I. What is a Meaningful Discussion?

Meaningful discussions are designed to challenge participants to clarify their thoughts. The process of clarification often involves listening to different opinions, rethinking and reevaluating one’s own preconceptions, or formulating ideas for the first time. By the nature of the questions involved, meaningful discussions often have no right or wrong answers. It is not the answer that is the goal, but the thinking process that leads to that answer. A well-run discussion will leave its participants thinking about issues rather than walking out with conclusions.

II. Appointing a Discussion Leader 

Successful discussions should be led by one or more appointed leaders. The role of the discussion leader is to facilitate the discussion, and discussion leaders should refrain from sharing their own opinions when introducing the topic at hand, allowing more space for the participants to open up in the discussion.

Throughout the discussion, the leader plays a number of critical roles, especially those of instigator and gatekeeper. As instigator, the leader presents the problem, asks participants whether they agree/disagree, prods them to justify their positions, plays devil’s advocate or challenges participants to do the same, takes positions to their extremes to generate thoughtfulness, probes the implications of positions taken, adds new information or twists on the original question, etc. As a gatekeeper, the leader should be prepared not only with material to help move the discussion along but with ideas for managing the variety of situations and personalities that may be present in group or family dynamics.

III. Setting the Tone

A prerequisite for effective meaningful discussions is a proper environment, whether at home or in a group setting. First and foremost, participants must feel “safe”, that is, that they can express opinions freely without fear of being denigrated or ridiculed. Mutual respect is critical in meaningful discussions. Neither the participants nor the discussion leader should be allowed to make disparaging comments about another participant. This does not mean that all expressed opinions are considered equally correct, but that the participants should feel that they can express those opinions and that they will be considered seriously.

IV. Discussion Techniques

There are a number of techniques that can be helpful for discussions. The opening moments of the discussion are critical, for it is this time that must draw participants into the discussion.

  • In an online or in-person group setting, it is valuable to have a trigger to spark the discussion. That trigger can be a scenario that the leader presents, a short story, a newspaper article, a musical selection, a video clip, etc. which will present a dilemma, situation, opinion, etc. This needs to be followed by sharing the relevant question/s. At various points in the discussion, the leader can “take charge” by introducing new material, religious texts, Rabbinic rulings, sparking a new direction for the discussion.
  • In an in-person group or family setting, a speaker’s stick (only the person holding it can speak) or a speaker’s list (to keep the order of the speakers organized) are valuable tools. These are especially helpful if there are individuals who like to dominate discussions or give long preambles prior to expressing their opinions.
  • In an online setting, it can help to keep all participants on mute except for the one who is speaking. This prevents interruptions and ensures that every participant gets an equal opportunity to share their opinions.
  • In any setting, using a timer to ensure that each participant does not speak for longer than their allotted time can be valuable in ensuring that there is time for all participants to have their say.
  • Questioning is an essential component of discussions. It is important for the leader to encourage questions while, at the same time, not allowing the discussion to veer too far off-topic. Comments such as, “That’s a very good question, but let’s today try to focus on X” are important for keeping the discussion on topic.
  • One technique that can be employed is the use of “breakout groups” (either online or in-person) to create small discussion groups in which everyone can participate, or asking the group to divide themselves based on which positions they take and preparing for a debate. This can also be done in a smaller family setting, by having the parents debate the children, etc.

V. Closing the Discussion 

There are a number of elements that should be present in closing the discussion. The question/s should be restated briefly along with a summary of the different opinions expressed. Alongside those opinions should come the reasonings behind them, as well as the problems with each side. It can also be helpful to ask participants to summarize positions other than their own. The leader may now inject their own opinion, taking care to state that it is their opinion, or bring in information such as polls, court opinions, Rabbinic responsa, etc. The discussion can also close with a question to spark further thought on the topic.

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