A study circle leader does not need to be an expert (or even the most
knowledgeable person in the group) on the topic being discussed, but should
be the best prepared for the discussion. This means understanding the goals
of the study circle, being familiar with the subject, thinking ahead of time
about the directions in which the discussion might go, and preparing the
discussion questions to aid the group in considering the subject.
This guide offers several approaches to the key questions. There are too
many to cover in two-hour sessions. Choose the ones that you believe will be
most interesting and relevant to your group. You may want to consider
holding extra meetings, especially for Sessions 3 and 4. Whatever you
decide, solid preparation will enable you to give your full attention to
group dynamics and to what individuals in the group are saying.
At the beginning of the study circle, remind everyone that the purpose of
the study circle is to deliberate on the issue at hand in a democratic and
collaborative way. Also remind them that your role as leader is to remain
neutral, to keep the discussion focused, and to guide the conversation
according to the ground rules.
Suggest a few basic ground rules, and ask participants to add their own
ideas. Some basic ground rules include:
All group members are encouraged to express and reflect on their honest
opinions; all views should be respected.
Though disagreement and conflict about ideas can be useful, disagreements
should not be personalized. Put-downs, name-calling, labeling, or personal
attacks will not be tolerated.
If someone says something that offends another member of the group (even
if inadvertently), people should feel free to explain how the comment
It is important to hear from everyone. People who tend to speak a lot in
groups should make special efforts to allow others the opportunity to speak.
Always use your "third eye": you are not only helping to keep the group
focused on the content of the discussion, but you will be monitoring how
well the participants are communicating with each other -- who has spoken,
who hasn't spoken, and whose points haven't yet received a fair hearing.
Consider splitting up into smaller groups to examine a variety of
viewpoints or to give people a chance to talk more easily about their
personal connection to the issue.
When wrestling with when to intervene, err on the side of
non-intervention. Don't allow the group to make you the "answer person."
Don't talk after each comment or answer every question; allow participants
to respond directly to each other. The most effective leaders often say
little, but are constantly thinking about how to move the group toward its
Occasionally give participants a chance to sum up the most important
points that have come out in the discussion.
Don't be afraid of silence. It will sometimes take a while for someone to
offer an answer to a question you pose.
Don't let anyone dominate; try to involve everyone.
Remember: a study circle is not a debate but a group dialogue. If
participants forget this, don't hesitate to ask the group to help
re-establish the ground rules.
The best way to help people grapple with a range of views is to keep your
own view out of the fray. Your role as facilitator requires that
participants see you as neutral and fair, not favoring any one point of view.
Make sure the group considers a wide range of views. Ask the group to
think about the advantages and disadvantages of different ways of looking at
an issue or solving a problem. In this way, the tradeoffs involved in
making tough choices become apparent.
Ask participants to think about the concerns and values that underlie
Don't allow the group to focus on or be overly influenced by one
particular personal experience or anecdote.
Either summarize the discussion occasionally or encourage group members to
Remain neutral about content and be cautious about expressing your own values.
Help participants to identify "common ground," but don't try to force
Give participants a chance to talk about the most important thing they
gained from the discussion. Or, you may wish to ask participants to share
any new ideas or thoughts they've had as a result of the discussion.
If you will be meeting again, remind the group of the readings and subject
for the next session.
Thank everyone for their contributions.
Provide some time for the group to evaluate the group process, either
through sharing aloud or through a brief written evaluation.
Awareness of cross-cultural dynamics is always useful in a study circle
setting, but this is especially true when diversity issues themselves are
the subject of conversation.
Sensitivity, empathy, and familiarity with people of different backgrounds
are essential qualities for the leader. If you have not had the opportunity
to spend time in a broadly diverse setting, get involved in a community
program that gives you that opportunity and helps you understand
Even though some of the conversation inevitably revolves around
differences, set a tone of unity in the group. After all, we have more
similarities as human beings than differences as members of particular
groups. Having co-moderators from different demographic groups can help
establish unity. For example, the co-leaders could be a man and a woman, a
white person and a person of color, an adult and a young person.
Help people to appreciate and respect their own and others' communication
styles. People's cultural backgrounds affect the ways in which they
communicate. For example, some cultures tend to be more outspoken and
directive, while others are more reserved. Some cultures values listening
more than speaking. In other cultures, taking a stand is of utmost
importance. Help group members to realize there is no "right" way to
communicate, and that understanding one another takes practice! Your
leadership should demonstrate that each person has an important and unique
contribution to make to the group.
Don't let participants' awareness of cultural norms lead to stereotyping.
Generalizations are just that: they don't necessarily apply to individuals
within a culture.
Remind the group, if necessary, that no one can represent his or her
entire culture. Each person's experiences, as a unique individual and as a
member of a group, are unique and valid. As one African-American woman said
of black-white communication, "When you have some African-Americans in your
group, the whites shouldn't think they are getting 'the black perspective';
but without African-Americans in the group, whites won't hear any black
Encourage group members to use their own experiences as they attempt to
empathize with those who have been victims of discrimination. Many people
who have been in a minority group have experiences that make this discussion
a very personal issue. Others, particularly those who are usually in the
majority, may not have thought as extensively about their own culture and
its effects on their lives. To aid this, you may want to encourage people to
think about times in their own lives when they have been treated unfairly,
or to think about times when their own cultural group was oppressed. For
those study circle participants who are currently at the receiving end of
mistreatment, this could seem invalidating unless you explain that you are
trying o build empathy and understanding among all members. Remind people
that no one can know exactly what it feels like to be in anyone else's shoes.
Encourage group members to talk about their own cultures, rather than
other people's cultures. In this way, they will be less likely to make
inaccurate generalizations about other cultures. Also, listening to others
recount their own experiences breaks down stereotypes and broadens