Sunday, March 16, 2014

How I Moderate Discussions about Controversial Topics in Large Groups

I run a meetup group called Controversial Topic Discussion Club in Atlanta. Complete strangers from college age to retired come together regularly to discuss topics like gun control, abortion, drug legalization, charter schools, religion, and many more. The group size ranges from 8 to 40. Having run over 50 events over 5 years, and watching several others help moderate events, I wanted to share my learnings about moderating discussions to keep them respectful, fair and moving.

Before getting into the details, I want to clarify that the goal of our discussions may be different than the goal of moderating a business meeting, where you might be trying to reach a decision. Our group is more focused on learning rather than reaching any consensus, or changing anyone's mind. We're also more interested in just having a good time rather than detailing out the next health care bill, so I would rather let an interesting conversation meander rather than keep it laser focused.


Before each meeting, I prepare a list of sub-topics, questions or interesting facts that I can use to re-start conversations. For example, on our Obamacare event, here are some of my sub-topics and questions:

  • Is rationing care inevitable?
  • Will Obamacare save or cost our country more in the long run?
  • How much should we subsidize each other's insurance? The new law mandates that older people can only be charged 3 times more than younger people, even if older people cost much more.  
I also try to find 3-4 interesting articles for members to read beforehand, although it's generally a lost cause asking people to do homework for meetup.


To start off the meeting, I lay out the ground rules, which are:

  • Be respectful
  • Stay on topic and keep it short
  • No biting
We also go around the room giving brief introductions. I ask people to give their name, job, and an answer to a question related to the topic. For example, on Obamacare, I asked if people had their own insurance. I try to avoid asking people their opinion on the topic because it's hard to keep answers to open ended questions short.

I write down the names on a rough drawing of the table(s) so I can later call on people by name without having to use name tags.

Opening Question

I usually start off with a news-worthy article or stat. For example, in our Obamacare event, I started by describing a recently released study showing that increased Medicaid availability increased emergency room use, whereas most Obamacare supporters argue that getting more people on insurance would reduce ER use since they could go to regular doctors. I mention this only as an example of something noteworthy to kick off the event, I think there are lots of reasons that study may not be indicative of the long term Obamacare effects.


People are then free to jump in and start voicing their opinions.

At the start of the meeting, I make a concerted effort not to let people talk over others, and wait until I call on them. I also am extra quick to cut off meandering comments that run too long. I've found if I can establish the tone and rules in the first 5 minutes, people will self-police for the rest of the event without me having to intervene too much.

In small groups of 10 or less, sometimes little moderation is needed. People will yield the floor to hear responses to their comments by themselves. But in larger groups, I ask people to raise their hands and let me call on them. When someone raises their hand, I write down their name on a running queue, and then call on people at the top of the queue. With groups over 30, this can get a bit messy as the person you want to respond to may have spoken 3 turns ago, so sometimes I let people skip the queue to make a direct response. Writing the names down is good because it allows people to put their hand down, and also prevents me from unconsciously favoring certain speakers.

While people are talking, I write down the current idea, adding it to my list of prepared sub-topics and questions. I've found that it's very hard to keep a group of people on a single topic, and this gets harder the larger the group gets. Every 2nd or 3rd person that speaks will attempt to change the topic. I use my list to try to guide the group back to the current topic until no one has anything to add, but this is usually a losing battle.

Drawing in the Quiet Ones

I've noticed that some people do not volunteer to speak just because they have a quieter personality. However, many times these people have the most insightful comments. In an event that lasts 2 hours, I'll stop every 30 minutes or so to directly ask people that haven't spoke if they have anything to add. (thanks for this idea, Steve!)

Cutting off Preachers

Occasionally, people try to deliver sermons and need to be cut off. People are very passionate about many of our topics (hello gun control!), so it's understandable. Usually when someone is on a long rant, they also manage to talk without even stopping for a breath, so I have to talk over them to stop the train. I usually try to summarize what they're saying to emphasize that I'm listening, and promise to get back to them. If someone is a repeat offender, I start reminding them to keep it short before giving them the floor each time.

Cutting off Assholes

Despite the heated nature of the topics we cover (health care, gun control, abortion), people are generally nice to each other, and respectfully listen. But sometimes people go off the rails, and they need to be cut off and scolded immediately. If you act fast and draw a clear line about what's acceptable, many times the person changes their behavior. But I've definitely been too slow on this front. Letting a few inappropriate comments slide usually emboldens the offender to be more aggressive later, when the only option is to ask them to leave.


By setting a respectful tone at the beginning of the event, and acting quickly to cut off anyone giving a sermon, I'm amazed that you can get a bunch of strangers to listen to each other and exchange ideas. Many of the experts on news programs talk as if anyone that disagrees with them is an idiot, when in reality nothing is black and white, and intelligent people have good reasons to disagree. It's refreshing to see these conversations, and I hope this entry helps someone run future discussions.


  1. Fascinating, I didn't know about this project before. It seems admirable to cultivate direct discussion like this.

    Has it had a greater personal effect on your life? Does the group keep a history?

  2. Past topics can be seen at the meetup page:

    These events have a way of poking holes in any stance I feel confident about :) We don't exactly do in depth analysis of stats, but you do get a chance to see things through other people's eyes. Hearing several black people explain what it's like to be watched while they shop. Hearing about sketchy health care experiences in other countries. I think it's human nature to seek out views you already agree with. The group is a good way to fight that.


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