Topic Groups


Topic Groups: Getting Every Climate Activists’ Ideas


One of the key problems facing any group interested in changing the world is how to gather and share information.


In all too many cases, this is done by a few high level leaders, often paid staff,  in Washington, DC or some other center of “power.” The word “power” is in quotation marks because all too often what ever power in these centers is “pseudo-power.” For example, the practical limit on almost all conversations in Washington, DC, is set by what position can garner 216 votes in the House and 51 in the Senate, often 60 given the threat of filibuster (and the unwillingness of either party to challenge this self-imposed limitation. This is one of the reasons former American Political Science Association President and Harvard professor Theda Schotchpol gives for the failure of significant social change in the United States in the last fifty years.


More fundamentally, certain individuals in any group will tend to dominate the conversation by talking most of the time or by asking leading questions. How often have you been in a “group” discussion where almost all of the conversation was a back and forth between two people. Most of the time the people who dominate conversations are those from the dominant groups in the society: college-educated (middle or upper class), middle-aged (not the very young or the very old), white, heterosexual, able-bodied men.


The alaternative is a broad social movement with strong grassroots groups all across the country led by volunteer leaders with no vested interest in the outcomes of the movement or in keeping their job. Groups which are not dominated by two or three people. To build these strong local volunteer groups requires respect for the opinion and information possessed by each participant.. To accomplish this end, a number of peer support communities have developed a process called “Topic Group Discussions.”


At every NIPS Peer Support workshop, time is set aside for this purpose. These Discussions can also be held as a separate meeting or combined with Action Groups in a separate meeting, apart from a workshop


The purpose of a Topic Group Discussion Session is to systematically identify the issues facing a group and give them the chance again systematically to share the information and experience which is held by the group.


The Topic Group Discussion process consists of four steps:


1. Nomination and Selection of Topics To Be Discussed in groups;

2. Self-assignment to group;

3 Discussion; and

4. Reports back.


First, the Workshop or group leader describes the process and its purpose of sharing the information in the group as effectively and efficiently as possible—on the subjects that concern them. Then the leader asks the members of the workshop or group to nominate topics that they would like to talk about with this group. Suggestions are listed on a pad by a volunteer scribe. Time is taken to give anyone a chance to nominate a topic. Then the list is read and the group is asked if everyone can see a topic they would be interested in. If not, then additional suggestions are taken. It should be noted that this process works best if the topics are listed as they are presented. People will try to combine two or more topics—which usually means they see a similarity that everyone may not agree on. This is best sorted out in the next step by letting people choose their own topic. Use the topics as nominated from the group.


Next, the group assigns itself to topics. There are many ways to do this—giving everyone three votes, one vote, etc. At NIPS Workshops, we give each person one active vote. As the list is read, each person raises a hand for the group they want to join. If their group has only one member, the group does not meet. We spend too much of our time talking to ourselves as it is. Groups of two are okay if the two people agree to meet.


For the discussion step, a leader is assigned to each group, usually the person who suggested the topic and a meeting place—often just a corner of the big meeting room– and a time limit based on the amount of time available. The leader is asked to appoint a note taker and a reporter. We post the results of these discussions on our website so that the information can be shared with all the vets in our worldwide community. A set of simple group rule is presented for the leader to encourage in order to facilitate the participation of each member.


1. Everybody speaks once before anyone speaks twice.


2. Nobody speaks four times until everyone has spoken twice.


After the discussions, the whole group is reconvened and the reporters from each group summarize the discussions. Members of each group are asked to add anything which was left out of the reports. The written notes are given to the workshop leader or sent to the national office for posting on the website.


Here is a sample Script for a Topic Group Discussion:


Script for a Climate Action Topic Group Discussion Session (usually Saturday night at our workshops)


Tonight, we are going to get down to sharing practical advice among us—and identify problems that need solving. Traditionally this is the second function of peer support.


First, we break into small groups to discuss the kinds of issues we might address. After we get the results of those discussions then the results will be reported back to the whole group,


The basic principle of NIPS is equality. Therefore, we set up all our meetings so that everyone has a chance to speak without interruption and we encourage the expression of feelings as well as ideas. We try and take those practices from our support groups into all our activities.

For tonight, we want to get an idea of the problems that this group of Climate Activists thinks is important and share information and experience which we have among us and our guests on how to deal with those problems. Pick someone and take three minutes each (or whatever makes sense given the time available for a particular meeting) to think about what issues or problem areas in the community you might want to get involved in. We should at least consider the issues that affect Climate Activists. We need someone to let us know when the time is up.  If there is an odd number of people, we need to have three people get together and talk for two (or other number which totals the same as the pairs) minutes each.


We e are now dealing with areas where people will have different values and beliefs. The purpose of a Topic Group Discussion is not to change each other’s minds, but to identify problems we see in common and meet with other people who share our values and perspective and share information. We want to remain continually supportive and respectful of each other, even if our opinions differ.

(When time is up for the three minute listening turns) Now we need to get a list of the problems you identified and decide which ones we want to discuss further. What issues did you talk about? We need someone as a scribe to write these ideas where we can see them (on a flip chart or blackboard).




(When time is up for the three minute listening turns) Now we need to get a list of the problems you identified and decide which ones we want to discuss further. What issues did you talk about? We need someone as a scribe to write these ideas where we can see them (on a flip chart or blackboard).

(After everyone has had a chance to suggest topics) Now we have to decide which topics would you be interested in discussing further? The Scribe should read the list of topics. Then the Leader should ask if everyone sees a topic he or she would like to discuss. 

Would each of you please raise your hand for the group you want to join when scribe reads the topic? Anything with three people should meet; if there are only two people, they may meet if they wish. 

You only get one “active” vote. If you vote for a topic and you are the only one voting for it, then the Scribe will cross it out and you can still vote for another topic. (The scribe should record how many people want to discuss each topic.)

Now we will take some time to discuss these topics in our small groups. You should pick someone to lead the group (usually the person who first suggested the topic) and someone else to take notes and make a brief report when we get back together. 

The ground rules for  Topic Group Discussions are that each person in the group gets a chance to speak; no one should speak twice before everyone spoke once and no one would speak four times until everyone had spoken twice. If you need to express your feelings for a couple of minutes rather than talking about the subject, then just make that request. The leader can time your turn or decide to have everyone break into pairs or threes and do the same.

Now let’s break up into separate areas and have our discussions. We will get back together in few minutes (pick a number of minutes with gives the group time for discussion, but leaves enough time for the rest of the meeting.)
(When it is time): Now let’s have the reporters from each group tell us briefly what you discussed.

(After the reports are finished): Thank you for sharing this information. These discussions usually continue long into the night after our formal session has ended. We will post the written reports of these discussions on our website. Please give me your written notes.
(If there is time). 


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