★ Tips for welcoming & inclusive book conversations – or – How to not be a giraffe

BOOK CITY ★ Roanoke is an ongoing exploration of equity and engagement at the intersection of books and place, with a central organizing question:

How can our love of literature, our commitment to literacy, and a focus on the written word foster greater equity and a more engaged community?*

Book conversations are an important part of our exploration. While book clubs can range from formally structured to very casual, and from occasional conversations to ongoing groups that continue year after year, all of them can benefit from shared best practices across the members. How we have the conversation is as important as what the conversation is about.

The Giraffe

Earlier this year, some members of the New Connections Book Club were considering tips for productive conversations. Everyone offered suggestions. “Don’t dominate. Share the space. Be respectful of others. Invite others into the conversation.” These were some of what the group identified. Still, the group knew that it’s easy to get carried away in a discussion. It’s easy for our desire to be heard to override our ability to listen.

“Maybe,” said one member, “we need a safe word.” The group laughed. Then someone said, “Okay what’s the safe word?” Immediately another member shouted out, “Giraffe!” More laughter.

So we thought about it. A giraffe out of context is funny. Maybe the word itself is funny. We think of giraffes as pretty cute and non-threatening. They have extended necks that allow them to chew leaves from trees.

giraffe.pngOf course, we all want to chew some leaves from those trees, but we might not have that handy neck. A group might discuss a topic on which one member has great expertise or strong opinions. He’s grown a long neck and is able to quickly steer, control, or shape the conversation. Sometimes he steers the discussion to what he knows best, even if it’s off topic or just to reinforce a strong political belief. Often a couple of giraffes keep eating together this way, oblivious of the other around them.

Meanwhile other critters want to chew on a topic. The llamas may not be as comfortable sharing their thoughts. The flamingo might be intimidated by the force of the giraffe’s chewing. Animals start scrambling to get up the tree to the leaves. We feel the group energy shifting, but the giraffe just keeps chomping on those leaves as fast as he can before others can get there.

Each of us can occasionally be a giraffe.  It might be helpful for a neighbor in a book group to say, “Hey, can I chew on that leaf for a bit?” Or “Yo, giraffe. You gotta let somebody else at those leaves. We’ve got teeth too.”

Maybe the giraffe will smile. He recognizes his own enthusiasm. Slowly his head lolls to the side. Then he pulls down a branch for others to reach.


Each book group is different. You will engage like no other group. But you might try one or two of these tips for your next book conversation.

  • Don’t dominate the conversation. Specific guidelines:
    • Don’t speak three times unless everyone has spoken at least once.
    • Let three people speak before you speak again
  • Stay on topic, and the topic is what is contained in the book.
  • Be respectful of other opinions. Work to better understand those you don’t agree with.
  • Listen to others.
  • Engage others in the conversation with a question for deeper understanding, but be careful not to put them on the spot. No one represents a group of people or ideology. They are people. Be careful of turning too much attention to one person’s opinion and thus limiting participation by others.
  • Be ready to table some side conversations for later. There might be a topic you sense the group is interested in exploring, but which is not directly related to the book at hand.
  • Have a book selection process that engages and encourages participation from all members.
  • Assign someone to host each conversation to ensure participation is balanced.
    • Rotate the duties of conversation hosting.
    • Plan out the conversation questions ahead of time, but don’t be afraid to follow a good conversational detour, as long as it’s related to the book content.
  • Welcome new members.
    • Do a refresher round of introductions if the group meets infrequently or if there are new members.
    • Occasionally do a ‘last call’ before changing topics or moving to a new question, to allow for those not as comfortable to contribute. “Does anyone have more to add before we move on?”
    • After the meeting, thank new members for coming, and casually check in on their experience.

* Want a deeper exploration of equity? Check out PolicyLink’s Equity Manifesto.

Is your book group listed on our inventory?  Just for fun, we have a list of both public and private, closed groups. Fill out the form on the inventory page and let’s tell your book club story!

★ Share your tips using the form below and we may add them to this list of book club best practices.


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