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Facilitating Great Discussions

One of the opportunities and responsibilities of a leader is facilitating group discussions. Two things will happen if you are able to successfully facilitate a group discussion. First, your leadership will grow. If the discussion goes well, the participants will be grateful for what they learned. That’s a benefit to you because you shouldn’t have had to teach much. They learned from their peers. You were just the facilitator.Second, you will learn. The biggest benefit I’ve received from being able to facilitate a group discussion is what I learn from the participants. Every time I facilitate a lively discussion, not one learns more than I do.Effective facilitation of a discussion involves the recognition and employment of different perspectives and different skills to create an inclusive environment. Discussion is a powerful mechanism for active learning; a well-facilitated discussion allows the participant to explore new ideas while recognizing and valuing the contributions of others.Here are some tips to help your next discussion go well:Don’t be the focus – The word is facilitate, not dominate. Listen more than talk. You want the group to learn from each other, not hear you lecture.Bring ideas to stimulate discussion – With any group discussion, discussion will stall from time to time. To be a good facilitator, you need prompters, ideas of what to talk about. You can bring up those ideas and get the group to start talking about it.Don’t let a group member takeover – It’s great to have active participants. But, if one talkative individual dominates the discussion, the other members of the group will disengage and lose focus. You’ll need to ask others, “What do you think about that?” or draw them in another way.Everyone should be able to see each other and easily interact – The room must be accommodating. A circle is usually best. You want to enable eye contact for each participant.Open with personal introductions – This usually removes the fear of speaking. Ask each participant to give their name and a little specific pertinent or personal information. Usually the group discussion flows more smoothly in this friendly atmosphere.In recurring groups, ask each participant to provide updates or one item for discussion – For nonrecurring groups, ask each participant to provide one item they want to discuss or learn about during the discussion.Encourage freedom and flexibility – No one should be afraid to talk, to ask or answer questions or to get up from their seat and move around. The best discussions are casual ones.Keep discussions constructive and positive – Make the discussion functional by clarifying the goals of each session to the group, and establish ground rules. Avoid stereotyping. Request that if participants challenge others’ ideas, they back it up with evidence, appropriate experiences, or appropriate logic. Try to keep the group on task without rushing them.Encourage participants —You can validate by writing participants’ comments on the whiteboard. Ask follow-up questions, and paraphrase the comments for everyone to ponder. Don’t be afraid to admit your own ignorance or confusion if you don’t know something – invite others to provide resources.Deal with communication problems – In good discussions, conflicts will sometimes arise. If such conflicts are left ambiguous, they may cause continuing trouble. The facilitator can ask participants to clarify, and list both sides on the board. He can remind people to focus on issues, not individuals, and resist being judgmental.There also will sometimes be unclear or hesitant comments. The facilitator can encourage participants making unclear contributions to give examples and factual evidence of their points. The facilitator can also restate points for verification or rejection by the participants, or give enthusiastic nonverbal cues and patience.Sometimes the discussion goes off the tracks. Some facilitators keep discussions on track by listing the questions or issues they want to cover on the board or summarizing the discussion on the board as it proceeds. Stopping and asking a participant to summarize where the discussion is at the point it appears to go off track will sometimes help.Perhaps the most important tip for a facilitator is to model the behavior they hope to see in the group. They will respond as the leader does. Use positive body language and tone, and give encouraging feedback. The group will grow, and your leadership will be enhanced as well.

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