How We Run Discussions at Stanford EA

by MichaelDickens 14th Apr 20153 comments


Stanford EA holds weekly discussion-focused meetings, with an average turnout of around 15 people. These are based around sheets with a list of questions and relevant background; you can see examples of previous ones here. (Thanks to Kelsey Piper for writing these!) At one point we planned to consistently provide a page of background on the other side of the sheet; we've partially stopped doing so, as the background didn't seem to really guide the conversation.

First we have a few minutes to write down our answers to the questions on the sheet. We then go around the circle doing introductions, as specified at the top of the sheet. Then, for each question, we go around the circle and give our response to it.

Most of the interesting discussion happens as prompted by things people say when providing their answers. It’s pretty loose: people ask you about your answer, and you respond to them, and the discussion kind of goes where it will. When it’s gone on a long enough tangent, Kelsey moves the conversation along by asking the next person to give their answer to the question. This is a great way of ensuring that the conversation can stay roughly on track and everyone gets a chance to speak. Often meetups have a problem where new people don’t know what to say; this goes some of the way to solving that.

These questionnaires also make the discussion more accessible to people who know less about effective altruism, because often it’s easy to grasp the complex natures of questions like “how much do you value IQ increases vs saving more lives”. The Stanford EA meetup, like all meetups, occasionally veers pretty hard into jargon and confusing advanced territory, but Kelsey is able to somewhat restrain that by moving the conversation to the next person or next question. The background info on the sheets, when present, also helps.

It’s rare that we actually make it all the way through the questions. Usually we discuss some aspects of a later question when talking about an earlier one, or we do a quick straw poll about a later one and don’t discuss it further. Generally, the topics which lead to the most digressions are the more abstract or philosophical ones; when we talked about population ethics, we spent an hour and a half discussing the first question.

The meetup lasts for an hour and a half, after which most of us get dinner together. Dinner discussions tend to still be about EA topics, but instead about anything people who want to talk about. They also tend to be where we discuss/plan ideas for non-discussion meetings; the larger number of people allows the leaders to get better feedback on which future events should be run.

(Thanks to Buck Shlegeris for writing the first draft of this post; thanks to Kelsey for running the meetups and writing the discussion sheets; thanks to Alex Richard for revisions.)