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Tips from a national movement on facilitating discussions with unflinching honesty

By Audrey Matusz

In 2006, U.S. Congress recognized teen dating violence as a public health concern and elected the first week in February as National Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Week. In 2010, the week-long observance was extended to a full month. In the 10th year of observing Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month (TDVAM) governmental agencies like the CDC and smaller organizations are working together to encourage youth to start talking about the issues that effect them day to day. 

Real Talk Day, Feb. 7, is a social engagement exercise spurred by the national youth advocacy project, Break the Cycle. In its efforts to shift the narrative on ending relationship violence, Break the Cycle partnered with Let’s Be Real — a youth-led faction of its larger movement — to design a module for insightful discussions to share across the country. Unfortunately, the  handbook recommends 3-6 months to plan a Real Talk session. However, setting the tone for a deep conversation can be as simple as just asking the right questions.

What is a Real Talk?

Break the Cycle formed in 1996, out of a need for harm reduction services tailored to young people (ages 12 to 24) living in the Los Angeles area. Since the beginning, the organization encourages honest, youth-driven dialogues about dating violence to take place online, in school and in peer circles. In 2016, Break the Cycle configured a group of 22 youth to come up with a name and brand to form their own organization responsible for engaging youth around the U.S. to start talking about dating — and Let’s Be Real was born. 

According to a 2017 survey conducted by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, about one in nine female and one in 36 male high school students reported experiencing sexual dating violence in high school. In 2018, the Center for American Progress concluded that only 11 states and the District of Columbia mention the terms “healthy relationships,” “sexual assault” or “consent” in their sex education programs. In the Real Talk handbook, Let’s Be Real emphasizes that everyone has the “right to a safe and healthy relationship, regardless of gender, ethnicity or sexual identity.” 

Break the Cycle serves as the parent organization to Let’s Be Real, which confronts Western youth culture and the interconnected roles of sex, drugs, depression and abuse. The discussion-based event is defined as “casual, fun sessions” hosted in communities nation-wide. As stated in the handbook, the discussions are designed to hold “space for young people to come together and discuss a variety of topics with unflinching honesty.”

In the handbook, the goals of a Real Talk are achieved through “teaching healthy relationship skills specifically based on what is shared during a Real Talk, facilitators can remain youth-centered and keep the information shared relevant to their group.” The idea of crafting a discussion based on the lived experiences of group members is revolutionary in a country where only nine states have laws requiring the inclusion of LGBTQ+ identities in their mandated sex education.

So why host a Real Talk? If anything, it’s an opportunity to establish community goals that lead to healthier relationships and building a deeper level of trust. 

Making a plan 

Since planning a campus-wide Real Talk by Feb. 7 is out of the question, start small. Let’s Be Real suggests capping your event at 30 people, as too many voices can be difficult to capture in one space. Pick a date and location that works for your peer group to meet. Make sure your location is accessible, including physical location, ramps and rooms with clear pathways. 

 This session should be fun, so consider incorporating a potluck or game night into this gathering.

Regardless if your Real Talk is scheduled at the top or the end of the day, it helps to be mindful that everyone is coming in with burdens from work and their personal life. Kicking off the discussion with a shared meal, a silly game or mindfulness exercise is a great way to enter the space and shed off old ways of thinking.

If you are interested in setting up a Real Talk with an organization you are a part of, explain how a discussion about re-establishing relationship norms could assist creating a healthier work culture. 

Setting goals 

To have a successful, goal-oriented discussion some thought should go into formulating questions. As a facilitator Let’s Be Real recommends self reflection before the conversation, starting with the following questions:

  • As the organizer, I will…
  • The young people attending will…
  • I will use the knowledge I received from the Real Talk to…

Although Real Talk Day is part of Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month, Let’s Be Real suggests picking a more narrow topic. As the facilitator, think about what kind of conversations would make youth the most comfortable and willing to talk (i.e. a catchy slogan inspired by a relevant meme or social trend). It’s also important to make it clear to participants why they should attend a Real Talk session. Having a topic that is relevant and ensuring guest will be comfortable in the space are key items to address before you begin promoting. 

At the core, the goal of hosting a Real Talk is to provide a space for youth-driven discourse about the “good, the bad and normal in dating and relationships today,” as stated in the handbook. Other goals include “generating holistic conversations between young people in a space that is created for them, and lead by them” and “to build on lived realities of all young people across the country, to determine best practices and engagement strategies…” 

Let’s Be Real puts a great emphasis on having individuals define what a “normal” relationship looks like based on their lived experiences and what attributes describe their ideal partner. 

The following are questions used in previous Real Talks:

  • What are qualities that you don’t like in a dating partner? 
  • How do you define dating abuse?
  • Is it okay to be jealous?
  • What are some of your boundaries? 
  • What’s the best way to set boundaries with someone?

A facilitator should expect to go through at least five questions during this discussion. The questions should be written down, in a fishbowl or available on a screen for your group to read. The handbook recommends keeping 

While the ideal scenario is to have everyone participate in the discussion, as a facilitator, remember that some questions or topics will be too heavy for participants to address in a group setting. The facilitator’s role is to not make participants feel less significant to the discussion because of their participation. As hopefully stated in your goals, this initial discussion is simply the beginning of an ongoing culture shift. 

Establishing group norms

Before you dive into the conversation, think about establishing group norms. This could look like the group writing down shared values that ensure everyone has a chance to make their voice heard. As the handbook suggests, “set the tone for a conversation that is not invasive, but informative.” One tool you can use to brainstorm group norms are borrowing the social media cards provided in the Real Talk handbook. Print off the page with the social media cards and have participants finish the the following sentences:

  • Let’s be…
  • Real is…
  • Love is…

Posts made from past Real Talk sessions.

How to end a powerful discussion on a positive note

It is inevitable that the conversation may get heavy and the group may bring up potentially divisive topics (abortion rights, police involvement, gender politics, etc.). To end the conversation on a positive note, leave on a light question such as “What is your idea of a perfect relationship?”. The facilitator may also decide to refer back to the “Let’s Be/Real Is…” social media cards as an ending activity, or to see how their answers have changed since the beginning of the discussion.  

Let’s Be Real encourages facilitators to designate someone to record the group’s goals, take notes during the discussion and pull quotes or comments to share on social media. The handbook recommends taking pictures during and after the discussion as other forms of documentation as well. 

Using the evaluation sheets provided in the Resource Appendix of the handbook, the facilitator or other coordinators can measure the response from the people who attended. Every host should capture the following items to share with Break the Cycle:

  • Date of your event
  • Location of your event
  • How many people attended (include age range and gender if possible)
  • Topics covered
  • Organizations in attendance (if applicable)

Once you’ve collected feedback from participants, send these details to letsbereal@breakthecycle.org within two weeks of your event. If you host a Real Talk on campus, post your photos on Twitter or Facebook and mention @RCGVmsu.



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