Facilitating Group Discussions


Ann Porteus, Associate Director of Residential Education
Nanci Howe, Assistant Dean, Director of Office of Student Activities

Tommy Woon, Multicultural Educator, Residential Education


Table of Contents

Group Discussion Situations
Facilitation Goals
Starting Off
Getting the Discussion Started
During the Discussion

Checking Yourself


Encouraging Participation

Advancing and Deepening the Discussion

Troubleshooting During the Discussion
Wrapping Up
Post Discussion Review
Supplemental Materials

A. Roles People Play in Groups

B. Group Discussion Models

C. Conflict Mediation Guidelines


Group Discussion Situations


Facilitation Goals


Starting Off

"I (we) am (are) here to help us have a good discussion about .... We are here to learn from one another, to get a sense about how we think and feel about ...., and to help us make stronger and deeper connections with one another. Our job as facilitators is to help us have a good discussion where all views can be voiced in a safe and respectful environment. That doesn't mean that there won't be disagreement and some tension about important issues. We hope that you will say what is on your mind. We understand the challenge we all face in sharing some of our experiences and vulnerabilities with each other. To create a safe and respectful atmosphere we ask that all of us follow a few groundrules."


Getting the Discussion Started

"How do you feel about the points made in the presentation?"
"What in your experience has led you to the view that you just expressed?"
"Would anyone be willing to share their reactions to the program?"
"Does anyone have any ideas about how we should start this discussion?"
"Does anyone have an issue or concern that they would like to raise to get us started?"
"What experiences have any of you had with this issue?"
"Tom, what do you think about the issues raised in the article?"
"Allison, how do you feel about what is happening in the dorm now, on the topic of X?"
" Eric, you have done a lot of reading in this area, how do you see the issue?"
"What are some of the major pros and cons from your perspective?"
"What statements did you actually hear made during the presentation that made you upset?"
"Who on campus is best suited to talk further about this issue?"


During the Discussion

Checking Yourself

"How do some of the rest of you feel about that?"
"That may be your experience, but others may see things differently. Do any of you have a counter example or opinion.?"
"I have an opinion I would like to share, so I am taking my facilitator hat off for a comment."
- Talking too much
- Feeling the need to address all questions
- Talking more than your co-facilitator(s)
- Seeing the group interacting more with you rather than with each other
- Engaging in dialogue with individual members of the group
" How would you handle that?"


"Thanks for saying that Linda. No one had mentioned that before."
"Thanks for that helpful contribution. It is not easy to share such a personal experience. That was very courageous."
"Dave, I appreciate your offering a different view."
"You made a strong general statement, Mary. Is that what you think (or feel)?"
"Could you restate your point using 'I' instead of 'we' or 'you' or 'people think'?
- Ask the group to brainstorm ideas - Ask the group to identify pros and cons of a position rather than having individuals explain or defend a position
- Divide the group in half, being sure each half includes representatives of different viewpoints and ask each group to develop one side of the argument
- Go around the circle asking everyone to say something about the topic and indicate in what ways they agree with previous speakers. Then ask a recorder to summarize the primary feelings expressed by the group
- Create small groups, each with a reporter who will bring ideas of the small group back to the whole group
- Redirect people who make personal comments about others.
"Can you give an example of what you are talking about from your own experience?"
"You have made an interesting point, but how would you say that relates to X (the topic under discussion)?"
"It seems that we have started another topic without finishing the first. Should we return to the issue we were discussing before going on?"
"Some of the main points I have heard are..."
"What were some of the main themes here tonight?"
"Can someone give a brief distillation of the discussion that we just had?"
"People seem a little restless, why don't we take a break."
"It looks as if people are uncomfortable with what we have just been discussing."
"The energy of this discussion seems low, should we wind this up for now?"
"Can we explore each of the viewpoints as a group and try to understand them rather than having one or to persons defend each view."
"It's clear that there is not agreement on this issue which is perfectly fine. Can we all agree not to be in agreement on this and move on to consider another facet of this issue.."
"Let's remember our groundrule about not attacking each other."
"It is really hard to focus on what is being said here. There are so many side conversations."

Encouraging Participation

"We hope that you will say what is on your mind. What we say here today is for the group and will not go beyond the group."
"The men in the group have been pretty quiet. We'd be interested in what you think."
"I have noticed that some of you have not said what you think. I hope you will find a way to let us hear from you at some point" (be careful of this kind of statement; it may put people on the spot)."
" I have noticed that some of you haven't said anything. Please feel free to jump in at any point."
"John, you made some good points; let's hear from someone else."
"Sam, I can see how upset you are. what would you like to hear from the group?"
"I bet you are not the only one here who has that reaction. Has anyone else ever felt the same way?"
"It seems to me that the discussion has brought up painful feelings for several people. What shall we do at this point? Would you like to talk about feelings that have been expressed? do you want to keep going? Shall we take a break?"
"This seems to be where a lot of discussions on this issue break down--how can we keep going and get past this point?"
"When I see people angry it is hard for me to listen because I am worried about people getting (emotionally/physically) hurt. Could we just take a minute here to breathe, and make sure we can talk about this respectfully"
"People are expressing many different and deep emotions here which may feel hard and uncomfortable, but that is the reason we are all here, to try to come to grips with emotionally difficult issues."
"It's not easy to share such a deeply held beliefs"

Advancing and Deepening the Discussion

"What is your opinion, given the facts as you have said them?"
"When I here those facts, it makes me feel like.....?"
"These are interesting facts; would you like to share how you feel about them?."
- Take some risks yourself, including admitting your mistakes
- Take a risk yourself and be vulnerable by sharing a personal experience or risky feeling
"Can you say a little more about that?"
"What do you mean by that?" "Can you give us an example?"
"How did you come to this view?."
"What convinced you of your opinion?"
"As I understand what you are saying, ..."
"Let me see if I understand what you are saying, ..."
"Can you clarify that last comment, I am not sure that I understood what you were saying."
"Can I try to clarify what I think you just said."
"Can you restate that in a different way?"
"What do you mean by that?"

Troubleshooting During the Discussion

- Ask for any comments
- Suggest an answer and ask for agreement or disagreement
- Find something in their answer that is close to a serious answer and in a serious tone repeat it to the group.
- Ask them if they can think of another answer
- Compliment them when they give a serious answer
"I think most people are here because they think the topic is a valuable one. Does anyone feel differently about this?"
"Please try to respect other people's feelings here; this is a serious issue."
"I know that laughter can mean that people are nervous or feeling uncomfortable. Does anyone have any special concerns?"
- Say, "I'd like to hear what the rest of the group has to say."
- Ask another person a question just as soon as they pause.
- Ask for agreement or disagreement from others.
- Explain that you appreciate their comments, but it is important for everyone to have a chance to talk.
- Establish ground rules at the beginning (or mid-stream) that one of the goals is to provide everyone an opportunity to share.
-Say, "That is very interesting but how do you feel about .....?"
-Refocus their attention by saying "I know you are enjoying sharing your experience with each other, but there are some issues I would like to share with you now."
- Say, "In order to accomplish our goal today, we really need to move on. Perhaps we can go back to this topic later."
"Could we remember just to have one person talk at a time and let people finish their statements."
"Okay..first Sarah, then Randy, then Marie."
"Jim, you have got a lot of god point, but it is important to let Renee finish, and then I know that Tom is dying to say something as well."
-Keep your cool. Try to incorporate negative comments in a positive way. "That's an (interesting, unique, different) way to look at this situation. I appreciate your contributing that different point of view."
-If it continues, try to meet with the person at a break and confront them on their behavior. If it is really disruptive, tell them that if they choose to stay, you would like their cooperation. o Someone puts another person down.
-Remind the group that there are no wrong answers. Everyone has the right to his/her opinion.

- Don't let inappropriate humor go by.

" I realize that you may not have intended it, but this is a pretty sensitive topic, and that kind of humor makes a lot of people very uncomfortable."
"I don't find that remark very funny personally. Were you aware that some people might find that remark offensive?"
- Don't panic or start rushing. Get as far as you can. - Prioritize questions/points. Try to address the important ones
- Decide on a time for a follow-up session o Someone challenges your role as group leader.
- Don't become defensive. Let the group air their dissatisfactions. Express your feelings after they have cooled off. Discuss solutions with the group.
- Redirect the question to the group
- If no one in the group has a response, defer the question by having someone in the group come back with pertinent information at a later time.
- Don't take sides
- Remind people of the areas of agreement - Ask people in conflict to agree to restate what they heard before they state their arguments.
- Remind people that they are not there to judge others or to persuade others of their views, but to further mutual understanding.
- Summarize the conflict and ask for ideas from the whole group as to how to proceed.
- Acknowledge the disagreement and agree to move on. Tell the group that conflict is a healthy part of group dynamics, and can enhance learning.
- Try to put yourself in each person's position and try to understand the emotional impact that the situation is creating for them. Empathize verbally with each side.
- Acknowledge each persons concerns and needs.
- Try to elicit where each persons ideas may have come from in their experience.
- Try to be flexible about time. If something good is happening, assess the value of leaving that discussion in favor of completing an agenda. Get the group to help make this decision.
- Give a two-minute warning or some other transition time to prepare the group to change direction.
- Acknowledge at the beginning of the session that time will be a factor and that some issues may not be discussed.
- Acknowledge the difficulty of leaving a good discussion and get the group to decide how to proceed, or set up another time to finish the agenda.
- Legitimize dissenting opinions/ideas. Don't let misinformation stand. It implies that you agree with it. Ask for other opinions/ideas ("Are there other views?" "Does everyone agree?"
- Agree to disagree to give people space to object without destroying the discussion.
- Acknowledge discomfort over a comment...but own it as your discomfort. Don't speak for the group.

Wrapping Up

- The major points of agreement and disagreement, if appropriate.
- Issues that were discussed but not resolved
- Where action has been agreed on, the decision should be stated and the next steps and person responsible should be identified.
- How do participants feel about their own participation? - What was good about the discussion and what could have been better?
- Did people feel free to express their opinions?
- Do they have suggestions for better facilitation?
- Did people feel free to express their opinions?


Post Discussion Review

After the discussion is over, take a few minutes (with your co-facilitator) to reflect on the content and process of the discussion; a few written notes for future reference might be helpful. Consider:

Seek feedback from others (other staff members present or participants). You will learn much from seeking feedback from others, especially from your co-facilitator or other staff members. Ask what you did that went well (what you did to keep the discussion moving, motivate others to take risks and set the appropriate tone., etc.) and what improvements they would recommend.


Resource Manual Table of Contents

Residential Education Home Page