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
- To Explore: Group discussions designed to explore one's own views and views
- To Raise Awareness: Group discussions designed to share specific information
and to hear about the views and perspectives of others.
- To Decide: Group discussions designed to lead to a group decision.
- Create an environment for effective communication (the achievement of mutual
- Keep discussion focused
- Keep people engaged.
- Advance and deepen discussion.
- Provide opportunity for all voices to be heard.
- Create environment of trust and support so disagreement and understanding
- Leave participants challenged and willing to engage in follow-up conversations.
- Decide who should facilitate the discussion. Consider who knows
the topic, can assume an "objective" role, will be accepted by the group and
has group experience. Consider what you know about the topic, whether your
views are known to students, and whether that makes your role as a facilitator
- Consider co-facilitating with another person. Whenever possible,
use co-facilitators who represent different gender, racial or cultural backgrounds,
especially when discussing personal or emotional issues.
- Know yourself before you begin as a facilitator. Consider:
- What are my personal beliefs, values and stereotypes about the issue?
- Can I assume an objective role in the discussion?
- What role should I assume as a facilitator?
- How do I establish trust and openness among the group?
- How do I show respect for the opinions of others?
- How do I tactfully mediate conflict?
- How do I keep discussion flowing smoothly?
- How do I encourage the participation of everyone and avoid domination
by a few?
- How do I deal with someone showing disrespect for another?
- What should I do when I don't know how to respond to a comment or question?
- Will I feel comfortable facilitating a group discussion on this issue?
- Identify the goals of the session. What are you trying to accomplish?
- Plan the format of the discussion. Will it be a small group? a large
group? a group of people who know each other well? only somewhat? not at all?
Will it be formal (see the suggested discussion models attached in Appendix
B) or informal?
- Schedule tentative time blocks, so that the introduction and key
points will be covered before the end of the discussiion.
- Plan the physical environment so that participants can talk to each
other (not just to you) without visual or height barriers. Hint: people sitting
in circles tend to talk more with each other, rather than focus on the facilitation.
- Be prepared with some interesting/challenging questions to get discussion
started and to keep moving.
- Plan for any materials or help you will need. Will you need a writing
surface such as a blackboard, or newsprint and marker pens. If it is an event
where you will be writing down information, ideas, choose someone else to
be the recorder. Hint: It is very hard to facilitate a discussion and be the
one doing the recording.
- Introduce the purpose of the discussion and ensure that the participants
have the same understanding.
- Explain the organization and structure (including the time line)
of the discussion, when it will end, and whether or not there are formal follow-up
plans. ("We'll speak in small groups for an hour then spend a half-hour in
general discussion. We will end at 9 p.m. and anyone who wants to continue
the discussion can stay in the lounge. Depending on interest we will have
a follow-up discussion on Thursday night.")
- Explain your role as facilitator - a person whose role it is to remain
neutral or objective, to keep the discussion focused and energized and to
create an environment for all to have a chance to participate. This does not
mean that you are neutral and have no opinions, but as a facilitator you need
to play an objective role.
- Set the appropriate tone. Show your comfort with the topic so that
others feel comfortable. Create a safe and open environment so that the participants
will feel comfortable and share their views openly and honestly.
"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."
- Do introductions. How you do the introductions will help set the
tone for the discussion--the amount of information and the degree of self-disclosure
that will occur.
- Establish groundrules for the discussion so that the participants
feel the environment is safe to speak about their ideas and feelings. Groundrules
should be explicit. You need to take a little time to discuss the cultural
relativity of these groundrules. Groundrules may not fit everyone because
we have different cultural backgrounds. Ask the group if these rules make
sense and if everyone can honor them. The following are some suggestions (add
- We ask that you speak from your own perspective; personal "I" statements
are useful ways for keeping your view points personalized, and keep you
from generalizing about what others think or feel
- We ask that you respect the viewpoints of others--that you listen respectfully
and attentively, and that you withhold judgment about other's views. Our
goal here is not to persuade each other of our ideas, but to get ideas out
on the table so people can make their own decision.
- We ask that you maintain confidentiality about what is said in
the room during this discussion--that you don't talk about what others say
here to others who are not part of this discussion.
- To show your respect for others in the room, we ask that you stay focused
on the discussion and avoid side conversations. We ask that you make
a conscious effort to listen actively to hear what is being said.
- We expect that everyone here will try to make this experience a good one;
that we are all responsible for how this discussion goes.
- We ask that you be willing to voice disagreements, but we ask that if
you disagree with someone's idea that you criticize the idea, not the
person. With sensitive issues, people make take things personally. Please
try to be sensitive to each other's needs and concerns. Try to speak up
if you feel hurt in anyway. Avoid derogatory or sarcastic comments at the
expense of others.
- We ask that you don't interrupt each other.
- All questions are good ones. We encourage you to ask questions
of each other no matter how simplistic you might think they are. Chances
are there are others who have the same question. The goal of the discussion
is to learn and explore.
- We ask that you limit your exchanges with one person to no more
than 3 exchanges. If it goes beyond three then others need the chance to
express their opinion.
- We ask that you don't make assumptions about what others think
or mean. Remember that others will not always attach the same meanings to
words that you do or perceive the world the same way you do.
- (A useful ground rule for managing hurt) We will establish an "ouch"
list as we go along. We ask that you write down any statements that
hurt you and post them on the wall. We will agree to discuss the "ouches"
at some point in the discussion.
- Find out if some people are leaving early or coming late and decide
how you want to deal with that.
Getting the Discussion Started
- Pose an interesting question or set of questions. Remember to come to the
discussion with some prepared questions.
- Open questions requiring more than a "yes" or "no" response (as opposed
to closed questions which lead to a one word response) generate discussion
and stimulate thinking. (keywords: "how", "why", "what", "what if", "tell
- "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?"
- Group oriented questions encourage group participation and tend to stimulate
everyone's thinking. (keywords: "who", "anyone")
- "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?"
- Individual oriented questions encourage individual response (but may put
people on the spot) and can tap known resources of a "expert" in the group:
- "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
- Factual questions seek information. (keywords: "what", "which", "how much")
- "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
- Remain neutral (objective and open). This does not mean that you
don't have opinions, but facilitators usually do not offer their own views;
they help group members share theirs. Your role is to facilitate the group's
discussion. If you have valuable ideas or opinions that are essential to what
is being discussed, put your facilitator role aside and ask someone else to
act as facilitator while you give your inp
- "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."
- Stay off the soapbox. Successful facilitators listen rather than
talk. Watch for danger signals:
- - 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
- Avoid being put in the position of the "expert". Some may look to
you to provide the answers to challenging questions or situations. Refrain
from immediately providing "your answer" to the issue at hand. Turn the situation
back to the questioner or ask the question of the whole group. If you are
stuck or lost, admit it honestly to the group; someone is almost always likely
to come to your rescue.
- " How would you handle that?"
- Stay aware of your own "hot buttons". Know where you stand on the
issues, where your own prejudices/biases lie and where you are in your own
personal discovery. If you feel you won't shut down discussion you could own
up to them at the very beginning of the discussion and say that although you
have deep feelings about the issue, you are committed to creating an environment
where all feelings can be heard and respected.
- Acknowledge contributions, validate people's ideas, and give credit
where credit is due.
- "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
- "Could you restate your point using 'I' instead of 'we' or 'you' or
- Keep the focus on ideas not individuals. Some ways to do this are:
- - Ask the group to brainstorm ideas - Ask the group to identify pros
and cons of a position rather than having individuals explain or defend
- - Divide the group in half, being sure each half includes representatives
of different viewpoints and ask each group to develop one side of the
- - 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.
- Try to keep the discussion concrete rather than abstract. People
tend to talk abstractly especially when dealing with uncomfortable topics.
Suggesting that people share real experiences can be effective.
- "Can you give an example of what you are talking about from your own
- Keep the focus on the subject without restraining free expression
- "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?"
- Get participants to "own" their comments rather than speaking in generalizations
about what others think.
- Summarize or synthesize statements as a way of keeping track and
bringing focus on where the discussion is going/has gone.
- "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
- Be patient with silences. Don't jump to fill in silence. Silence
can be an important time for some and may spur others to talk.
- Know and emphasize the importance of pause time. Encourage each
person to be aware of their own pause time before jumping in. As a facilitator
don't jump in too quickly.
- Read non-verbal cues. Are a few people dominating the discussion?
Are there many interruptions? Observe who is participating and who is not?
Are people looking bored? Angry? Impatient? What is the level of energy in
- "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
- "The energy of this discussion seems low, should we wind this up for
- Pose disagreement constructively. If there is disagreement and the
discussion is stuck, have the participants agree to disagree and move on to
- "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.."
- Minimize attacks. Protect individuals and their ideas from attack
by other members of the group.
- "Let's remember our groundrule about not attacking each other."
- Minimize disruptions such as inappropriate humor, people walking
in and out, private/side conversations, etc. Confront other problem behaviors
that interfere with the progress of the discussion. (See Troubleshooting below)
- "It is really hard to focus on what is being said here. There are so
many side conversations."
- Create (and recreate) a safe and trusting environment. Monitor excessive
talkers (see Troubleshooting below) and prompt the quieter members. - Consider
breaking up into smaller groups or pairs(dyads) or trios for mini-discussions
as a way to involve the quieter people
- "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."
- Set and reinforce a pattern for participants to talk to each other,
not to you. Keep reminding the group that this is conversation/questioning
focuses on you.
- Notice silences. Who is talking a lot, who is not talking? Is there
- "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."
- Acknowledge the feelings of people in the group.
- "Sam, I can see how upset you are. what would you like to hear from
- "I bet you are not the only one here who has that reaction. Has anyone
else ever felt the same way?"
- Ask individuals and the group how to respond to expressions of emotions.
- "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"
- Reaffirm that the group is trying to deal with emotionally difficult
- "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
- Invite amplification of new points. Encourage the contributors to
explain the background behind their ideas/opinions. o Help "fact spouters"
get more personal.
- "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
- Encourage people to take risks
- - Take some risks yourself, including admitting your mistakes
- - Take a risk yourself and be vulnerable by sharing a personal experience or risky feeling
- Ask open-ended questions. (What?, How?, Why?)
- Ask follow-up and/or probing questions (if others don't).
- "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?"
- Paraphrase (or getting others to paraphrase) what people say; paraphrasing
can help legitimize people's views, and is especially useful in legitimizing
an unpopular or risky opinion/idea.
- "As I understand what you are saying, ..."
- "Let me see if I understand what you are saying, ..."
- Clarify, without interpreting.
- "Can you clarify that last comment, I am not sure that I understood what you
- "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?"
- Call attention to alternative viewpoints. Beware of "group think"
Sometimes a group will discuss a topic without awareness of a different approach
to the same problem.
- Encourage feelings as well as ideas. Remember that "I feel like..."
and "I feel that ..." are not statements of feelings. Feelings are expressions
of emotions -- anger, frustration, joy, happiness, etc.
Troubleshooting During the Discussion
- - Ask for any comments
- - Suggest an answer and ask for agreement or disagreement
- Someone who doesn't take the discussion seriously or gives silly comments.
- - 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
- "I know that laughter can mean that people are nervous or feeling uncomfortable.
Does anyone have any special concerns?"
- People monopolize the discussion.
- - 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.
- Someone keeps changing the subject or goes on tangents.
- -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."
- People keep interrupting.
- "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."
- Hostile or belligerent group members
- -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.
- The group gets stuck (lacks sufficient information to go on) Refer
to resources. Suggest the need for further information if you or someone else
in the discussion does not know the answer.
- 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?"
- You are running out of time.
- - 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
- People keep addressing their questions to you.
- - 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
- Inability to move to another topic because people are overly engaged
in a lively discussion
- - 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.
- Something inappropriate is stated, i.e., something offensive, misinformation
- - 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
- - Acknowledge discomfort over a comment...but own it as your discomfort.
Don't speak for the group.
- Keep to the committed ending time, unless you ask the group if they
would like to continue for a specified period of time. (Remember, ending a
little too soon is better than discussing a topic to death. Ending on a high
note will encourage the discussion to continue at a later time.) Indicate
that you will stay around for a while if anyone else wishes to continue the
- Summarize (or have a participant summarize) the major thrust of the
- - 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.
- Comment on (or have the group comment on) how the discussion went
- - 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?
- If appropriate, help the group decide what the next steps should
be if any. Decide if people want to continue the discussion at a later time.
Determine a starting point for the next discussion. Decide if people who did
not attend the first discussion should attend the second.
- Emphasize the commitment to confidentiality and sensitivity to the
comments shared by members of the group.
- Indicate that you (and other residence staff members) will also be available
to discuss related issues at another time, especially if this discussion has
brought up difficult or painful experiences.
- Thank everyone for the discussion...for their honest participation,
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:
- How well did the group stay focused on the topic? What contributed to this?
- How did the structure and timing contribute to the discussion? What changes,
if any, would you make?
- How involved were individuals in the discussion? Were there any individuals
noticeably silent, angry or upset? Usually, it is best to avoid questioning
or confronting the behavior afterwards, but it may be important to keep your
eye on the individual. Sometime the behavior you observed in the discussion
might indicate serious personal difficulties. If in doubt what to do consult
with your RF or RD.
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.
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