1. TIPS FOR LEADING DISCUSSIONS
by Felisa Tibbitts, Human Rights Education Associates
There are some simple procedures that can
help you to foster equal and open sharing in group discussions, whether with fellow
teachers or with your students. The ones below are not intended to be prescriptive, but to
encourage you to explore and experiment with communication techniques. It is fairly easy
to tell if the discussion is going well by the participation levels among the members, and
by the creative quality of the comments. So have fun!
Establishing the Tone
There are two predictable times when how a
group is handled will be fundamental for affecting the quality and tone of the discussion.
The first such time is at the very start of the discussion. The most important thing is to
establish that everyone has a right to speak, and that they are, in fact, expected to
contribute. This will only work, of course, if group members feel that they can trust one
another, and that their ideas will be welcomed. Here are some hints for how to start.
If possible, have people sit in a circle, or at least facing one another. If you are in a setting where this is not possible (for example, a classroom where the seats are bolted to the floor), then the facilitator of the discussion can lend an inclusive element by walking among the members when he or she is speaking.
If group members do not know each other, then 'introduction' exercises might be used. Members of the group can introduce themselves, or members can be asked to interview another person and then 'present' them to the group. Introductions can be more fun if people are asked to share such things as their favorite hobby, the animal they consider themselves most like, and so on.
The facilitator can de-emphasize his or her own role and emphasizing that of the group members by beginning the discussion with open-ended questions. As participants offer their views, the facilitator can encourage group members to respond to each other (and not to the facilitator) by asking questions like: "What does everyone else think?" or "Is there anyone else who agrees?" "Anyone else who disagrees?" -- These kinds of questions will encourage members of the group to speak with each other, and also reinforce the idea that it is alright if people disagree with one another.
Sometimes it is a good idea to establish 'ground rules' for discussion. This can be especially important when the group members are children. If the students are old enough, they can even help you establish the ground rules. You could ask them to think about what should be the rules for discussion so that everyone is encouraged to speak. Here are some ideas for some rules:
Everyone should listen respectfully to the other (even if they disagree).
The person who is speaking should not be interrupted.
No more than one person should speak at the same time.
No one's ideas should be made fun of.
If you disagree with someone, disagree with their ideas, but don't attack the person.
Try to understand the others, as much as you hope they try to understand you.
The facilitator can use different kinds of forums for discussion, depending upon the number of group members, and the degree to which it is important that every single person participate. This will depend on the setting. For example, in some general classroom discussion, the facilitator could simply invite discussion, and call on those individuals who want to volunteer their opinion. However, if the group is particularly shy, or if the facilitator wants to make sure that every person is actively engaged in the exercise, then discussions can be more structured.
Here is how the discussions can be structured:
The facilitator can simply go around the circle (or down the rows) and ask everyone to give their comment. This technique is very inclusive, but it can take a long time or get a little boring.
Group members can break into pairs for discussion. In a debate format, their opposing 'positions' can be assigned. (If you do this, it is interesting to assign positions that are unlike their personal ones.) Also in pairs, the facilitator can ask each of the group members to 'interview' each other; they could then later present their partners' comments to the rest of the group. Using pairs is particularly nice when members of the group do not know each other, since this provides an easy and personal way to become acquainted with at least one person. You can also ask people to work in a sequence of pairs (for example, first the person seated to their left, and then the person seated to their right).
The large group can be broken into small groups of up to six or eight people; for children, these numbers normally do not exceed four.
The discussion can then take place on a voluntary basis or, depending upon the task, everyone can be required to do some activity. In order to create some structure for students, teachers often assign roles, such as 'recorder' (writing down what takes place), the 'organizer' (who makes sure that the group stays on task), the 'materials person' (if materials are involved in the exercise), or special roles associated with the exercise.
Please note that it is ideal that such groups "report back" to the larger group, either orally, on a large sheet of paper, or both. This way, you bring the discussion back to the whole group. The small group format works is usually ideal for 'hands-on' exercises, rather than simple discussions or sharing of ideas.
As the facilitator, you may have to make some quick decisions about how to organize the discussion. On the basis of how well communication is going, you might leave everyone in the large group, or you might let people remain in their small groups. There are rarely set rules in this respect.
Your job during the heart of the discussion will be to maintain the flow, to keep the atmosphere respectful and pleasant, to keep the group "on task", and to handle conflicts that may arise. It is important that when conflicts arise, feelings as well as ideas are addressed. Try to involve the group in the mediation of such tensions, if possible. If the conflict is too intense and personal, then handle this privately outside the group setting. Much more can be said about conflict resolution as a skill, but there is not enough space here.
The facilitator should affirm the participation of group members. This can happen by complementing individuals or groups for their effort or creativity, directly encouraging some of the shier group members to express their ideas (although they should not be coerced to do so), and building on the ideas that are expressed. This encouragement can be expressed through words, facial expressions and body language. It is also important to "listen" to the members of the group in the same way.
A session can be ended in many different ways. It is always a good idea to highlight the positive aspects of the discussions and exercises, and to personally thank the participants for their involvement. If you enjoyed the discussion, you should say so!
If the discussion was part of an ongoing series of some kind (as in a class), you might want to make assignments that build on what transpired. For example, if some interesting differences of opinion arose, you might ask participants to write a position paper of their own. Even a larger research project could be developed. If the goals for the discussions/exercises are for the participants to learn more about themselves and to grow, you might ask them to keep a personal diary in which they keep their thoughts, reactions and questions to the discussions. These could be kept by the participant, or also shared privately with the facilitator in order to have some feedback.
If you want to reinforce the communication techniques themselves, you might ask the participants to reflect aloud or in writing to the following kinds of questions:
What went well in the discussion? How do you know?
What was difficult in the discussion, and why?
How were disagreements or conflicts handled?
Did everyone get a chance to participate? If not, were they invited to participate?
Did you notice the difference between when you differed with someone's opinion on an intellectual basis, and when you felt an emotional reaction to someone's statement? Can you explain why one reaction and not the other?
Learning how to facilitate is both an art and science. Don't be too hard on yourself if it feels "rough" at first! Although this article contains some ideas, the best resource will be your own intuition. You can improve your skills at facilitation every day, simply by observing the circumstances in which people feel free to express their ideas. If you know someone who is particularly skillful at involving people in discussion, you might observe them to get some ideas.
Remember... Have Fun!
© Human Rights Education Associates
Back to Table of Content