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Practicing Facilitation: Lessons from the Tenement Museum

by Miriam Bader, Education Director, Lower East Side Tenement Museum on

Visitors on the Hard Times tour. Collection of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.

This post was originally published on the author’s MediumIt has been shared here with the author’s permission.

How we talk about things matters. We are living in a time of deep divisions, where silos and binaries seem to choke the nuance from our views and social media feeds. In the wake of this political climate, educators are facing new challenges. At museums — places where we seek to create open spaces for the exchange of ideas and conversation — the limits of civil discourse are being grappled with. Can we respectfully listen to people who hold differing opinions and thoughtfully share views with those who disagree?

At the Tenement Museum, we have been facilitating hard conversations since our founding in 1988. We are a storytelling museum and the only way to visit our 150-year-old tenement is to take a guided tour with an educator. This ensures that human stories are shared daily within the museum’s walls and that visitors regularly grapple with the nuances surrounding issues of immigration, discrimination, human rights, and what it means to be American. These stories are complex and have multiple perspectives

Our building bore witness to childbirth and wakes, economic depressions, epidemics, the celebration of diverse holiday traditions, along with countless ordinary acts of living. Our stories reflect these layers of human experience. Like that of Adolpho Baldizzi, who came in 1923 from Sicily seeking economic opportunities, only to struggle to bring his new wife Rosaria to join him a year later due to changing immigration legislation. They would go on to become citizens and to raise two American born children, whose own children would serve in New York’s police force and fire departments. Their story is just one of the many stories that get facilitated within our walls and expanded upon by visitors who contribute their personal experience and insight.

In many ways, bringing strangers together for a conversation is radical within this day and age, and over the years we have experimented with a variety of facilitation techniques to support this work. While the museum’s setting and educational approach of site-specific family-centric storytelling is unique, many of the practices our educators employ will enrich conversations both inside and outside of a museum. We have found that when we get personal with our stories, we can go beyond the rhetoric and consider not just how we differ, but what we have in common.

Within this climate, society needs more facilitators, and both colleagues and friends have been asking for best practices and tips to employ. These five techniques don’t require a museum exhibit to generate a rich conversation. While they may seem deceptively simple, each presents its own challenges and requires practice, patience, and fortitude.

1. Set Expectations: Set realistic expectations for yourself as the facilitator and for the group. Relieve yourself of the impossible pressure of having the golden conversation or changing anybody’s mind. No one is required to agree with you, nor is it your job as the facilitator to make them. Challenge yourself to enter the conversation knowing you have something to learn and the participants have something interesting to say. Owning this lets you set the expectation for everyone to participate and share the mike with each other. And remember, there are multiple successful outcomes for a conversation and that this discussion will be part of a larger conversation, which will be generated once it ends.

2. Listen Generously: Listen to understand, and not to respond. Try not to judge, make assumptions, and bring your preconceptions to the conversation. Don’t anticipate responses, but rather challenge yourself to stay curious and open to be surprised. And, remember, our body language, especially our facial expressions and stance communicates receptivity or a lack thereof. Listening generously does not mean condoning inappropriate comments. Instead, it challenges you to understand before rushing to judgment. As the facilitator, this can also mean embracing awkward moments of silence and creating spaces for participants to process what they are hearing.

3. Validate Contributions: Welcome and respectfully acknowledge participant’s presence and contributions. Don’t make people uncomfortable for what they think or believe (even though the topic is likely uncomfortable). This should not be confused with placating or agreeing with all comments, but rather seeking to understand them. Some helpful phrases for validating without agreeing include: “I’ve never thought of it that way,” “What a powerful statement” or “That is an interesting point.”

4. Follow-Up: Don’t attack people for sharing. As a facilitator, you can acknowledge why a comment stings or hurts without attacking the individual who made the comment. Respond with openness and curiosity and ask follow-up questions to clarify, such as “Why do you say that?” and “Let me make sure I heard you correctly.” or “Tell me more.”

5. Encourage Multiple Perspectives: Use your own knowledge and experience, as well as the groups to encourage multiple perspectives on the issue being discussed. Genuinely valuing the personal experiences of the participants and their perspectives will enrich the conversation. Remind the group to use “I” statements in order to mitigate conversations becoming “us” versus “them.” Some prompts for introducing other perspectives include, “In my community, I see this…” or “Does anyone have stories that are similar or different?” While you want to ensure that multiple perspectives are heard on the issue, remember that it is ok for everyone to agree or even to agree to disagree.

Facilitation is hard, but it can be learned, practiced, and honed. When we are able to listen generously and truly value the perspectives of others, we gain tools necessary to break down the silos and binaries that threaten our civil discourse.

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