above)
- “It seems like A has something to add to that point…”
- “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 factual errors
- Often discussions can get lost in easily resolvable disagreements, as a session leader you might have access to useful information that can solve these
- “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”
More Tips on Dealing with Difficulties in Discussions
Suggestion 1: If they do this repeatedly, mention this to them in a super nice and sensitive way in a private conversation. If possible, blame Zoom rather than them, e.g., ‘All of your responses are really great, and I know that Zoom makes it kind of hard to tell when someone is finished talking, so it might be best to wait for a couple of seconds more than usual after you think they are done. Does this idea seem ok to you?’
A useful general principle if someone is not managing our desired discussion norms is to use the least invasive intervention: pick the one thing that you can do that will solve the problem while causing minimum disruption/embarrassment. If that doesn’t work, next time you might pick something more invasive. For example, roughly in order from least to most invasive, you could:
- Say to the group ‘Thanks everyone btw for taking real care to make sure that we’re not interrupting each other - it’s hard over Zoom but I think we’re doing pretty well.’
- Say to the group at large (ie no singling out) ‘It’s kind of hard to tell when someone is done over Zoom, so maybe we should leave an extra couple of seconds than normal to make sure we’re not interrupting each other.’
- Private conversation after the call, like the one in the paragraph above
- Private message during the call - ‘hey - I think there might be a lag making things difficult, so you might want to wait a tiny bit longer before starting to speak so you don’t accidentally interrupt anyone!’
- Saying aloud ‘Oh sorry X, I think Y hadn’t quite finished - what were you saying, Y?’
- May want to mute everyone else for the brief second you say this so that you are heard - although you’d have to be pretty on it to manage it
Suggestion 2: Mention at the start of the next discussion group that Zoom isn’t always as fluid as in-person discussions, and that to make discussion smoother, if two people start talking at the same time, the moderator will ask them each in turn to make their point. Generally choose the quieter person to speak first if this situation comes up.
Suggestion 3: Do a short ice breaker at the start of the next discussion, and remind everyone that it is a relaxed discussion space, their ideas do not need to be 100% formed for them to share them with the group, and that no one will laugh at your point etc.
Suggestion 3a: Make sure you have plenty of interesting (slightly spicy?) discussion questions prepared to get people talking, so you aren’t fumbling for something to say if everyone is quiet.
Suggestion 3b: Don’t be afraid of silence. 10 seconds of silence feels really long, but some people might only talk if they have had time to think about what they’re going to say and they don’t feel like they’re taking someone else’s turn.
Suggestion 4: Do more of a structured discussion e.g. pick a few people and ask them what they think about each topic, or split people into smaller groups.
Suggestion 5: Combine the suggestions to problems 3 and 4.
Suggestion 6: If they do this repeatedly, mention this to them in a super nice and sensitive way in a private conversation. E.g. ‘All of your points are really interesting, and it's clear that you have a comfortable enough grasp of the week’s reading to explore a wider set of ideas in the space, which is really great. I’m keen to make sure that everyone understands the readings from the week in as much depth, and since we only have limited time in the session, it might be best if we could keep to topics closely related to the readings/questions and then cover wider topics and conversations at the end of the hour. Does this idea seem ok to you?’
Least invasive intervention.
Suggestion 7: Make some general open points at the start of the next discussion e.g. ‘So hopefully everyone got through the reading this week and found them interesting etc.’ and then when asking questions, link them quite closely to the readings e.g. ‘So in the 2nd reading, the writer mentioned XYZ. What do you think of this idea?’ If they still don’t seem to have done the readings the next week, Ask them in a private conversation how they are finding the program and if they are finding the readings engaging, the right amount of work, and whether they are happy with the structure. Hopefully, this would either prod them to do the reading or bring up any issues with the content/ amount of reading that they are having.
Suggestion 8: Spend some time working out what specific behaviors you/others are finding annoying. Hopefully, they will be one of the points above. If not, ask other committee members for advice.