TIPS FOR FACILITATING MEANINGFUL DISCUSSIONS AROUND SENSITIVE SUBJECTS

In the light of recent world events and the troubled times we live in, in today’s episode I’m going to share some thoughts about facilitating discussions with artworks and objects around sensitive subjects in difficult times.
Some programmes, tours or sessions specifically involve sharing difficult narratives and directly addressing challenging subjects.
Other types of programmes might touch on subjects that can be contentious and/or sensitive.
Or you may visit artworks or objects that can surface and bring up emotions, feelings and more.
Particularly now with the devastation occurring in Ukraine, it’s important to be aware of and sensitive to these emotions and to be thoughtful when asking participants to share their personal connections around a subject.
So today I’m sharing some advice that may be beneficial to you when facilitating an art discussion around a sensitive topic. I’m also going to touch on how you can look after yourself and manage your own emotions too.

ART AND MUSEUM EXPERIENCES MAKE US THINK

We know that experiences in museums and heritage sites with art and objects make you think. ⁠
They allow you to draw on your emotions, pull from personal experiences and make connections. ⁠
⁠Talking about your personal connections to an artwork, object or theme helps you to share what you are seeing, feeling and thinking. ⁠
However, in difficult times, such as now, participants could be bringing a variety of emotional states and experiences into the museum with them. ⁠
We also do not know what emotions and experiences may bubble up as a result of spending time with an artwork.
Therefore I’m going to share some thoughts about facilitating around sensitive subjects in difficult times. I’m going to focus on your role as a facilitator and also how you can look after your own needs too.
We know that some programmes, tours or sessions specifically involve sharing difficult narratives and directly addressing challenging subjects.
Other types of programmes might touch on subjects that can be contentious and/or sensitive. Or you may visit artworks or objects that can surface and bring up emotions, feelings and more.
Particularly now with the devastation occurring in Ukraine, it’s important to be aware of and sensitive to these emotions.
All sorts of things can trigger emotional responses from your participants – disagreements over facts, differences in opinions, the surfacing of upsetting events or even associations with personal experiences.

STARTING POINT

As a starting point, think about any programmes that you lead and identify any moments or artworks which may provoke sensitive or contentious discussion.
Be aware of the main discussion points and think carefully about your content and approach.
It’s important to note here that you cannot and will not be able to prepare for all eventualities – you simply do not know who will be bringing what experiences or trauma with them into the museum space – but you can make yourself more prepared by thinking ahead.

SET THE TONE

I’ll be talking about great introductions next week – but suffice to say today that a good introduction can set the tone and expectations for what’s to come.
Every programme you facilitate should create a safe space for people to share their ideas, ask questions and show emotions. If you will be discussing an artwork or object that could trigger emotion, it’s worth reminding the group to contribute to the discussion with sensitivity.
As a general rule, participants will usually mirror your approach – so if you discuss things sensitively, they will follow.

PERSONAL CONNECTIONS

Some discussions ask for participants to share personal connections to an artwork or object. This can be problematic as participants will share hidden connections and personal stories that you are unaware of. 
When asking participants to share personal thoughts and connections, here are some important things you can do as a facilitator.  ⁠
  • Create a safe and trusting atmosphere at the start and throughout⁠. This will be set up in your introduction – when you introduce yourself, the programme and get to know your participants. You may also at this point want to share some guidelines. We’ll discuss these in more detail next week. But note that guidelines are useful at the start and can be repeated where necessary throughout the programme to reassure participants and remind them of how you’re doing things.
  • Encourage but do not require participation. This is my mantra for discussion-based programmes. AND this is even more important for any discussion that asks for participants to share personal connections, feelings or emotions.  No-one should ever feel under pressure to take part and interact. 
  • Avoid calling on participants to answer. Do not point at or name participants to answer your questions. Invite people to share their thoughts, if they feel comfortable doing so.
  • Be patient with silences. Allow plenty of wait-time. Don’t jump to fill in the gaps. Silence can be an important time for some and may spur others to talk. Those that feel happy to respond will do so.
  • Look for non-verbal clues. As we talked about in last week’s episode about Reading a Group,  observe who is participating and who is not. Is anyone looking uncomfortable? Be empathetic and use your emotional intelligence to read the group.
  • No responses? If you don’t get anyone sharing in response to your call for personal connections, you could acknowledge that it’s sometimes difficult to share personal connections and move on to another question or share a personal connection of your own. 
  • Small groups Sometimes it is easier for groups to share thoughts in smaller groups than with the large group as a whole. Therefore, use pair-share or small groups for these sorts of discussions. But do bear in mind if the group is going away from you to discuss that everyone knows that they only have to share if they are happy to share. There is no requirement to say something if someone doesn’t want to. 
  • Listening: is such an important skill here too. Encourage active listening. Not only will you as a facilitator need to focus your energy on really listening to participants share their thoughts, you will want to help your group to listen to each other. 
  • Acknowledge all contributions and demonstrate that you have not only heard what someone has shared but that you have understood and valued their contribution. 
  • An opt-out is a simple way of giving a participant time-out from a discussion or an artwork if it’s too difficult for them to take part. Everyone gets affected by things in different ways. If you know that you are going to visit an artwork or object or touch on a subject that could potentially bring up emotions, prepare your participants in advance. You can then let participants sit something out if they would prefer to. 
  • Also, know when to wrap things up. Read the group all the time. Thank everyone for their contributions and bring the discussion to a conclusion and move on. 

TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF

Finally, look after yourself too.
These are worrying and troubling times and we all have our own emotions to deal with. Making time to be aware of and deal with our own emotions around a certain subject can really help.
Know yourself: In my VTMO course we do an exercise called ‘Knowing Yourself’ which gets you to reflect on a series of questions about a known-subject so that you can assess whether you know the topic, whether you can assume an objective role and to give an indication as to how you might find your role as a facilitator around this subject or theme.
Schedule breaks and time-out: As a facilitator of discussions you need to be able to maintain strong concentration levels in your sessions. This means you want to feel full of energy rather than tired. Thinking about how many programmes you lead in a day, having gaps between sessions will help you to have time recharge.
Get into a resourceful state: Likewise you want to go into each programme or tour in the right frame of mind or state. We’ve been studying this recently on my coaching course and I realised how important it is for educators, facilitators and guides too – you want to feel relaxed, focused and, well, good.
It’s hard to do your job when you’re feeling tense or stressed or anxious. You want to be able to get into a ‘resourceful state’ before you start a session. You can do this in a number of ways – everyone needs to find their own way to do this – perhaps it’s going for a walk before the session, or listening to music, or doing some mindfulness or breathing exercises – or even just thinking about changing your posture so that you feel more energised. It may mean avoiding social media or emails just before you start a programme too.
It’s important to note that you have control over your state no matter what is happening around you externally. You can help yourself to get into a better state so that you are able to lead programmes effectively.

CONCLUSION

So that’s some thoughts about facilitating discussions with artworks and objects around sensitive subjects in difficult times. We cover this in much greater detail in Modules 6 and 7 of my Visible Thinking in the Museum Online (VTMO) course but in the light of recent events, I thought it might be helpful to share some thoughts here too.
Don’t forget our new Facebook group The Slow Looking Club created especially for podcast listeners. It’s a place for conversation and discussion about engaging with art, objects and life slowly.

THE TM WEEKLY

Every Friday I send out a weekly newsletter full of inspiration and ideas. Each week I share one thing to watch, one to read and one to listen to every week and all my news too. It’s more than a newsletter – it’s a carefully-curated dose of inspiration for the curious. Sign up below!
Sign up for The TM WEEKLY newsletter