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.

  1. Everyone should listen respectfully to the other (even if they disagree).

  2. The person who is speaking should not be interrupted.

  3. No more than one person should speak at the same time.

  4. No one's ideas should be made fun of.

  5. If you disagree with someone, disagree with their ideas, but don't attack the person.

  6. Try to understand the others, as much as you hope they try to understand you.


Facilitating Discussion

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 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.


Wrapping Up

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:



In Conclusion....

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

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