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How to Facilitate Discussions

Learn about the role of the facilitator and ways to provide guidance and structure for productive meetings in the classroom and other workplace contexts.

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1. Understand the role of the facilitator.

  • Stay neutral. Your role is to create the process and conditions that enable a group to discuss, plan, decide, learn, or grow (PDF). Conduct the discussion without trying to direct the group to a particular outcome.
  • Achieve learning objectives. Instructors need not be as neutral as facilitators, but you should strive to bring out the voices in the group, saving "teaching" behaviors until the group has explored the subject.
Note: If you must participate, change hats by letting the group know that you are shifting roles and will participate briefly. Do this only if you are actually a member of the group.

2. Provide structure to the discussion.

  • Decide on a process for the discussion, either independently or with your client.
  • Begin with some form of ice breaker (PDF). This helps participants get involved immediately to address the issues at hand.

    Example—Respond to a question:

    • What have we learned since last time?
    • What unfinished business do we have?
    • Tell us something about you that we probably don't expect.
    • If you were in charge of this project, where would you start?
  • Structure the discussion, rather than allowing a free-for-all, to ensure greater participation.

    Examples:

    • Round robin: Each person speaks in turn.
    • Nominal group technique: Each person takes 30 to 90 seconds to collect their thoughts, followed by a round robin.
    • Small group discussions: Break big groups (more than eight) into smaller groups to discuss and then report about the subject. Using smaller groups ensures greater participation (PDF).

3. Guide the discussion.

  • Focus on group process. Is the group repeating itself? Are all members who wish to participating? Is the discussion staying on track and on time?
  • Explain what you see happening, and ask participants to confirm if their experience is the same. Be factual and specific. Avoid blaming or criticizing indivudals.
  • Summarize what is being said.
    • In a low-level summary, you simply to say back to the group what it said.

      Example: "So Bill agrees with Michelle that this suggestion would be too costly."

    • In a high-level summary, you tell the group what you think their discussion means.
    • Example: "So Bill, it sounds like you are concerned about what this decision ultimately means for the future of this project. Is that right?" Note: Following a high-level summary, confirm your interpretation with the speaker(s).

  • Ask questions to open up discussion, to help the group to decide whether their process is working, or to think about new directions.
    • Closed-ended questions (yes/no or factual) are useful for summarizing or reality checks, but they don't elicit much input.
    • Open-ended questions (how, what, why, tell me, describe) draw people out. If your discussion isn't getting off the ground, try an open-ended question.

4. Record the discussion in a visible way.

Record the discussion in a way visible to the group. Use flip charts, overhead transparencies, or meeting software projected onto a screen by the facilitator or a helper.

  • This is not the same as taking minutes, though you may use the recorded discussion to supplement the minutes.
  • Having the discussion visible helps the group to see the progress it's making and to refer back to earlier comments.

Note: Whenever possible, use the speaker's own words, and be sure to record everyone's comments to avoid creating tension and resistance.

5. Ensure productive group behaviors.

  • Have agreements about starting on time, coming prepared, and working toward consensus. Refer to the agreements when necessary to get the group back on track.
  • Include everyone. Be sure all members have an opportunity to be heard.
  • Look for common ground.
  • Deal with conflict by talking about the facts.

    Examples:

    • "It sounds like we have a difference of opinion here."
    • "Let's hear from both points of view, and continue until both sides agree they have been understood."
    • "What do we know about the situation?"
    • "What concerns do people have?"
    • "How does the current situation affect your ability to make this decision?"
  • Ask for feedback so you know whether you are helping the group achieve its goals.

6. Summarize the results.

Summarize key points at the end of the session for:

  • Learning
  • Follow-up
  • Future action

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