By: Christopher Corts, Professor of Law, Legal Practice, University of Richmond School of Law
Today I am writing to offer some practical suggestions for how you can actively, intentionally seek—and find—wisdom in the counsel of many.
I am no expert on this. To be clear: there is nothing in my natural inclinations that would suggest I would ever seek out the wisdom of the many. Left to my own devices, I would be tempted to say: the “wisdom of the many” is not even a thing. I am an introvert…with some misanthropic tendencies. I love “people”— in the abstract. The idea of “humanity” inspires me. I always try to respect “human dignity” as I work my way through life.
But, too often, as soon as I have to deal with real, live, messy human beings in all their glory—like, say, during a faculty meeting—I quickly lose faith in “humanity” and start ruminating on how people around me can’t seem to do much of anything effectively, except make me miserable.
It’s not that I think relying on myself is any better. It is more like: I have more comfort and confidence in my own ability (than others) to survive the many failures and messes I create in the world. To “go it alone” feels pragmatic—doable, if not exactly wise.
Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett, an expert on the science of human emotion, has described the paradox like this: the best thing for our nervous systems is another person; the worst thing for our nervous systems is…another person. I read that and think: Ok, so maybe just avoid people!
But my better, more reflective, and growth-oriented self is drawn to two maxims found in wisdom literature from the Hebrew Bible. One adage warns that “[w]ithout counsel, plans go wrong, but with many advisors they succeed.” Another maxim, similar to the first, goes like this: “Where there is no guidance, a nation falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety.”
These warnings challenge me to move away from solitude and toward the counsel of (not just some select chosen few, but) many others. This requires intention, commitment, and skill. So in today’s post, I want to share with you some of the facilitation techniques I have come to find useful for teaching and modeling a form of public dialogue as part of a larger, more inclusive process of collective decision-making.
File this one away in your “how to lead like a lawyer” files. The techniques shared below are premised upon two value statements:
- The best kind of public conversation about a topic of shared concern is one that includes participation from the greatest number of people present.
- In a public conversation about a topic of shared concern, the best kind of participation is a statement that accurately represents the speaker’s deepest, truest, most meaningful viewpoint on the matter at issue.
In short? I want everyone speaking, if they wish to speak—and, when they do, speaking courageously—from the heart. Five basic techniques, elaborated in more detail below, can help facilitate a public conversation like that. Here are the five in summary form:
- As facilitator, sit in a circle with everyone else.
- At the start of the conversation, collaboratively create clear, explicit rules of engagement for speakers and listeners to follow.
- At first, use open-ended questions to facilitate a more inclusive conversation.
- Once trust is established, have courage to directly invite participants to share their deepest hopes or deepest concerns on the subject.
- Throughout the conversation, take care to make public displays of valuing statements of difference and disagreement (and not just statements of unity and consensus).
In the paragraphs that follow, I will give suggestions for how to implement each one of these five techniques for discourse. As may already be obvious: there is a sizing issue here. Every one of these suggestions presumes a kind of public conversation that can be held using one or more small groups (with each group facilitated by at least one facilitator).
I accept that it will not always be possible to go small, but I suggest that you always ought to make every effort to make this kind of small-group interaction possible. Even if practicalities force you to speak in a mass group, at least some of the techniques described below can be implemented or adapted to fit the constraints of that kind of larger public conversation.
- As facilitator, sit in a circle with everyone else. In a previous post, I explained why this practice is so important. I won’t repeat myself here, except to remind the reader that a circle is an iconic representation of the values you are seeking to promote and achieve in this conversation. By eliminating (front and back) rows and (literally) de-platforming the speaker, by staging your conversation using a circle, you place speakers and listeners in the same position relative to each other. A circle creates a non-hierarchical, equitable configuration that makes broad, consistent, active participation—as both speakers and listeners—more likely.
- Collaboratively create clear, explicit rules of engagement for speakers and A feature of mindful or non-violent communication is to ask each member of the conversation circle to collaboratively establish conversation norms—norms of speaking and listening. This approach is most inclusive and organic to that particular group for that particular conversation on that occasion. As part of the process of building a set of shared norms to which every participant can agree, do not just dictate the norms you want to use without also inviting each participant to share what they need —as a speaker and listener—in order to productively engage in the conversation that is about to occur.To be sure: this takes time. But it is time well spent. It gets people talking. It builds trust and solidarity. It powerfully communicates one of your core values and objectives: you sincerely do want everyone to speak.As facilitator, you can compile the list of norms on a white board, blackboard, piece of paper, etc. That will create a transparent, easily-accessible published record of what everyone agreed to do as speakers/listeners at the very start of the conversation.The following subparts of the second technique provide additional clear, explicit rules for speakers and listeners:
- From the start, get collective buy-in from all participants that speakers will be given freedom to speak and be heard as individuals. Facilitators should take care to explicitly release participants from the burden of speaking for others. For example: in an inter-faith dialogue, an Episcopal clergy should not be heard to speak for all Christians, all Protestants, all Episcopalians, or even all members of her parish! She is a singular individual. She speaks only for herself.This same concept applies to any group that any speaker might be identified with along the lines of race, gender, sexuality, nationality, political identification, whatever. We are a circle of individuals representing only ourselves.To make this even more concrete: you can invite and encourage speakers to use subjective “I” statements whenever possible. “I think, I worry, I see, I hope, I wonder, I feel, It seems to me, etc.” When we describe something we have individually experienced or observed as if it were universal, absolute fact, we threaten to make our one experience the absolute, definitive, only account of that thing—and that can unwittingly erase or de-value the (different) perspectives of others on that same subject.The practice of speaking for one’s self can be especially important in situations where you might want to welcome comments from someone who holds an official title. You want to create space and freedom for them to speak in their capacity as an individual member of the community—not just in an official capacity. (They are of course free to decline to do this! What matters is that you made the effort to make it possible, if they so desired).
- Explicitly keep (and build) a sense of privacy and confidentiality. At the start, before any question is asked: assure participants that whatever is shared in the conversation will be kept confidential. You want to build a circle of trust. Make sure everyone understands that by continuing in the circle and engaging in the conversation, every member is agreeing to keep the conversation amongst ourselves, and to not broadcast any particulars outside of this context. Similarly, assure everyone that the session will not be recorded. Or, if you have an important reason to record, inform everyone that it will be recorded and put them on notice that they might want to say “pass” instead of sharing (since they will also know that they are free to say “pass” at any time).Don’t just assume that everyone consents to a recording, or that gaining consent is not important. It is! Recording can have a chilling effect on conversations. It cuts against the twin purposes (participation and quality) that guide the public conversation we aspire to facilitate.
- Use a talking stick. The beauty of a talking stick is that it comes with rules of discourse attached. And the rules are designed to slow down the conversation—which makes off-the-cuff, emotionally-reactive responses less It creates space, air, and light for deeper and more authentic speaking, listening, and thinking. Rule number 1 is that only the person who is holding the talking stick may speak. When she is done speaking, she either places the talking stick in the center of the circle, or passes it to the left or right. The talking stick prevents cross-talk and interruption. It helps to prevent a debate. It facilitates slowness and reduces the likelihood that someone will blurt out a response in the heat of the moment, before it has been fully thought through. When it comes to selecting the talking stick: don’t be too literal; it does not have to be an actual stick. Make it meaningful! Be creative and use the talking stick convention to help you to convey value and create meaning to your group. For example: when convening a hard, heart-to-heart conversation about well-being with a small group of (struggling, for different reasons and in different ways) 1Ls, I once used an Apple Air-Pods case as the talking stick. When I introduced the convention of using the case as a talking stick with the group, I told them: “The Air Pods case is a symbol of distraction and disconnection in everyday life. But I want us today to re-claim it as an object that can facilitate deeper connection and engagement with each other.” By framing something as banal as the choice of a talking stick as an act of counter-cultural resistance, I helped spark their creative/abstract imagination, played to their counter-cultural inclinations, and helped to create ritualized meaning in what could have just been presented as a mindless everyday object selected for the sake of bland convenience.
- Keep giving clear, explicit procedural guidance about what you expect to happen next with the talking stick. Each time you ask a question and invite everyone to respond, set clear guidelines for how you expect the conversation to proceed. You can start with person X and go clockwise or counter-clockwise from there; you can place the talking stick in the center of the circle and let anyone who wishes to pick up the talking stick do so in whatever order they prefer. But the key here is: no individual can speak a second time until everyone has had a chance to speak. If you elect not to use a talking stick, you can still integrate equitable rules of procedure. Each time you ask a question, you can start with a different person in the circle, and move in a different direction (clockwise, counter-clockwise, whatever). The goal would be to make sure that the same voices are not being heard first or last; you do not just want a diversity of voices being heard—you want them to be heard in a different order.
- Adopt an opt-out rule that liberates everyone to participate at any time simply by saying “pass.” I like to establish this rule at the outset of a conversation. And then, every time I ask a facilitated question and invite each person to speak in response, I remind everyone that they are always free to simply say “pass.” This serves at least four purposes. (1) It ensures that every voice will be heard, even if only to say “pass.” (2) It reinforces how valuable hearing every voice is to the conversation. (3) It minimizes coercive social pressure, so that participants who do not yet feel safe or able to speak candidly and sincerely about the guided prompts are still able to hold attention and bring their voice into the room. And (4) it helps to prevent insincere responses, because people know that “pass” is a credible, respected alternative to saying something simply for the sake of fulfilling a formal participation requirement. (Frequently, at some early point in a conversation that I am facilitating, I will say “pass” myself, to model that it really, truly is ok to just say “pass.”)
- At first, facilitate a more inclusive conversation by asking open-ended questions. Embedded in this suggestion is an invitation to practice a radical form of hospitality. As facilitator, you hold power to welcome and bless every person present. Use it! Artful public conversations that include everyone—especially those who are not inclined to speak in public settings, or about certain selected topics—merit light-touch structure. With thoughtful planning and intention, an artful facilitator will pose an open-ended question…and then invite each participant to respond in a way that person prefers. These open-ended questions are especially important at the start of a conversation. They break the proverbial ice. They build comfort, encourage trust, and create a tone and atmosphere for the proceedings. They help to get people comfortable sharing, because they give each person the most freedom to speak to whatever aspect or dynamic of the chosen topic matters most to them. Here is one concrete example of how you might develop a hospitable, open-ended question to elicit deeper engagement that can help build a conversation space: “We gathered today for the purpose of talking about [describe the topic]. To start our conversation together, I want to first give each one of you an opportunity to share what is on your heart or mind as you entered today’s circle of conversation.What have you directly observed or experienced about [the issue]? What do you see with respect to [the issue]? What are your thoughts, feelings, or reactions to what you’re seeing? Whatever you want to share—share it. Good, bad, inspiring, upsetting, ambiguous, whatever; we welcome any comment that accurately captures your point of view, whatever that might be. So long as it respects the dignity of others, we welcome it. We need to hear from everyone so we can more clearly understand what is really going on in our community, what the stakes of this conversation are, and how we can move forward together from here. Every perspective matters, because we all have blind spots. There is no shame in that. Each one of us might be seeing or experiencing something that someone else in this circle needs to see or understand. We cannot arrive at a full, shared version of the truth if we do not have the benefit of every individual perspective. So let’s start helping each other figure this out.
One at a time, as you see fit, please share what is on your heart or mind with respect to [the issue].”
Or, to give a simpler version (without so much wind-up to the pitch):
“For our first round of responses, I welcome each one of you to share anything you wish to share about this topic: [Frame and ask the question].”
As these two examples suggest: whether you want to invest heavily in framing or keep your question short, use the wind-up to explicitly voice the values you wish to nurture. Words matter. Don’t just ask a question…invite and welcome a response. Make it safe for each speaker to share what they most want to say. Don’t just assume everyone will speak…make sure everyone knows you want or need them to speak. Appeal to peoples’ sense of hope and duty. So long as you sincerely want to hear from everyone, say so. The key here is to be authentic, open, and vulnerable.
Any time you ask for everyone to participate, you risk the humiliation of no one listening to what you have to say. That’s ok. Risk it! It is the only way. There is no shame in giving a warm welcome, whatever the response.
- Once trust is established, have the courage to directly invite participants to share their deepest hopes or deepest concerns on the subject. Once people get comfortable responding to these broad, open-ended questions, a baseline of trust will be established. From there, if you wish, you can narrow the focus of your questions, make them less open-ended (more targeted to achieve your particular purposes), and invest more in framing the question in a particular way that is designed to elicit the information you (as facilitator and planner) most want and need to hear from the participants. One concrete way to think about crafting a narrower, more focused kind of question is to think about how you can inspire participants to speak in a way that reveals their personal, subjective experience: their perceptions, beliefs, commitments, and values. An artful question inspires a speaker to share something about her unique way of looking at the world, her unique way of valuing the world, the particular way she hopes the world can be made better, and her ideas and intuitions about how to make that more beautiful world possible. Don’t be afraid to play around with crafting questions designed to elicit value statements. On this view, a well-crafted question is one that can help invite a speaker to voice something personally meaningful about what she perceives, believes, desires, values, wants, or fears. Framing the question in terms of “hopes” or “fears” can be a good way to elicit both a statement of fact (about what we want or dread)—and a value (a why to make meaningful our description of what we factually hope for or fear most in the current debate).Here is an example of that kind of question:
What about our law school’s current approach to[Issue X] concerns you most? Why?And then, something like:
As we work out [Issue X], do you see anything in our law school’s community that gives you hope that we can do better and get to where you want us to be? What would “doing better” look like, from your point of view? Why do you feel that would be better than the current state of things?
Crafting questions is an art. Try, fail, try again, fail again, and on and on. The keys to creating questions are to learn what works (and what doesn’t) and keep trying.
- Throughout the conversation, take care to make public displays of valuing statements of difference and disagreement (and not just statements of unity and consensus). There is a beautiful human tendency to steer toward unity and consensus as soon as division and disagreement surface—especially when we are in a circle of conversation with colleagues, peers, friends, students we care about. But that caring impulse can choke prophets, silence critics, and chill authentic engagement in the group. The true test of a healthy community is not converting everyone to some bland, watered-down uniformity that enables us to market a fake, superficial unity at the cost of authenticity and truth. It is cringe-inducing and actually damaging when kind-hearted, well-meaning voices try to gaslight us into convincing everyone that, despite perception or appearances, we are not as divided as we seem. We are. It’s probably worse than we imagine. The truth, no matter how unpleasant or difficult, is worth hearing. A healthy community does something brave every time it gathers together, gives voice to disagreement, and collectively stares down the awesome chasms of separation and division that (in part) define it.
So there you have it: five simple, concrete suggestions (with rationalizations and specific examples included) for how you, too, can model and teach a kind of public conversation in small groups that can include the greatest number of voices and elicit the most authentic viewpoints possible. Over time, I have come to sincerely believe that—against my personal preferences—the best counsel really does live in the spaces where the most counselors are (1) given a voice and (2) use it to share their unique point of view.
In that same spirit, I invite you to help me. If you have any ideas, thoughts, concerns, or suggestions that you would like to share on these or related topics: please do! I can’t even hope to be wise without you.
Email me at email@example.com. (Thank you in advance!)
 https://ideas.ted.com/author/lisa-feldman-barrett/ (“It’s ironic but true: The best thing for your nervous system is another human and the worst thing for your nervous system is another human. Neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett tells us why.”) Feldman Barrett is the author of two books I enthusiastically recommend to legal educators, How Emotions are Made and Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain.