Facilitation Considerations During Election Cycles

Developed by the Student Counseling Service and Wilks Institute for Leadership and Service | October 2020

The presidential election cycle brings a host of energy. There is excitement about the future of the country and passionate dialogue over positions and issues that students care about deeply. Opportunities for didactic instruction abound and in the midst of classroom instruction we know that some students will engage with enthusiasm whereas others will have emotional challenges. This guide was developed to support instructors and facilitators in navigating the social-emotional concerns of students as politically-themed instruction and discussions take place. If you want additional consultation on the mental health needs of students or want to make a referral for a student to counseling services, please reach out to the Student Counseling Service at 529-4634 or studentcounseling@MiamiOH.edu

Facilitation Skills 101

Facilitator Functions

  1. Opening Discussions: The facilitator should provide an opening comment that states the theme of the discussion and establishes a communication model. The facilitator may periodically contribute "topic raisers" or "prompts" that open further discussions within the framework of the forum’s general theme.
    • Sample statement: “Thank you for joining us for this listening session. Whether you are here for factual updates, to share your personal experience, or to connect with others during this unprecedented time; we hope that you leave confident that you can manage the uncertainty of the election in healthy, productive ways.”
  2. Setting the Norms: Suggesting rules of procedure for the discussion. Some norms are modeled by the form and style of the facilitator’s opening comments. Others are explicitly formulated in comments that set the stage for the discussion.
    • Sample statement: “Let’s start by establishing a set of guidelines that will help to create a space that is safe and productive for everyone to share ideas.”
  3. Setting the Agenda: Managing the dialogue session over time, selecting an order and flow of themes and topics of discussion. The facilitator generally shares part or all of the agenda with participants at the outset.
    • Sample statement: “Over the course of the next hour we would like to provide a brief update on the status of the election and then shift to allow the opportunity for participants to share comments and questions with one another.”
  4. Recognition: Referring explicitly to participants’ comments to assure them that their contribution is valued and welcome, or to correct misapprehensions about the context of the discussion.
    • Sample statement: “Jordan, thank you for sharing. I hear you saying that you feel your family may be directly impacted by the election and the ambiguity of the results is leading you to feel increasingly anxious. Did I understand that correctly?”
  5. Prompting: Requesting comments from individuals or the group. Prompting includes asking questions and may be formalized as "assignments" or tasks.
    • Sample statement: “Before we leave I would like for everyone to consider how they might engage in a civic activity that aligns with their values and benefits the community.”
  6. Meta-commenting: Remarks about the context, norms or agenda of the forum; or at solving problems such as lack of clarity, irrelevance, and information overload. Meta-comments play an important role in maintaining the conditions of successful communication.
    • Sample statement: “I notice that after two participants express agreement on a topic, we haven’t heard any additional comments or perspectives. I’m wondering if that is because we are all like minded or we are not all comfortable sharing differing opinions.”
  7. Weaving: Summarizing the state of the discussion and finding threads of unity in the comments of participants.
    • Sample statement: “It seems as if several individuals have expressed feeling increased stress due to thinking about the election and managing their academic and social responsibilities. I wonder who might have ideas about simple ways to be mindful of our emotions and engage in self-care.”

Ground Rules for Facilitated Sessions

Here are ground rules for leading a dialogue session addressing controversial issues.

For Group Members:

  • One person speaks at a time
    • Establish a system for requesting to speak in a virtual environment
  • All will share ideas in order
  • Questions may be asked to clarify ideas
  • No one may criticize another
  • Ideas may be reviewed to look for themes
  • Feelings may be expressed. They are not to be sloughed off or denied
  • Discussions are about positions, not personalities

For Facilitator:

  • Make sure participants are physically comfortable
  • Share meeting ground rules with participants
  • Communicate with everyone at their level
  • Act as the neutral person - refrain from giving a personal opinion
  • Maintain a positive group atmosphere
  • Allow thinking time
  • Ensure all participants have the chance to contribute

Active Listening Skills

The average college student spends about 14 hours per week in class listening to lectures. Here are some tips to help you communicate more effectively during presentations.

  1. Paraphrasing: State in your own words what you think someone just said
    • It keeps your concentration on understanding what the other person means
    • It will help you remember what was said
    • It stops miscommunication—false assumptions and errors of misinterpretation are corrected immediately
    • It stops escalating anger and cools down a crisis
  2. Clarifying: Asking questions until you get more information, background, or until you know all of the circumstances
    • Allows the audience to know you are interested
    • You hear the events in the context of what someone thought and felt, the relevant history
  3. Feedback: Talking about your reactions
    • This is done in a nonjudgmental way; you can share what you thought, felt, or sensed
    • Offers the person a fresh point of view
    • Helps the person understand the effect of his or her communication, and if necessary correct errors and misconceptions
    • Rules of giving feedback
      1. Immediate: as soon as you fully understand the communication
      2. Honest: your real reaction
      3. Supportive: Be gentle, saying what you need say without causing damage or defensiveness
  4. Listening with empathy 
    • Listening with empathy as if you, as a helper, “crawls” inside the other person’s skin and feels the things the she or he feels and sees the world through the other person’s eyes
    • You are able to capture the feeling and personal meaning that the person is expressing, and you communicate this back to the person.
  5. Verbal expressions of empathic understanding 
    • “Mm hm” 
      1. Serves as a reinforce for a person to continue talking
      2. Acknowledges a minimum level of understanding
    • Content Response
      1. Allows the person know you understand the content
      2. Helps the person focus on their most important concerns
    • Affective Response
      1. Allows the person know that you understand how they feel and responds to their feelings
      2. Helps the person clarify what they are feeling
      3. Be tentative in your response because you cannot be certain what the person is feeling 

Questions and Anxiety

One of the most frightening and challenging moments for facilitators is responding to audience questions and comments. Because we are not able to control what questions we will be asked, we often worry that we are going to get caught unprepared. Following are some ideas for responding to questions and comments that should go a long way toward reducing anxiety dealing with open comments and questions.

  1. Be brief. The longer you talk, the more chance there is to stumble. Being concise is also important because one person’s question may not interest the majority of others in the room. Get to the point and move on.
  2. Don’t rush your answers. Take your time to ponder the audience comment, gather your thoughts, and then speak. If it is clear that you are truly considering what the comment was, you will be both credible and more effective at maintaining audience engagement.
  3. If you don’t know, say so. Your ability to admit to the limits of your own knowledge not only makes you more human to the audience, but it also increases the credibility of the information you can provide. You may even want to offer to get the answer later and pass it on. However, do not make such a promise if you cannot keep it.
  4. Avoid arguing with an audience member. If you feel an argument developing, you may wish to suggest that you speak further after the dialogue/session. If the argument distracts you, you may lose focus on your overall message and alienate the audience.
  5. Ask audience members to clarify questions and comments when necessary. Not only does this demonstrate that you are taking what you said seriously, but it also buys time to think of how to respond.
  6. Redirect questions to the audience. Rather than directly answering a question, consider asking the audience what they think. This keeps them engaged in the process as well as allowing you to gauge their level of understanding of the material.
  7. Validate audience feedback. Telling someone that you appreciate their response or that you are glad they raised a particular issue can help an audience member feel heard even before you respond. Such validation can also make it safer for others to speak up honestly and openly.
  8. Focus on your overall message. Use the comment and question period as a time to reemphasize the main points of the dialogue/session. Often what you say during this segment will be what the audience takes with them. Make your words count!

A Facilitator's Checklist

Before the Session:

  1. Make a plan
    • Are there any specific agenda items which may need a special format for discussion or resolution?
    • Are their issues which will evoke strong feelings or emotions?
    • Plan some “what if” scenarios - What if we split on this issue what process will I use?
    • Be aware of:
      1. Size of audience
      2. Audience demographics
    • Prepare yourself for the conversation:
      1. Read up on the current election climate and varying levels of confidence in the electoral process
      2. Reflect on how different identities of students might impact their political positions and emotions
      3. Acknowledge your position and influence in regard to students
  2. Check the environment. [In-person experiences]
    • Enough chairs, is there food or snacks available, does the lighting set the right mood, is it stuffy, warm enough, is there space to do what I want to do?
  3. Check supplies. [In-person experiences]
    • Do you have everything you need? Paper, pens, etc.?
  4. Check yourself.
    • Are you feeling well and have the energy to facilitate today?
    • Do you have any hidden agendas you need to put in front of the group or realize within yourself?
    • Take time to silently prepare yourself

At the Beginning of the Session:

  1. As people first enter the room/space do a check of the body language of each person.
    • Is there tension in the room?
    • Does someone have an obvious vibe that you might need to address before the meeting starts?

As the Session Begins

  1. Share your goal(s) for the meeting with the group
    • Example: This is a non partisan space for dialogue, not debate
  2. Check in with the agenda
  3. Launch the meeting with a fun activity/ice breaker that energizes the group
    • Example: What brings you here? What are your intentions for this dialogue? Why is this important to you?
  4. Be positive—make sure to begin and end with a positive message
  5. Set ground rules for the discussion
  6. Establish a parking lot for ideas/questions that come up but cannot be addressed at the current time

As the Session Runs

  1. Respect silence—although it can be difficult to sit with silence when facilitating, the facilitator is not responsible for filling “empty/silent” space
  2. Watch for dominance of speaking time and ask those who are quiet for ideas and thoughts. Ask: "I’d like to ask those who have not yet spoken to contribute."
  3. Summarize points and clarify discussion
  4. Note digressions and remind members to stay on task
  5. Make sure you have eye contact with the people you speak to
  6. Listen for and watch body language to catch any unexpressed issues or feelings
  7. Watch for comments which create a negative environment and point it out to the group
  8. Validate audience feedback
  9. Watch for restlessness and take breaks when you sense the need for one

As the Session Ends

  1. Run through all task assignments so any misunderstandings can be cleared before people leave.
  2. Debrief the meeting with the group. What went well, what could be improved?
  3. Discuss how you will follow up on any unanswered questions, or where students can seek resources.

After the Presentation

  1. Debrief the meeting with yourself at least or with colleagues/peers. What went well, what could be improved?

Reactions after the 2016 Election

The 2016 election was a time of heightened stress for many people. Young adults in particular rated the election as significantly stressful, with one study finding 25% experienced clinically significant distress related to the election. Levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, were found to be in higher concentrations after the election. Higher levels of stress and cortisol can impact sleep, performance in class and on assignments, and mood.

Who is Affected During Election Cycles?

Though many people expressed difficulty and stress during the 2016 election, people who are most affected during elections tend to be people from marginalized backgrounds. In the 2016 election, female college students experienced more distress than males, and ethnic and racial minority students experienced more distress than their White peers. In particular, students who are undocumented experienced significant levels of fear, depression, and anxiety, and many turned to faculty, advisors, and administrators for support. Instructors can be supportive by listening to students' concerns, and monitoring language use (e.g., the use of "illegal" to describe someone who is undocumented).

How to Recognize a Student in Distress

  • Tearful
  • Changes in speech (very fast or very low energy)
  • Withdrawal from discussions
  • Low mood/sadness
  • Physical appearance/hygiene concerns
  • Self report of distress or crisis
  • Outbursts of anger
  • Disruptive or “strange” behavior
  • Marked intolerance for differences or prejudice
  • Lack of attendance
  • Expressed intent to harm self or others
  • Not turning in work or turning it in late

Tips for Coping

There are many different ways to cope during the election cycle. Instructors may consider sharing these resources with students, and to offer support if distress is expressed.

How to Mentally Prepare for Any Outcome of the 2020 Election

During the 24/7 political news cycle

  • Set boundaries: limit discussions with others if the discussions cause you distress
  • Practice “value-based” living: reflect on what is important to you. Is helping others important for you? In addition to focusing on political change, try small actions, like sending a letter to a neighbor or starting a "pay it forward" movement in the coffee line
  • Take a break from social media
  • Limit your news consumption: Have a set time, and amount of time, that you consume news each day. Stick to that limit!
  • When consuming news regarding the election ask yourself two questions:
    • Is this article helpful to me?
    • Does this article reflect my own truth?
  • Consider picking up a new hobby or viewing a fun movie
  • Understand what you can control, change what you can, and know the difference. Election results may not be what you would have chosen. Focus on ways you can make small changes: to your mood, your thoughts, someone else's mood for the day
  • Celebrate the good things in U.S. politics 

With Election-Related Distress

  • Limit media exposure, including social media
  • Don’t discuss politics with those who will escalate the conversation to higher levels of conflict
  • Channel election related stress into local community and civic activities and volunteerism
  • Remember that life goes on after the election process is finished. There will always be opportunities to make your voice heard
  • Be sure to vote. Exercise your sphere of influence by casting your vote

With Election Grief

  • Like any grief experience, you may be feeling a lot of different emotions:
    • Sadness over the loss
    • Fear about the future
    • Guilt about being able to do more
    • Jealousy for the “other side”
  • Recognize these feelings are legitimate. Let yourself feel them and express them
    • Art is a fantastic way to express your feelings and share them with others
  • Work on accepting that the consequences of the election are likely to continue. This grief may not heal overnight, or may continue as new events unfold
  • Anger is not inherently bad and can be channeled into prosocial behavior
    • Consider using it to aid in advocacy work, or to support others in your community who may be feeling similarly

Additional Resources 

Support for Faculty and Staff 

Support for Students 

  • The H.O.P.E. Line (855-249-5649) is available 24/7 for students to call for immediate support, crisis intervention, and stabilization from a licensed mental health counselor. 
  • Appointments at Student Counseling Service (513-529-4634) 
  • Campus Care is an option for students who want to consult with a trained mental health professional in a less formal and more convenient setting than a counseling appointment. Campus Care is a "drop-in" service. No appointment is necessary and there is no fee. 
  • SCS is excited to offer weekly Live Webinar Workshops! Each week there will be different topics presented by one of our staff 
  • Mental Health Topics
  • Mental Health Videos

References 

Andrade, L. M. (2019). "The war still continues": The importance of positive validation for
undocumented community college students after Trump's presidential victory.
Journal of Hispanic Higher Education, 18, 273-289. 

Hagan, M. J., Sladek, M. R., Luecken, L. J., & Doane, L. D. (2020). Event-related clinical distress in college students: Responses to the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Journal of American College Health, 68, 21-25. 

Hoyt, L. T., Zeiders, K. H., Chaku, N., Toomey, R. B., & Nair, R. L. (2018). Young adults' psychological and physiological reactions to the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 92, 162-169. 

Korn, M., & Belkin, B. (2016, November 9). Colleges try to comfort students upset by Trump victory. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from https://blogs.wsj.com

Mascarenhas, N. (2016, November 15). Here's how universities are offering support to 10 students after Trump's election. USA Today. Retrieved from https://www.usatoday.com

Pitcho-Prelorentzos, S., Kaniasty, K., Hamama-Raz, Y., Goodwin, R., Ring, L., Ben-Ezra, M., & Mahat-Shamir, M. (2018). Factors associated with post-election psychological distress: The case of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Psychiatry Research, 266, 1-4.