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Discussion Tips

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Facilitation: Discussion Tips

Generating active learning exchanges

Tips and ideas to improve your facilitation skills:   

1. Facilitator Guide: Handbook of facilitation skills

2. Brainstorming: Tap the best thinking of a group

3. Discussion Tips: Strategies to conduct meaningful and lively discussion

4. Evaluation Form: A three-aspect evaluation form

5. Visual Aids: Common sense tips for effective visual aid use 


Discussion Tips

Active and productive discussion is often the element that makes or breaks a learning event.  Many times what participants say to each other shapes how they feel about the whole learning experience.  The good facilitator knows that stimulating active discussion is both an art form and a matter of technique.  Below are some tips and strategies that may support your facilitation efforts.

A.  Create an Attitude for DiscussionParticipants need to understand that you as the facilitator are truly interested in having them talk meaningfully to one another.  This requires establishing the right environment for healthy discussion.  Consider the following:

1.       Participants have to believe that the facilitator wants to hear participant responses.

2.       Avoid creating a repressive tone by making negative comments if the participants don’t respond right away.

3.       Encourage the participants to speak to one another, not through you the facilitator

4.       Make it clear (state it) that discussion is an expectation.  Reinforce this expectation periodically.

5.       Don’t be afraid of silence—wait them out.

6.       Make your question asking conversational and personal.  Make sure that the participants see you as deeply involved with the question.

7.       Before your session begins, strike up personal conversations with individuals.  This forms a connection that will help support discussion later.

8.       Inject energy and passion into your discussion set up

9.       Personalize a discussion question by offering a personal example or story

10.   As the facilitator you need to understand the discussion strategy that you are employing before you ask a discussion question.  Do you want the participants to define something, settle on a group action, broaden their understanding, discover answers, reduce ambiguity, feel a personal connection to something, deepen an understanding, connect with new learning, see things differently, etc.

11.   Set up your discussion question so that the participants can either relate to it directly or feel a sense of ownership toward it.

12.   Before you ask a question, understand what kind of discussion you expect.  Is it a challenge or argumentative discussion, an inquiry discussion, a clarification discussion, a knowledge building discussion, a consensus seeking discussion, a brainstorming discussion, a best practices discussion, a discussion to reach a particular objective, goal, or solution, etc.

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 Books to Improve Your Listening Skills



B. Twenty Discussion TipsThere is no cookie cutter formula for successful group discussion.  Each group is different and operates in accordance with its own dynamic.  Nevertheless, the tips below will help you as the facilitator to encourage productive discussion:

1.       Set up your discussion question with a story, problem, challenge, definition, etc. Then lead naturally into the question.  Don’t hit them cold turkey with a question.

2.       Offer a rhetorical question, then pause for reflection, then move to your discussion question.

3.       Be sure that your questions have an objective or direction.  Explain not only how they fit into the topic under study, but also how they will move their learning forward.

4.       Ask participants to draw a conclusion from your present material or activity and then from that conclusion move to your discussion question.

5.       For clarification purposes, define terms or explain items that may not be understood by all participants.

6.       Help the participants sort through the ideas presented in the discussion.  Not everything is equal, so you want to highlight key thoughts and priority statements.

7.       Make certain that your discussion questions are open-ended enough to foster true discussion.

8.       When needed, re-clarify the topic under discussion to keep the participants focused.

9.       Give the participants time to write down a response before discussion begins.

10.   When a participant says something, offer feedback—don’t let the comment “flop.”

11.   Have people discuss the question with the person next to them before you call for group discussion.

12.   At various points in the discussion, tie together statements made by different participants.  You may do this by rephrasing, summarizing, synthesizing, referencing, etc.

13.   As participants discuss, interject new ideas, examples, and thought provokers.  However, be careful not to shift the focus to you—this will stifle participation rather than encourage it.  Your goal as the facilitator is to drive the discussion deeper so the conversation is richer and more productive.

14.   Sometimes you may want to restate or summarize what someone has said to encourage more discussion on that point or to highlight a fruitful line of thinking.

15.   Try to tie your questions to something relevant to the participants.  If possible, link your question to something that the participants have in common—an experience, a source reading, a situation, a responsibility, an event, etc.

16.   When you are greeting participants as they enter the room, let them know that you look forward to hearing their opinions and observations.

17.   On occasion, you may find it helpful to assign a participant as a discussion leader.

18.   At times you may divide the group into small discussion groups and after a set amount of time have each open up discussion with the full group.

19.   Keep the discussion on course.  If the discussion strays pull it back by referring to something someone said earlier.

20.   Listen carefully to the speakers—visibly show them that you are thinking deeply about what they are saying.

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C. Facilitator response to silence or abbreviated statements.  One of the biggest fears of facilitators is to ask a discussion question only to see it go nowhere.  Standing in front of a group that won’t respond is the stuff of facilitator nightmares.  Some of the “dos and don’ts” listed below may help to stimulate participation:

1.      Call on specific individuals to break the ice (select participants who you think have an idea or two)

2.      If you don’t get a response, rephrase the question, approach it from a different angle, reshape it so it is more specific, or focus on one part or one aspect of the question.

3.      Praise participant comments—“Wow, great insight,” “That’s a unique way to look at it,” “Good stuff,” etc.  This will encourage more participation.

4.      Ask the participants if they have read anything that relates to the discussion question; or if they know of an authority who has addressed the topic under discussion.

5.      To get a discussion going you may want to start with a rapid fire round robin where each participant gives a very short reaction to the question or topic under discussion.

6.      Try using contrast questions that ask the participants to compare one thing to another.

7.      If someone says something and no one joins in, ask the group “How many of you have had the same experience (or see things the same way or agree with participant X)?”  Then select someone and say “Tell us why you agree or disagree.”

8.     If participants are not responding to your question, you may want to give your personal opinion (keep it very brief).  This may stimulate a response.

9.     Deflect answers given to you to participants in the group.

10.   If there is a silence, wait 10 to 20 seconds and say “have you had enough time to think about the question?”  This will occasionally unlock a starter comment.

11.   Set up a concrete situation to exemplify the discussion question and then ask participants to respond to your scenario.

12.   If you don’t get a response, ask participants to re-word the question—“Can someone restate this question so it will open discussion?”

13.   Don’t use their silence as an excuse to deliver more facilitator “lecture.”

14.   Don’t move through a series of questions in a mechanical or staccato manner.  This shuts down engaged discussion and encourages the participants to seek the “correct” answer for the facilitator.

15.   Don’t present your discussion questions in a question/answer format.  Use them as vehicles to open a group conversation.

16.   Don’t read the questions, rather have them flow out of your natural conversation or the context of an activity or discussion

17.   Don’t do more than one question at a time.

18.   Don’t make your discussion questions sound like test questions.

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D. Useful Discussion “Bridges.”  Use variations of the following encouragement phrases to help stimulate or encourage ongoing discussion:

§  Can you elaborate on that….

§  Tell me more….

§  Someone take this in another direction…

§  What do you mean by….

§  Does anyone disagree with that….

§  Does anyone have a different take on that….

§  Can anyone give an example….

§  Can you dig a little deeper….

§  How did you come to this conclusion….

§  Can you see evidence of this in your daily work…

§  Can you think of a situation where this would not be true….

§  Have you had an experience that brought you to this conclusion….

§  Does everyone know what he (the speaker) is talking about….

§  Is there another way to see things…

§  I’m not sure what you mean, are you saying….

§  Can anyone say this in another way…

§  How do you (the group) define ….

§  Have you thought about “x”….

§  When is this not true….  Or is this true in all cases….

§  Have the rest of you thought about this in the same way….

§  Who can provide evidence for this…

§  Who has had the same experience or situation…

§  Say more about that…

§  Go into more detail…

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E. Facilitator Movement to Encourage Group Discussion.   Don’t forget that your gestures and movement can encourage (or discourage) active discussion.  Below are some movement strategies that may be helpful:

1.      Change your position in the room for discussion.  Participants will learn that when you are in this position they are expected to speak.

2.      For discussion, break the distance between your lecture position and the participants.

3.      When a participant speaks, move to another table to visually encourage them to respond to the speaker.

4.      While you are waiting for a response to your discussion question, walk toward the group until you are in their midst.

5.      After asking a discussion question, make eye contact with a participant to encourage him or her to respond.

6.      Sit down at one of the group tables after you have asked an extended discussion question (be sure to be in a seat that all can see).

7.      As participants leave for a break, individually thank or praise those who contributed.

8.      If you ask a discussion question and you don’t get a response, move to another spot in the room and rephrase the question.

9.      As participants are discussing or thinking about a question, move around the room to visually include everyone.

10.   Show the participants with gestures and body language that you are connected to what they are saying.  A simple hand gesture can say “great comment;” a facial expression can encourage a speaker to dig deeper; or a body stance can tell the group that you are reflecting on a particularly important point.  Whatever you do, don’t use discussion time to go over your lecture notes, or adjust equipment, or stare out the window.

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