Strategies for Informal Group Discussion

Facilitator's Role

When you are asked to facilitate or lead a group discussion, plan ahead so it becomes animated but focused. Time is wasted if the discussion is allowed to go into detours that have no bearing on what the discussion hopes to accomplish. Apart from wasting everyone’s time, pointless discussions frustrate participants and make them less eager to contribute in the exchange.

To achieve a well-planned discussion, think about the cognitive, social/ emotional, and physical factors that come into play in an informal group discussion.

Cognitive Factors

  1. Identify and articulate objectives. Make sure the purpose of the discussion is clear to all participants and form your plan accordingly. If all the group members understand the goal, they are better able to focus their thinking and become more willing to participate in the discussion.
  2. Create an inclusive environment. Treat group mates with respect and consideration, and do not play favorites by letting only a few dominate the discussion. As the group leader, do not exclude others from understanding the context of the discussion, or make them feel uncomfortable. Needless to say, do not use (or allow others to use) disrespectful language, whether verbal or nonverbal. At times, it is not so much what is said as the tone used that is rude. Encourage alternate views or counter-arguments as these make for a good discussion. Above all, be humble enough to admit your own ignorance or confusion.
  3. Plan ahead by asking the right questions. Thought-provoking questions can be a good start to a healthy exchange of ideas. By asking the right questions depending on your purpose for doing so (whether to stimulate, direct, analyze or summarize), members can be eased into a productive discussion that meets the goal.
  4. Provide direction and maintain focus. Discussions tend to be most productive when all the members of the group are clearly focused. Summarize key issues occasion-ally as you go and refocus attention if the discussion seems to be getting off track.
  5. Bring closure. Synthesizing the discussion is a critical step for linking the discussion to the original objectives. Doing this allows everyone to see the progress done toward meeting the discussion goals.

Social/Emotional Factors

Know the strengths and weaknesses of your group mates and assign roles according to what they can do best. Develop a sense of fun in the group without losing sight of your purpose. Make sure everyone is engaged and is able to speak up, especially if you have a groupmate who likes to monopolize the discussion and one who hardly says anything. Be sensitive to group chemistry and what each member feels.

Physical Factors

Choose a place and seating arrangement where the discussion can take place without distraction if you can. It is best to have no more than eight members in the group, and to sit in a circle, or at least have everyone see and hear each other. Make sure the noise level, temperature, and ventilation of the room is right as these can prevent or distract you from holding a successful group interaction.

Participants' Role

Role Participants in a healthy group discussion need to play an active role by taking on leadership tasks. Remember that you are a team, and that you play an important role in making the discussion a fruitful one. Your group leader/ facilitator cannot and should not do it all.

As a group member, support the leader by actively participating. Volunteer to keep time or take down notes to make the job of the leader easier.

Be respectful by listening when others are speaking. When you disagree with what is being said, restate the point you disagree with first to make sure that you understood correctly what was said before calmly stating your objection. Back up your point with evidence, appropriate experiences, and/or logic.