How to moderate a potentially contentious discussion
April 13, 2015 10:07 PM   Subscribe

I will soon be moderating an election for the leadership in one of my hobby groups, in which candidates are discussed after they leave the room. I have never moderated a discussion before. We're usually a pretty harmonious group, but in past years these discussions have sometimes gotten heated and devolved into personal attacks behind candidates' backs, leading to general unhappiness for all, or people have gotten sidetracked on issues irrelevant to the election at hand. What can I do or say to help keep things under control if people start to say inappropriate/hurtful/irrelevant stuff?
posted by st elmo's fire to Human Relations (14 answers total)
Send out a list of rules or expectations for the discussion beforehand - and ideally have the group agree to abide by them before turning up.
posted by dvrmmr at 11:01 PM on April 13, 2015 [4 favorites]

What is the structure?

Are you seated in the middle on a panel? Are you in front of a seated audience at a podium? Do you call on speakers? Introduce them? Do you have a gavel or gentle tone interrupt speakers? Is everyone mic'd? Or are you alone mic'd?

I think the structure of the process is dependent on the answer to your question. Please give details!
posted by jbenben at 11:03 PM on April 13, 2015

Response by poster: Sorry for lack of details in the question. We are a small group, ~20 people, and it is basically an informal gathering with everyone seated in a circle (except the candidates who have left the room of course). No one is mic'd, there is no podium, etc. I will call on people who want to speak.
posted by st elmo's fire at 11:17 PM on April 13, 2015

Two things that may help if you send out suggested rules as dvrmmr suggests.

Use a timer. Any app will do. 2-3 minutes per turn max and at least two others should speak before returning to the same speaker. Prevents two people just arguing.

Ask everyone to speak to you as the chair and not to directly address each other.
posted by Gotanda at 12:16 AM on April 14, 2015 [2 favorites]

I think it's time to channel your inner jessamyn :) I would think about using some of the language we see around the site when discussions are getting heated, and maybe have a few calm but firm phrases ready. So if things are getting personal you can say something like "Let's argue the point, not the person", and if things are getting irrelevant you could say "I think we're getting derailed here and I'd like to bring us back on topic." As with here it's about nipping things in the bud when you see them start to go pear-shaped, rather than having to wrestle back a situation that's gotten too far out of hand.
posted by billiebee at 1:34 AM on April 14, 2015 [3 favorites]

Honestly, one of my strategies in these situations is just to go in with reasonable expectations. Any by reasonable I mean low expectations. Some people just argue and trash talk because that's the only way they know how when disagreeing or discussing something. You can't break life-long bad habits with moderation, at best you can somewhat blunt the bad behavior.

So I usually go with a lighter touch. Let the people who are arguing exhaust themselves a little - not for hours at a time, but if people want to throw fits then sometimes all you can do is let them get it out of their system a bit. If you try to cut them off too early then they'll just try to pull you in to the argument. Instead, let them say their piece for a little while, and possibly make fools of themselves if they really want to. Then make a neutral comment like billiebee suggested to bring the conversation back on topic. You'll come across as listening to all viewpoints while also being the calm voice of reason. That's not to say that you have to sit through ad-hominem attacks, you might want to jump in a little earlier on those and gently suggest that they should discuss the issues and not the person, but even then you can probably use a light touch to bring it around.

Also keep in mind whether what happens in the meeting really matters. If some feelings get hurt, maybe that was inevitable based on people's styles and there's not much you can do about it. If people are elected and everyone goes home without drawing blood, that's fine, and the club can move ahead with its normal business. The goal is to just get through the meeting, not to make it into a wonderful and beautiful gathering a-la Leslie Knope.
posted by Tehhund at 4:10 AM on April 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

Seconding addressing the chair. Write out rules. Have a structured proceeding. One speaks for 2 minutes, the rest take notes. The next one speaks until all have had thier turn. Rebuttals, if any are shorter. Everyone must speak before another round starts.
posted by Ironmouth at 4:57 AM on April 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Depending on the group, and how others have felt about past situations, I've found it helpful to be very assertive up-front about the structure of the meeting.

"Today we are going to be discussing each candidate after they leave the room. We have a limited amount of time in which to do so, and we need to stay focused. I would like to remind everyone up-front that the reason for this discussion is [whatever] and that it is inappropriate to discuss [other things that have come up in the past]. We are all passionate about [group reason] and I know that we all want to select the best candidate (or whatever the purpose of this is). As the moderator, my task is to keep us all on track, to end any discussion that is not relevant to [reason for discussion]. As such, please don't be offended if I stop you, cut you off, or ask you to rephrase your statement."

If you need to be really blunt, do it. And then enforce it.
posted by VioletU at 6:08 AM on April 14, 2015 [8 favorites]

I have been in a similar position before, so my first instinct is to say "Oh, God, no, run now," but maybe in your group the person in the middle won't become the enemy of all.

You could tell everyone that you will be taking notes which the candidates can choose to view afterwards. Most people will say all kinds of things to someone's back if they think it won't get back to them. Have a giant sheet of paper, write down key words so they see what they're saying.

You could set ground rules that only positive statements can be made--why a candidate should be elected, not why the other one shouldn't. No character assassination. Immediately shut down any negative comments. Get a bell or something. (Having gone through this before, I would also say that if there are any relatively new members not involved in any of the history, ask them for a sanity check; people who haven't gone through this before and who are truly neutral will see some things faster than you will.)
posted by tchemgrrl at 7:09 AM on April 14, 2015

I think it's time to channel your inner jessamyn

Yeah my best advice is to really try to stay goal focused. People may be unhappy. Some people just live that way, others may be situationally unhappy because of something having to do with one of the candidates. Ultimately the goal state is ELECT ONE OF THEM. Anything that isn't pointing in that direction needs to be cut off fairly quickly. So I agree with other people

- expectations given to people beforehand, restate them before the discussion starts
- time limits for people to have their say (you can handle anyone's griping for two minutes, people need to manage their own time issues and you can just give them a short warning and then "time's up) and a set wrap-up time for the whole event.
- everyone has an opportunity to say something before people start taking a second turn talking about WHO TO ELECT
- alternate options for people who have other issues "If you have issues with how this group runs, you need to bring that up at the monthly meeting, for now we are focused on the elections"

I'd also suggest having another person who can help you. Some people just personality-wise have a hard time jumping in and being all "Um, dude, your time is UP, it was up two minutes ago, you need to zip it so we can DO THE ELECTING" and other people don't. Having someone else who shares your goals will make this go more easily if you are more of the former. Keep in mind that even people who are off-topic griping, still have feelings and bothered to show up, so try to validate the fact that they feel bad (in some polite way) while also getting across that now is not the time to talk about that particular issue beyond ELECT ONE OF THEM.

So you see, the big thing is to bring it back around to the goal state and try to model good behavior yourself. This may also mean that your opinion as a regular group member has to go by the wayside which you should also probably think about from the get-go.
posted by jessamyn at 7:35 AM on April 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

Two tips in addition to the very helpful ones already given....

- Be clear what the end of the meeting looks like, for you as moderator and for the group's accomplishment of the goal. Practice a few phrases that make it clear it's time to round-up and finish. Not having a clear ending is deadly.

- Keep in mind that in addition to The Meeting, there's usually The Meeting Before the Meeting and The Meeting After the Meeting. These are the informal venting sessions that participants organically hold as they air their concerns about the process, the content, the format, and the results. Don't make the mistake of thinking your meeting, The Meeting, is a failure if/when these other meetings happen. However, you can sometimes make your meeting more productive and satisfying for everyone if you incorporate parts of those other two ad hoc meetings in your Meeting. That might look like meeting ahead of time with some of the more vocal and/or contentious people (they often just want to know someone has heard them), or mentioning lightly but directly the challenging dynamics of the group and thanking everyone for their passion and commitment, or hanging around after the meeting so you're available for people who haven't gotten everything out of their system to come up to you and exhaust themselves. Empathize, empathize, empathize--"Yes, you really have put a lot of time in" "Right, I can see you're concerned about that" etc.--but you don't have to do anything as a result of those.
posted by cocoagirl at 8:56 AM on April 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

I really like all these suggestions, especially setting ground rules for how long people can speak and setting up norms before the discussion begins.

I would also suggest preparing a rubric that includes all the qualities and skills (good at facilitating, good at planning events, raising money, motivating others, inclusive, knowledgeable about subject matter, etc) you're looking for in a leader.

Then under each skill include some examples of what it would look like if that person was developing, good, or excellent (meetings are poorly run, meetings end on time, meetings start and end on time and everyone is heard, etc...).

Then have people stick to evaluating up against that rubric. Maybe even attach some scoring to that. Add up the scores and you have your top choices. Then you can discuss those top choices.

A rubric can force people to stay on topic and avoid personal evaluation/attacks.
posted by brookeb at 9:26 AM on April 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

So in the past, folks in this group could say any horrible thing they wanted to about the candidates during the discussion, and the other members would protect their identity? Sounds like a stronger disincentive is needed. Here's a statement that works to stop gossip and negative talk in its tracks more generally: "I'll be sure to quote you on that." Channel that kind of response into tactics like highly-visible recording devices, and detailed notes with direct quotes including names -- people tend to behave more civilly when they understand what they're saying is on the record. Flag these changes for people in writing well ahead of time, and remind them again at the beginning of the discussion - if you talk shit here, it WILL get back to the person, guaranteed.
posted by hush at 10:24 AM on April 14, 2015

Start out by getting people to focus on the big picture. Begin the meeting with getting consensus on what your group is about - what the hobby group is all about, what is it trying to accomplish. List all of the things (there should probably be about 4 or 5 things altogether) that people come up with on a board or chartpad in front of the room so that people are constantly reminded about their overall purpose.

Then, talk about how the group is about to shift into the election phase. Ask everyone to put up ideas about how they would like the proceedings to go - what the rules for the rest of the evening should be. Feel free to contribute that you would like "No Gossiping" to be one of the rules.

Once you've got the rule set laid out, ask people what their ideas are about what the sanctions should be if people violate the rules. Even take it out to what if they violate them twice, or three times. Remind people that there's no such thing as a self-enforcing rule, so make sure that people are willing to give you permission to interrupt people if they are violating a rule.

Having these agreements in place before the meeting will help tremendously with facilitating.
posted by jasper411 at 12:43 PM on April 14, 2015

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