How to Facilitate a Discussion
What is the best way to facilitate a group discussion? Well, there are thousands of techniques and nuances that can be applied to the facilitation process. It also depends on the type of group and what the goals are. Ultimately, there is no “exact way” to facilitate.
However, there are some core concepts that make up the foundation of good facilitation.
The facilitator should be prepared but also ready to be flexible enough to adjust to how the students experience the discussion. In order for this to happen, the discussion must be focused on the participants, not the facilitator. The facilitator should keep the conversation going in a way that allows all participants to speak freely, but also offer enough structure and guidance so that participants’ voices are equally heard and the discussion can move in a direction that is appropriate depending on what happens along the way.
In the case of my (David’s) class, I am also offering some English guidance along with cross-cultural perspectives. This means that I sometimes share my perspectives and tips, but my intention is to add value to the discussion and then always return the speaking back to the students and also adjust the discussion flow according to their responses.
So yes, there are many techniques to facilitating well. Based on my experience and observations in my classes, here are a few tips for facilitating a short discussion on any given topic.
Prepare a clear and short summary or introduction to the topic and write down at least four questions in advance.
If you prepare enough questions ahead of time, then you won’t need to waste time and energy thinking of questions during the discussion. Instead, you can focus on facilitating well.
TWO: Focus on asking, not telling.
Focus on asking questions and hearing the ideas of other students before you give your perspective or answer. In fact, you don’t even need to give your answer at all if you are facilitating, but sometimes it can be useful and interesting, especially if people struggle to start answering a question.
In addition, you may have had more time to think about the topic and questions, so you might have a unique answer to contribute. However, remember that an important part of facilitating a discussion is to discover diverse ideas that expand our ways of thinking.
Sometimes discussions lead down paths that are totally unexpected. That is what sometimes happens when the facilitator follows the flow of the participants’ responses to the questions or topic. So, asking questions and focusing on the participants forces the facilitator to be flexible, which allows the discussion to shift into new, unpredictable areas of inquiry and discovery.
THREE: Ask both broad questions and specific questions.
It can be helpful to ask some very broad, open-ended questions because it allows participants the freedom to share any perspective. On the other hand, it can also be practical to ask specific questions as it can guide the participants to focus their answers with more specific and tangible responses.
Broad examples: What do you think about this topic/idea?
Why? Can you explain more? Specific example: Have you ever experienced what the author experienced in your life? Share about it.
FOUR: Clarify and consolidate ideas.
Asking a question to check that you and the group understand a participant’s main idea can help everyone stay on the same page and avoid miscommunication.
To confirm your understanding: So what I hear you saying is ________. Is that correct?
To ask for clarification and a clear point or conclusion: Sorry to interrupt, but can you rephrase or summarize your main point so we can be sure to understand?
FIVE: Involve everyone equally.
Make sure all participants get a chance to speak. If one student is speaking perhaps too long or without a clear point, find a place to politely interrupt.
You could also affirm their idea and then shift the attention to another participant who hasn’t spoken yet.
You have a great point and it’s very interesting. Thanks for sharing your perspective. How about you, Sarah? What are your thoughts on John’s answers or about the question in general?
Doing this does not mean you don’t want to hear that first person speak more about their idea. Maybe you would love to hear them talk all day! But as a facilitator, it’s your role to make sure that all participants have somewhat equal speaking time if they want it.
You can express this with the following:
I really appreciate your perspective, John, and would love to hear more, but I know Sarah and Paul haven’t yet been able to share their answers and our time is limited. Sarah and Paul, would you like to add your perspectives?
SIX: Embrace disagreements.
The facilitator should try to make all participants feel respected, appreciated, and safe no matter what their perspectives are. New, diverse, and strange perspectives are often what add the most unique value to a discussion. At the same time, differing opinions may cause some participants to feel uncomfortable.
When people disagree, it can be helpful to remind the group that conflicting ideas are a good way for us to learn, grow, and understand different people’s experiences and perspectives. It’s an opportunity for us to ask more questions of both parties in order to increase out empathy for them and perhaps even grow or change our own perspective. After all, why should we join any discussion if we don’t want to learn, grow, and change?
In conclusion, a facilitator’s role is to use questions to guide the group on an exploratory journey of equal expression, dialog, and discovery. It may take you places you never expected, and it may not always be comfortable since you are not controlling it. But one thing is for sure – it will be an adventure to a place you and the participants have never been before. And in the end, hopefully everyone can express their ideas freely and also learn something new and valuable from the group.
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