Creative inclusive discussion spaces

1 01 2011

In my previous post, I ended by mentionning the problems involved in mixed gender spaces such as conferences or discussion groups. This was in response to Tarald‘s post in which he described:

a pre-meeting where the women had a brief seminar in taking up space, being vocal and proud, while the men sat down to discuss how we could leave some space for the women, how not to use our male privilege etc.

Last year, during and after a seminar on feminism at which many queer and trans women and men were present, we had this
sort of discussion.  An idea that came up and is apparently in use at woman-centered conferences, is a seperate mic for women and men to respond to a conference presentation or in a group discussion.

I have mixed feelings about this. Having been socialised as female, I know damn well that it is part of female socialisation to shut up and wait to be spoken to, to not take up too much space, etc. And having been to many mixed events where no effort was made to parry this inequality, I also know damn well that it tends to be men who monopolise the discussion. However, I’m a bit wary of
such a cut and dry method. For one thing, it maintains the idea that all women are the same and that all men are the same. It does little to encourage the shyer women from taking space relative to the more vocal women. And it also doesn’t really, I think, encourage men to actually think about their privilege.

So I spent some time thinking about other ways to foster inclusion and to encourage more people to speak up. Here are some of the tools I thought could be useful.

For one thing, guidelines can be suggested to participants before an event starts. People who typically take up space (they usually know who they are) can be asked to limit their interventions to 1-2, to wait until a few other people have spoken before responding and to make it a point to thank people who seem shy for their participation and contributions to the event. People who tend to be shy and hesitant to speak up can be gently encouraged and made to feel safe by enforcing guidelines of respect and mutual support. Something I’ve seen in other contexts is always letting someone who hasn’t yet spoken speak first. If such a community spirit is set in place at events on an ongoing basis at related events, it could very well catch on.

In discussion periods, people could become more comfortable with a period of silence while people take time to collect their thoughts. Not everyone is able to speak up quickly after a presentation or comments in a discussion. Some people need more time.  Paper could be provided and time be given for people to jot down their thoughts before a discussion begins.

When possible, keeping in mind time and space limitations, smaller groups could be formed. People could discuss some of the issues in question in their smaller groups. Then, back with the bigger group, individuals might feel more confident in bringing up their points since they got a chance to do a trial run with a smaller group. If a format is chosen where one individual in the group summarises the smaller group’s discussion, a person who is usually shy can be invited to represent the group. An opportunity to speak up with a small group of peers acting as support can be a great way to break the ice for future events!

[Update: as Tarald pointed out in the comments, not everyone is comfortable talking in small groups either. Ideally, people would have the choice between brainstorming and discussing in groups and working on their own.]

In my mind, these solutions could help ALL individuals who have a hard time speaking up. People who have been socialised to be silence, people who have trouble expressing themselves verbally, people whose first language is not the one in use, people who are intimidated because they do not speak with the perceived eloquence of those more experience in public speech, people who are just plain shy and lacking self-confidence and so forth. At the same time, it would put issues of privilege on the table and call upon more vocal participants to reflect on why they are so vocal, be more considerate of people who are less vocal and to learn to appreciate different kinds of contributions.

For example, asking people to speak less than they normally would can be a useful exercise for everyone involved. The last few times that I have participated in discussion groups, I’ve forced myself to limit myself to two interventions, then more recently, one. This made me spend more time listening to what others were saying rather than planning my own interventions. It also made me more observant of patterns in the room. Finally, it made me appreciate the experience of tracking someone down at break time or after the event to tell them, face to face, that I appreciated what they said and to engage in dialogue. If the chemistry and timing is right for further discussion, we get to elaborate on the issues in a way that doesn’t necessarily happen in the bigger group.

A final point: EVERYone, not just white, middle class, heterosexual, able-bodied cismen need to be taught how to disagree respectfully, whether it is one on one or in a group setting. One of my pet peeve in my society is this zero-sum game mentality when it comes to social interactions. So many people seem to feel that to gain any credibility, they need to complete debase someone else and their point. Why some people need to be so abrasive when showing disagreement with someone’s point of view is beyond me. I can understand it if it is in response to a racist, sexist or otherwise bigoted sentiment. But when someone is just expressing their view and someone else disagrees on one aspect of what they are saying, does one need to do it in a tone that suggests the first person is completely stupid? No, they do not. There are ways to disagree with people that don’t leave them feel like complete shit.

Having experienced events from the point of view of someone who was relatively marginal and hesitant to speak up and from the point of view of someone who is fairly vocal and privileged, I can see both sides of the issue. I would’ve appreciated more efforts to include me and other women when I was there as female. And I’m not interested in working on such efforts as a male. But I want to work on these efforts in a way that includes all kinds of people who deal with the effects of social marginalisation.

What are YOUR ideas and techniques for creating inclusive discussion spaces?




5 responses

1 01 2011

Great post!
I’m a little hesitant personally to the smaller group-idea. I know it works for the shy people, but for me it is the opposite. Group settings are where I feel the most insecure and lost. I prefer one to one or talking to an audience (20+).

1 01 2011

And I am very happy to have you back on your blog. You’ve been missed!

1 01 2011
Jacky V.

Thanks for the comments Tarald. Yeah, it sure is hard to find a formula that works for everyone. I guess ideally, there would be a bit of everything. In class, or when I animate a discussion, I try to give people the choice between getting together in small groups for a limited time brainstorm and brainstorming on their own with paper. That way, people who have difficulty with the small groups, such as yourself, and people who work better in smaller groups and are able to open up, all have the opportunity to express themselves.

Thanks for the welcome back : ) It’s nice to be back and I hope I don’t get out of the habit again!

1 01 2011

Thanks so much for the different ideas! I’m involved in a group at the moment that has some really strong personalities and sometimes the quieter people can be a bit intimidated. I quite like the idea of letting people who haven’t spoken yet speak first!

I’m going to forward this post to the coordinator of the group and see if we can implement some of the ideas at our first meeting of the year!

1 01 2011
Jacky V.

Glad it is helpful! The “letting people who haven’t spoken yet go first” when there is more than one person wanting to speak was not my idea by the way. I first saw it implemented at a socialist meeting. Then elsewhere in LGT discussion groups I think. Thanks for the comment. I’d love to hear how it goes.

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