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Activity 5.1 The Mosh Pit

By Matt Noyes. Adapted from La Pecera in Tecnicas Participativas Para La Educacion Popular, Tomo I, with the help of carpenter, educator, and rank-and-file journalist Mike Orrfelt.

Good democratic education inevitably leads to hotspots -- questions or problems about which people have strong differences that, left unresolved, may threaten the unity needed to keep the process going. This activity enables a group to have a collective discussion in which everyone is heard and listens, new points of view emerge, minority voices are heard, and the group can move towards synthesis or at least clearly identify differences. The format mixes un-facilitated, free-flowing discussion with tight time-limits that keep the discussion moving and encourage participation and debate. The physical setting creates a sense of intimacy and inclusion.

In this activity, participants sit in three concentric circles and hold a conversation in three stages.

Set up:
Chairs arranged in three concentric circles facing inward (need large enough room to do this). Chairs arranged to have a tight circle of five chairs at the center, facing inward, close enough so that people's knees will touch. Then set up a tight circle of eight to ten around them, and an outer circle of ten to twenty around them.

Number of people:
This is for larger groups. At least fifteen, if there are more than thirty people, add to the third circle, but not the others

Flip chart. Might be interesting to video.

At least an hour and a half for moshing, followed by note-taker's summary and whole group discussion.


  • Facilitators choose from among the participants five people to sit in the inner circle of chairs, then in the second and third circles. Facilitators need to explain to people why they are placing people in a particular circle (so that people do not read some other motive into it).
  • Someone with loud voice call people to order.
  • Facilitator explain and motivate the activity. Make the rules of procedure very clear and explain that they matter because they should enable the discussion to be more effective.
  • Rules: you have fifteen minutes (varies with number of people in circle) to discuss the question. There is no chairperson. People do not need to raise hands, but they should make sure that each person speaks and try not to speak over each other or interrupt. While the inner circle is speaking, no one in the other circles is allowed to speak. The facilitator will keep time, take notes, and enforce the rules.
  • Present the question(s) that are the subject for the Mosh Pit. These questions work best if they are specific and open to debate -- for example if they represent different tactics or strategies. They need to accurately reflect an issue of high importance to the group; you are looking for a question that i s open-ended and gets to the heart of the matter, something that will provoke thought and discussion.
  • The inner circle takes fifteen minutes to discuss the questions. All other participants listen carefully. (May be good to remind people of basics of active listening.)
  • When the inner circle's time is over, the second circle has fifteen to twenty minutes (depending on number of people) to discuss the same questions, under the same rules. They can respond to the inner circle's discussion and/or raise their own points or questions.
  • When circle two is done, the third circle has twenty to thirty minutes to speak. The same rules apply, but you can encourage the third circle to look for common points as well.
  • Throughout, the facilitator keeps time and takes notes with flip chart, standing outside of circle (others could do this, but the goal is for everyone to be able to speak). The purpose of the notetaking is to create an objective summary of the discussion -- points of agreement, differences, questions, etc. If the mosh pit leads to a synthesis, then this will be clear from the notes. If not, then the notes should reflect the differences.
  • At the end, the notetakers try to summarize what they have heard. Ask the participants to correct your notes, where they are mistaken. If one person disagrees with point A, do not change it without asking others what they think. Where there is controversy over your notes -- you can take a straw poll, or just note the difference of opinion.

Watch for:
Placement of participants is crucial and depends on several factors. Where there are sub-groupings with different positions on the issue to be discussed, each circle should include a mix of positions. You may want to form circles that mix age, gender, race, etc. or form circles by grouping. It all depends on what you are looking to accomplish. The inner circle can also include people who are less outspoken, to start the discussion in a new place.

It is important that participants in the mosh pit be treated equally. The idea is to get away from the traditional expert speakers/audience split. Everyone has the same role and responsibility here: to listen to everyone else, and to speak along with everyone else.

The mosh pit works best where there is a burning issue to be decided, or a controversy to explore. It is not a substitute for a formal debate and vote, but rather a way to hold a deeper discussion of an issue, which can be useful prior to coming to a formal decision.

The format is crucial: stick with the time limits, numbers of people in each circle, closeness of chairs, and the ban on people speaking when their circle does not have the floor. In this activity, the structure plays the key role in enabling a focused. productive, and free discussion.

The activity, once started, is really self-facilitating. Be sure to step back and let it unfold, only intervening to remind people of the rules or call time.

Notes -- when sharing notes with the group, ask people to check your work. Is it accurate? Did you miss something, or mischaracterize it?

The mosh pit can be followed by additional whole group discussion -- note that you will be switching format, maybe to a raising hands format with the facilitator calling on speakers. It can also be followed by a more formal meeting, if the group is a decision-making body like an executive board or a caucus. The mosh pit is intense and requires a lot of concentration by the participants -- so it may not be feasible to hold more discussion without a break.

Hotspots -- you may want to identify "hotspots" specific points of disagreement. The mosh pit is a useful technique for discussing hotspots.

Repetition -- You can, if you have time, do a second mosh pit to discuss outstanding issues. As participants become experienced in using the mosh pit technique, they can use it on their own, designating a timekeeper and note-takers.

I used this first at a retreat for the Coalition of University Employees in California. This young, independent union had held its first election. The election was hotly contested and resulted in controversy among the candidates, including accusations of impropriety and complaints about the voting procedures and their implementation. The union's executive board sought conflict resolution with a professional mediator, and asked AUD to conduct a retreat on election procedures for the CUE executive board -- open to all CUE members.

AUD had been contacted by people on both sides of the controversy and was regarded as trustworthy and non-partisan. However, the CUE members went into the retreat with mixed emotions -- there was still much distrust and anger.

Mike Orrfelt and I ran the mosh pit the second day of the retreat, at a point when the conflicts had flared to such a point that some participants were yelling at their enemies and threatening to walk out. They called the mediator, who lived 30 minutes away. While we were waiting for him to come, Mike and I suggested trying the mosh pit to discuss the hotspots (not the personal accusations, but the controversial issues). The mosh pit was a success, mediation was not needed and the participants decided to move from the activity into an official executive board meeting where they debated and voted on proposals coming out of the retreat. (See the union's revised elections code.)

The mosh pit format helped people with intense differences and a history of conflict hold a common substantive discussion, enabling them to get out of a cycle of personal accusations and back into the kind of functioning that a union body needs. Interestingly, CUE used mediation and education to deal with problems that would, in most union, be addressed through union charges, complaints, and potentially lawsuits. The combination of mediation, education, and good old internal union politics that CUE members used is a model that others should consider.

We also used the mosh pit at the AUD National Conference on Union Democracy in The Building Trades, in November, 2002. In that case, sixty participants -- construction workers from various trades and unions -- had completed a two day conference and we (AUD) wanted to provide space for a discussion about common issues and next steps. We used a Draft Bill of Rights we had circulated before the conference as the basis for discussion, asking people to address three questions:

  • Are these the right principles to fight for?
  • How do we implement them? Next steps?
  • What are you personally going to do next? (this was a real question, we were not fishing for some "right answer")

The discussion evolved, and became more complex as each circle's turn came and participants added to or challenged each other's ideas. Some serious differences emerged, for example on the role of travelers in the IBEW.

It was AUD founder Herman Benson's first mosh pit, "I thought it would be a big bust" he said. "But it was amazing... everyone spoke and they were articulate and thoughtful." The format also works well to overcome people's fear of speaking in public. And it provides everyone an opportunity to see what people are taking with them from the event.

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