How to Start + Run a Discussion Group

The triggers

The goal

The manifestation

The method (templates included!)

  1. Write up a plan with expectations and ground rules: A lot of people didn’t know what I meant by a “discussion group” when I first started out, so writing up this explanation helped a lot. Furthermore, setting ground rules for engagement clarifies what I could kick someone out for if needed. I also took care to set a time and day that worked well for me first, assuming that folks would ask me to move it if it didn’t work for them.
  2. Set up the infrastructure for sharing meeting notes, agendas, and communicating with group members: I started with a bunch of ready-to-use technologies: I set up a Google Drive folder to keep meeting notes (labelled by date) & lists of resources that I wanted to cover; a Discord server with separate channels to keep chats organized (#logistics, #action-items, #introductions); and a Google Meet link that we reuse from week to week to discuss. (Originally we were using the Discord voice chat for that, but some folks’ Internet connections weren’t happy with us.) I linked the Drive and Discord in my plan document.
  3. Reach out to people you’d like to join, one on one: It’s crucial that this be a 1:1 process. You can of course advertise that you’re starting this group on social media, but at the end of the day it’s much easier to engage folks in this idea if you reach out to them directly. I did this by (1) sending a message to my friend describing my group + the goal to gauge interest, then, based on their response, (2) sending them my plan document. From there, if they cared, they’d request access to the Drive & join my Discord. I tried to take care in this process to invite people of different backgrounds — in the end, I reached out directly to around 25 people. Only 10 people joined my server; 8 have attended meetings; currently, about 4 people other than I attend regularly. A group of about 3–5 people is about right to have an interesting discussion.
  4. Set a first meeting and facilitate introductions: Before you’ve decided on any topics/found many resources to go through, it may be nice to get started by watching mini documentaries together. The first order of business is to always get folks’ introductions together. I used the #introductions channel in my Discord server to do this, asking folks to do a small writeup about “who you are, what you do, and what you’re interested in talking about.”
  5. In early meetings, set an understanding tone starting with the agenda: This is really key in my opinion — developing a place where folks don’t feel judged because of their experiences, where they feel free to analyze themselves around others. There’s one set of questions that I feel has really allowed my group members to get to feel comfortable around one another, which is this: Where did you grow up? And what did you learn about <THE TOPIC> while growing up? That’s been a surefire way to get interesting discussions where folks feel free to bring up their opinions in an open, respectful way — and while we’ve asked this question less per each meeting as we’ve gotten to know each other, it comes up naturally now.
  6. In later meetings, get other members to lead the discussion: It takes a fair bit of mental energy to organize and host meetings, and you don’t want to burn yourself out. You’ll have to provide the starting energy to get the group running, but as folks get more used to the routine you should take time at the end of meetings to ask for volunteers to help host the meeting and come up with discussion questions. This shouldn’t take too much work since they’ll have the agenda template & previous meetings to base the discussions off. If no one volunteers, or if someone who’s already led discussions often volunteers again, I tend to ask someone directly if they’re willing to lead — and if they’re not, no harm no foul.
  1. Meeting reminders: It’s helpful to know if people are planning to show up to the meeting/ have done the readings. We currently do this by sending reminder messages in Discord the day before the meeting, but I’d imagine it’d be easier if you set up a recurring calendar event in Google Calendar or the like with notifications and RSVP’s on. If we have less than 3 people coming to a meeting (including myself), I usually cancel.
  2. Gratitude: I routinely thank folks who volunteer to take notes or lead discussion meetings, and also thank folks who show up to meetings.
  3. Grow your group as you see fit: As I make new acquaintances or catch up with old ones, I sometimes think that they would make a nice addition to my discussion group because of their interesting experiences, and if attendance is low at meetings I ask them to join as well. I’d caution against making a group too large though, since candid conversations are less comfortable to have in large groups — if you end up making a large group, I’d suggest breakout rooms.
  4. Follow up with folks who expressed interest but have stopped coming: Folks get busy — your follow-up might nudge them back into joining, if you’d still like to have them.
  5. Current events are interesting to talk about: Don’t be afraid to push back your topic agenda if there are Things Going On that you think the group might want to discuss. Ex. we took time after the January coup to process it together.
  6. Take breaks: The world is exhausting sometimes. Feel free to tell your group to take a break for a weekend or so when y’all need it.

The results

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UC Berkeley EECS ’19 → Google SWE. Interested in misinformation prevention, tech for social good, and education.

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JANNY ZHANG

JANNY ZHANG

UC Berkeley EECS ’19 → Google SWE. Interested in misinformation prevention, tech for social good, and education.

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