Facilitating Difficult Conversations

November 7th, 2016

Leading conversations about difficult topics such as race can be a little scary, but anyone who approaches this work with a loving heart and an open mind can facilitate a conversation. You don’t need to be an expert; you don’t even need to have facilitated this sort of conversation before. Holding Up Your Corner: Guided Conversations about Race is a resource to help pastors and other faith leaders address issues of race and inequity in their communities. It’s a six-hour group experience with a leader guide, participant book, and DVD including video content for each conversation segment. Together these resources present key content via brief video clips, activities and guided discussion in small groups around tables, and times for sharing with the whole group.

The tips below can help individuals at all knowledge levels facilitate the Holding Up Your Corner conversation or a similar conversation of your own design.

Getting Started

  • There may be someone in your church or group who is better suited to the task of leading this conversation than you are. If that’s the case, ask and empower that person to lead and assist in all the ways you’re able.
  • Other faith leaders in your community may have done this before. If you need support or help, ask someone with experience to come alongside you the first time you lead this conversation. Or ask them for advice and encouragement as you prepare.
  • BUT, do not spin your wheels in thinking, preparing, and discussing in advance. Know that you will probably make some mistakes or say something not quite the way you intended. That’s okay! Give yourself permission to do what you can, and know that God will use it. The main thing is simply to take the authority you have been given to act.


  • Get the dates on your calendar! For many of us, just deciding to do something and making the commitment is half the battle. Don’t wait until you’re “ready.” You will never feel ready, but if you believe this conversation is important, you will find that you have what you need.
  • Before facilitating this conversation, examine your own biases on the topic to ensure that you can remain neutral while leading discussion. Remind yourself to remain neutral throughout the experience. Model active listening.
  • Study the materials thoroughly before facilitating a dialogue. Pastors and other faith leaders should read Holding Up Your Corner: Talking About Race in Your Community by F. Willis Johnson and Fear of the Other: No Fear in Love by Will Willimon. These books will provide foundational understanding, empowering you to lead wisely.
  • Be ready for the event physically, spiritually, mentally, and emotionally so that you will have stamina and grace. Your preparation will set the tone.


  • Extend an open invitation to your congregation and the broader community. Include people from education, health care, city government, civic organizations, law enforcement, business, and so on. Make the invitation for all, not just hand-selected people in your community. Or, if that seems too much to take on, hold the first conversation (or two or three) just with leaders in your congregation, or perhaps with your leaders and those from another church in your area. Those leaders can then share about their experiences with others in the church and community, laying the groundwork for you to lead subsequent conversations with a broader group.
  • Offer some way for people to register so that you can prepare accordingly. You may choose to set up a Facebook event and ask people to join it.

Logistics and Hospitality

  • Host the conversation in a room that’s large enough to hold the number of people you expect to attend.
  • The room should have a sound system with a microphone for the facilitator, a way to play the video clips (DVD), and a way to display presentation slides if you’re using them (included in the Holding Up Your Corner resources).
  • Consider reserving a room at a local school, a hotel banquet room, or other venue, especially if your church facility won’t accommodate the event.
  • Participants should be seated at round tables for six or, at the most, eight people. You may also use long tables and have people sit across from each other in groups of four.
  • We do not encourage assigned or manipulated seating for the conversation. It’s best to allow people to self-seat. However, as people arrive for the event you might encourage them to sit with people they don’t know rather than their friends or the people they came with. Make the suggestion, but let people sit where they are comfortable, and don’t make it a big deal.
  • The event will last around six hours. It’s best to do this all in one day, but it can be done in two separate sessions over two days.
  • Be sure to start and end at the publicized times. But plan a forty-five-minute window before and after the event for refreshments and visiting.
  • The day before the event, set the tables with pens, colored markers, index cards or sticky notes, Holding Up Your Corner participant books (one at each seat), and brightly colored sheets of construction paper (one for each person). If budget allows, you might add bright tablecloths and potted plants, snacks, or other items.
  • Make the room as comfortable as you can. Adjust the temperature, lighting, and so on.
  • Think through the event and anticipate what your participants might need and what will make them feel at ease and well cared for.
  • If possible, have two extra microphones to pass around the room for group sharing times.
  • Enlist volunteers to serve as greeters, sign people in at a registration/welcome table, serve refreshments and lunch, run the audio and video systems, and clean up after the event. Also have two volunteers ready to pass the microphone around during group sharing.
  • The audio technician should play music softly during table discussion times, if possible.
  • If budget allows, serve coffee, breakfast snacks, fruit, or other refreshments beginning forty-five minutes before your start time, and have them available throughout the day. Serve lunch, and let participants eat at the tables.

Facilitating the Event

  • Before you begin, point out the nearest restrooms and any other helpful notes about the facility and the day’s schedule.
  • Let participants know that their conversations are not being recorded in any way. Ask them not to use any recording devices. Remind them to silence their cell phones.
  • Pause once during the morning session and once during the afternoon session for a brief stretch and bathroom break. Decide in advance where in the conversation you think this will work best, and include this in your leader guide notes.

Guiding the Conversation

  • Keep the conversation focused and on schedule. It’s important to address questions and allow participants ample time to process their thoughts; however, as facilitator, you must ensure that the conversation stays on topic and that the timeline of the event is adhered to. Think of yourself as the bumper guards in a children’s lane at a bowling alley. Give the conversation some leeway, but don’t let it get out of the lane.
  • Ensure all participants feel comfortable enough to contribute. Invite quiet participants to speak up and/or encourage participants who dominate the circle to listen to others.
  • Handle any issues, tensions, or conflicts that arise by moving the conversation. If something troubling is said, give other participants the chance to address it (example: Does anyone have a different opinion?). It may be helpful for you to rephrase comments to achieve clarity (example: I believe you are saying _______. Is that what you meant?).
  • Consider providing a Conversation Covenant to keep the conversation productive and grounded in your common faith. (A sample covenant is included in the Holding Up Your Corner: Guided Conversations leader guide.) Review the covenant at the beginning of each session and refer to it when necessary. For example: “Let’s look again at our covenant, which asks us to give everyone a chance to speak before sharing a second time.”
  • Ensure that the conversation is oriented around dialogue rather than debate. Debate focuses on winning while dialogue focuses on finding and exploring common ground and understanding. Encourage participants to keep an open mind, to listen to opinions that differ from their own, and to seek to understand rather than influence each other.

Continuing the Conversation

  • At the end of the session, ask participants to complete a brief evaluation form so that you can improve the conversation for next time. Also plan a time to debrief the session with a few colleagues or participants.
  • Facilitate a way for next steps and continued connection to happen. This should be contextual, ways that make sense and are comfortable for your community. You might agree together to set a date for a second conversation, including new people. You might set up smaller ongoing action groups, based on conclusions made by participants at the event. You may ask someone to set up a closed group on Facebook or another social media site where people can continue the conversation and begin to gather around particular actions.


  • Give yourself—and the participants—permission to do and say the “wrong” things. Be comfortable being uncomfortable, and share that expectation with participants. Be courageously vulnerable! Model it for your community, and invite them to lay down their own assumptions and defenses, too. Know that the conversation will be awkward, and be okay with that.

F. Willis Johnson is the senior minister at Wellspring Church in Ferguson, Missouri. His writing and lecturing credits range from TIME Magazine, National Public Radio, universities and seminaries, to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History Culture. This article is an excerpt from his book Holding Up Your Corner: Talking about Race in Your Community, coming in January 2017 from Abingdon Press.

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