Some topics are difficult to discuss. Some topics are emotive and difficult to discuss rationally; and some topics are divisive and difficult to discuss with a large group. What are the options, then, for holding difficult discussions with large groups? They can be avoided; they can be carried out with whatever the usual process is; or a different approach can be used. Regardless of the decision, the common theme that is required to make sure such discussions do not end in acrimony or chaos is: PREPARATION.

At the recent 2015 National Council of Women New Zealand (NCWNZ) conference, a new way to approach a difficult conversation (on assisted suicide) was trialled by the Board. Since NCWNZ’s purpose is to promote women’s viewpoints for the purpose of influencing government policy, the option of avoiding difficult conversations was never seriously considered. Instead, rather than voting for a yes/no remit on a topic where there was unlikely to be a consensus of opinion (the usual process), the meeting would break into smaller workshop groups to discuss the issue and give feedback. As a vocal critic of the remit process, I was delighted that the Board had taken the step of trialling a new approach.

However, the execution of the process did not produce the desired results. A non-Board member with a pro-euthanasia stance was invited to introduce the workshops, and although she acknowledged other viewpoints she quite rightly made clear what her own views were. The reaction from the meeting was a result of feeling manipulated by closed questions and an unbalanced introduction, and the guest found herself in a very unsafe position as the focal point of the unease. The reaction of the meeting also stemmed from a feeling of unpreparedness and of a change to procedure which they felt ill-informed about. Further, there was confusion about exactly what was being asked, especially because the majority were delegates representing their respective organisations or branches and this topic had not been discussed prior to conference. The Board quickly stepped in and managed to salvage the situation by having a brief whole-group discussion run in the for-and-against timed speeches format which is usually used for remits.

So a new approach was trialled and there was some definite feedback given. Since feedback is always an opportunity to learn, what lessons can be gained from this experience? Here are my key points for those who are organising such a discussion (“the committee”), based not only on this experience, but other similar situations I have been involved in.

  1. Be detailed in the planning. The committee should try to think of the range of possible reactions, problems and pitfalls and plan to mitigate them. You won’t be able to eliminate all the issues, but at least you can deal with the most obvious ones. Don’t leave it to participants to decide which groups they will put themselves in, or what room to go to, or who will be the scribe. Be directive so the participants can think about the issues rather than be distracted by the logistics. Anticipate the likely reactions of different types of participants – the ones for whom this is a surprise, despite all the information that has been given out; the ones who already have an opinion and are more interested in convincing others than listening to others; the ones who have had a recent personal experience that means this discussion will trigger an adverse reaction… What is the plan to help all these people?
  1. Get advice early in the planning process. If this is a new approach for the committee, there might be things you haven’t thought of. It is nice to be able to have all the necessary expertise within your committee, but this is not often the reality you have to deal with. Ask someone who has dealt with these things before. There are many people who will give their opinion for free (I am a classic example of this).
  1. Signpost changes in process well prior to the meeting. There will always be some negative reaction against change, but this often reduces when participants have had time to think things through. Different people require different lengths of time to process things, and you have to allow for this. “No surprises” is a good policy.
  1. The discussion at the meeting must clearly be fronted by the committee. It must be obvious that the “people in charge” are the committee, so they are the ones to whom any negative feedback is directed – this is part of good leadership. The committee as a group will have carefully considered all aspects of the discussion, and therefore should be prepared to own the decisions and justify them if necessary.
  1. Introduce the difficult topic in a balanced way by presenting opposing viewpoints as non-emotively as possible (there will be plenty of emotion later on!). This will require an accepted neutral person presenting both sides or two different people giving their views. One person with a definite and known viewpoint will never be seen as balanced, no matter how hard they try.
  1. Useful questions for discussion will be open ended. The broader the question, the better. Closed questions will always favour one side of an argument, simply by the way they are phrased. When developing questions I would always recommend getting people with opposing viewpoints to give feedback on them. If representatives from both sides of the argument are comfortable with the questions, then it is much more likely that the meeting will accept them as a basis for useful discussion.
  1. Be clear about the desired outcome. Participants need to understand what will happen to the content of their discussion and how it will be used; whether or not they are considered to be speaking from a personal viewpoint or whether what they say will be taken as an indication of their organisation’s views because they are a delegate; and whether a decision needs to be made. They should know all this prior to the meeting, but it must be reiterated at the meeting. A useful outcome could simply be a list of points on which the meeting agrees (which is probably around the wider issues), and a list of points on which the meeting does not agree. To reach consensus on a single course of action with a controversial and difficult topic is not always the most reasonable or practical outcome, if the diversity of viewpoints within an organisation is to be honoured.