How not to facilitate discussion

For three years I ran an unofficial chapter of Socrates Café, a philosophical discussion group that sometimes touches on controversial subjects. My job was mostly keeping the atheists from strangling the Christians, and telling the one lazy-eyed guy that no one cares about his impromptu movie rants in the middle of a discussion on Indian literature.

The leadership challenge is keeping opposing interests on the same topic. We could say that diverse groups produce better ideas, but a moderator knows there is such a thing as too different. Put a Shaolin Monk, a Shiite, a Zionist, a radical feminist, Donald Trump and Al Sharpton in one room and, as a moderator, ask them about the best way to run a police force. If you survive the experience, please tell me how you did it.

My role taught me that free speech and productive speech are different things. The paradox is that sometimes you have to shut down some speech to keep the discussion alive. This means explaining to defensive motormouths how their rambling makes it harder for other people to speak, without creating a scene that makes members feel excluded.

I learned that I can’t control anyone, but I can control the environment such that the ideas, not people, fight and evolve. Anyone watching politics understands how difficult it is to create and sustain these environments against ideological pressures. If I failed to prevent a few from dominating the discussion, the many would leave, creating the echo chamber tuned to the loudest mouths.

I wasn’t perfect at the job, but I learned a lot about what it means to be an effective moderator, and about how my approach to the group changes their attitude and willingness to learn from one another.

♦ ♦ ♦

I was a guest of honor in a local Atlanta discussion group called the ATL Metro Area Controversial Topics Discussion Group, run by a man named Steve. The topic was “Has Feminism gone the way of the Dinosaur?” and the format was nearly identical to that of my Socrates Café chapter. I saw Steve as warm, welcoming and flattering, but he surprised me recently.

On October 16th I get the below email that he addressed to all members. I decided that my reply to this email is best made public so that people seeking a hangout space can make an informed decision about the extent of their participation.

Steve book club

Hi Steve,

I understand that you have your rules and can run your group however you wish. Naturally, I have my boundaries, and if I do not like how you run your group I can pack up and leave, which I did. While you do not have to hear me out, I hope that you at least take a few minutes to read this to understand my perspective, not only as a member, but as a former moderator and an event organizer. I speak in the spirit of constructive criticism, not to conduct an opinionated attack on you as a person.

Your members are curious, studious and hungry for good conversation. They can easily feed their minds by making friends and posting an ad, which means you have to compete to provide better content and a warmer presence.

You think this group is your “intellectual welfare?”  If so, you’re mistaken.

As a member, your MINIMAL adult group responsibilities have been.

1. Show up to match your RSVP

2. UnRSVP when you can’t make it

2. Act civilly.

4. Leave a group comment so the group can grow.

If developing the intellectual welfare of members is not the purpose of a discussion group, then what is?

The third item is a reasonable adult responsibility. The others, while understandably helpful to you as an organizer, are not guaranteed. You simply have to suck up the fact that people just won’t follow up sometimes. That’s life. Pouting about it will not change the fact that people can talk, think and have a good time somewhere else.

I’ve spent the better part of  2 years trying to make something out of this group and yes it takes effort and preparation.

If you spent 2 years trying to start a restaurant, that does not mean your restaurant deserves good reviews on Yelp. I remember when I was there that you asked for a required donation (a.k.a. fee) from everyone in the meeting I attended. Are the members paying you to do marketing work for you?

All those who were sent a message and who have not left a comment by Sunday at midnight will effectively be banned from the group.

I know that you did not send me a message mandating a review, but I’ve already removed myself so the point is moot.

I don’t care what you think of me personally. I’ve taken up a responsibility that includes increasing group membership.

Which you do by removing people who don’t follow your orders? This contradicts what you’ve said in your list:

As a member, your MINIMAL adult group responsibilities have been. […] 4. Leave a group comment so the group can grow.

So who is responsible for growing your group? You, or your members? You cannot force people to grow your group under threat of banishment and then take credit for it as if their work is an expression of your responsibility. To me, that is bullying, if not extortion.

If you’re incapable of leaving a positive 2 sentences (NONE about how wonderful I am) then you don’t deserve to be part of the group. […] And leaving comments on the group page? Suicide by (former) member.

This attitude is exactly why I opted for a public response somewhere outside of the group. What happens to someone who has a negative comment about the group? Is it “suicide?”

This hurts the credibility of positive reviews for your group for me. Your email makes it look like that the only people who say good things did so because they were threatened, and the bad ones are deleted for all I know.

I think that you have a lot to learn about how to respectfully steward people, Steve. I never poked my Socrates Café members on the shoulder and said “Hey, say something nice about this group or you can’t come back.” There’s no reason for that, because there exist more ethical alternatives.

If any of my advice means anything to you, then remember that the people who show up are by nature supporting you, and making further demands on them will not work forever. Anyone else could compete with your group with a Craigslist ad and a table reservation. As an organizer seeking growth, you do not want to make these alternatives attractive.

Thank you for including me in a past discussion on feminism and men’s rights, and for your compliments at the close of the event. I enjoyed being your guest, but I do not feel comfortable returning under the circumstances established by your email. I know that I can find—and host—groups with less imposing policies. I wish you the best of luck.

For those of you in the ATL Discussion Group curious about participating or hosting a new group with fewer policies and a more relaxed atmosphere, please feel free to contact me. I’ll be happy to assist in group development.

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