How to Facilitate a Spontaneous Citizen Discussion


On the date of the historic women's march I happened to be visiting family in Miami. By the time I arrived at the amphitheater housing the rally, more than 10,000 people had entered. I joined the hundreds of people outside, wanting to get in but not allowed to because of fire codes. For a while I stood around, commiserating with the other sad and frustrated people,

And then, for some of us, complaints evolved into appreciation. "Isn't it amazing," we marveled, "that so many people are so passionate that there's not even room for us to get in!" I took off around the perimeter of the amphitheater, and it felt rather like an activated Fourth of July picnic. Families and groups of friends pooled in clusters of colorful signs. Some groups wore T-shirts to help identify them to one another. Conversations flowed easily, and I had many opportunities to speak with people about the issues that matter.

While it was pleasant, it also felt a bit fractured. What might have been possible, I wondered, if we had been able to organize and share in a group forum with one another?

How to Facilitate a Spontaneous Citizen Discussion

Last week, I arrived on time to attend the Rep. Ro Khanna Town Hall in Fremont, but the room designated for the meeting, as well as the overflow room, were already filled to capacity.

Step 1: identify a possible need

I found myself in the third space, surrounded by people eager to share perspective and questions with the representative and with their community. There was a tangible sense of frustration as people murmured wondering about what was going on, were we going to be able to see the congressman, etc.

Step 2: identify your capacity.

I confess here that I love facilitating. As a yoga teacher and workshop facilitator for more than 10 years, I never tire of the magic that happens when groups focus and one voice at a time is able to share and be heard.

If you have experience with running participant-led meetings, improv acting, nonviolent communication, deep listening, and/or a loud voice, you might be a good spontaneous candidate.

Step 3: assess the context

I wasn't sure if other people would want the opportunity to focus together, but I suspected some would and identified a fairly empty room off to the side where we could go together in case the majority of the group didn't want to participate.

Step 4: garner attention

I used a simple, kindergarten level practice that was similar to one I saw Lynne Twist (co-founder of the Pachamama Alliance and founder of The Soul of Money Institute) use the weekend before at the Wisdom 2.0 2017 conference. I used "if you can hear me clap once." I repeated it multiple times until everyone in the room was quiet and we all clapped once - together.

Step 5: identify yourself as "not an official of any kind" but a fellow citizen with facilitation skills, and ask if people want an opportunity for more structured conversation and enroll their participation.

Consent is a major issue, and I didn't want to foist anything into a room where people did not want to participate. By a show of hands, people were a resounding and enthusiastic yes. I said, "OK, if we're going to do this I need you to help me hold the container, and if someone comes in who doesn't know, or someone here forgets that we agreed to a more structured context, I empower each of you to pass the shh."

Step 6: introduce yourself a little more. Now that people have given permission, they were curious who this person was about to facilitate. My introduction was not about my professional life, but rather about my relationship with democracy. I confessed that from a very young age I knew that I would never be involved in politics. That that was something other people did, and certainly I could trust them because as elected officials they obviously would have everyone's best interest at heart. I shared that in recent times I recognized that democracy was something everyone needed to be involved with, otherwise how could our elected officials know what it is that we want and need. I shared Marianne Williamson's term, "awakened citizenry" as inspiration for my burgeoning level of participation.

Step 7: encourage documentation.

At our meeting at least one person was already video documenting with a tablet, and someone suggested that we take notes. I said, "does anyone want to take notes?" And someone volunteered. I don't recommend trying to facilitate and take notes by yourself.

Step 8: establish a context and engage. Something you could do if you wish is ask if there are any elected officials present and if so, perhaps in what capacity they might like to engage. At this meeting to begin I said, "I think many of us came with questions for the congressman. Who has a question?"

Step 9: listen to the crowd. As previously mentioned, someone suggested taking notes, and that was a great idea! Group mind is very powerful and can be a resource. Pay attention.

Step 10: select speakers. Follow the energy, trust your intuition, and try to select a fair cross-section of different types of people who may have different concerns. In the vein of listening to the crowd, there was kind of a rustling when a group of people were collectively trying to usher a voice forward. Honor this! People frequently encouraged forth children to share what they had to say. One of our first questions was a young girl of maybe about seven years old, who asked what the congressman was doing to help protect endangered animals.

Step 11: discern when it's right to engage further with the speaker after they've asked that question. For example, with a little girl I asked her why it was important to protect endangered animals, and she responded that if animals go extinct it throws off the balance for everyone. Boom.

Step 12: honor what arises. Someone in the admittedly progressive leaning crowd requested we make space for any Trump supporters to share their concerns or questions. Two people identified themselves as such, and shared their questions and concerns. I didn't know how to engage with what the first person said, but I made sure we got it in the notes. The second person - a woman - shared a criticism and question about a specific attack. What was the congressman going to do about it? Thanks to my background in nonviolent communication, I identified that she was having a very natural concern about safety - a universal need. I asked her, "Is this about feeling safe?" She nodded. I asked the crowd, "How many of you want to feel safe?" I looked around - everybody had raised their hand. "Great! How many of you want everyone else to feel safe too?" Everyone raised their hand again. I said "Great! Anyone not?" Nobody raised their hand. I said, "Great! So we're all in agreement that we want everyone in the community to feel safe." The next several shares were in support and appreciation of the Trump sharers. We even had a round of applause for their presence and courage in identifying themselves and sharing their concerns. One women quoted Voltaire saying, "I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

Step 13: enjoy levity and stay cool. After someone mentioned health care concerns, the crowd got my attention that there was a doctor eager to share. As I created a space for her and encouraged her to move forward to share I quipped, “There’s a doctor in the house!” Everyone laughed. Laughter helps break up the tension and is good for people to do together.

There was one gentleman in particular who seemed to want to yell. There were two different instances where he was yelling his point, to what end I'm not sure. Perhaps he wanted to get into a fight. I don't know what the best practices are in this kind of situation. If you are aware of some please share in the comments. On this evening I suggested he take the debate or matter into a conversation after this forum, and did my best to move on. I also activated the power of the group shhh.

Step 14: let it go. On this evening one of the representatives for the congressman came out and after a share “took the mic” so to speak. He shared that the congressman was grateful we are all here, said what was going to happen next in the district, and informed us that the police and fire department were going to have to disburse us now because we were in violation of numbers codes. People were disappointed but glad that questions we shared would be going to the congressman, who also would be able to see video from our evening. There was a round of applause for the evening, and then someone said, "And for our facilitator!"

Step 15: be gracious. I received a round of applause and applauded too for everyone and their participation.

As people left they stopped to thank me, ask questions, and connect. More than a few suggested I run for elected leadership! Tho I don’t think it’s for me at this moment I thanked them for the acknowledgement. I swapped cards, said thank you and you're welcome, and answered the questions as succinctly and caringly as I could. The most poignant feedback I received was someone who shared, "You took this time that would've been wasted and made it really valuable. Thank you."

Step 16: completing and moving forward. Outside the meeting, reporters asked for my name which I gave, and asked me questions about my experience which I answered as best I could. I confirmed with the note taker that she would get the notes to the congressman. I made connections with her and other people there that feel important and exciting. I went out to eat with a friend and debriefed what happened. I'll be connecting with the Indivisible Guide group I’m part of to debrief also.

If you're a writer, capture what you learned. Feel free to write an article about your experience. Stay involved and open to what's next.

In closing:

Bear in mind your mileage will vary. Do your best and be open to what happens. My best suggestion is be the outcome you want to see in the world. For me that includes be peace, be love, be listening, be togetherness. Be awakening democracy. Best wishes to all, and thanks for reading.

With warmth and appreciation,

Marna Schwartz

Feel free to be in touch! Like and follow Sex and Politics to see where I’m putting my attention in these strange times. If you’d like me to come offer a similar facilitation format in your community, or empower you or someone else to do so, send me a message on the page.

If you’d like to see video from the town hall I’m talking about:

Video one: Video two: Video three: