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How to Facilitate a Group Discussion

Mrunal Belvalkar Mar 12, 2019
There are so many things that can go wrong in a group discussion - it may become too personal, it may go off on a totally irrelevant tangent, or it may simply fail to be productive. How can you avoid this and facilitate a group discussion to make it fruitful? Come, let's find out.
"Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else."
~ Margaret Mead
A group discussion is one of the easiest, and yet trickiest ways to encourage people to come up with different ideas, concepts and views about a particular issue. Each one of us is unique, so that a set of variables will never all be the same for any two people.
Even twins who have been brought up by the same parents, have gone to the same school, have had the same advantages and disadvantages will still develop into radically different people. This is one of the most significant reasons why group discussion can prove to be really useful.
However, there are many things about a group discussion that might also go against it. So, what can you do to facilitate it smoothly and ensure it turns out productive?

9 Tips to Fuel Group Discussions

The person who presides over a group discussion is called the facilitator. It is the facilitator's role to ensure that a group discussion does not go askew! Apart from the basic group facilitation skills that a facilitator must possess, here are 9 easy tips to facilitate any kind of group discussion.

Rules are NOT Meant to be Broken

Lay down some fundamental rules and see to it that everybody follows them. Ensure that the discussions don't get too personal; make sure that people express their personal views about something. They should not take on your role of the facilitator and give both sides of the discussion. It is only going to confuse (and probably enrage) other participants.
Encourage participants to take a stand. Make sure that when one person talks, others listen with complete attention and without interrupting. These basic rules will help keep the group discussion friendly and healthy.

Balance 'For' and 'Against'

Chances are that in due course of the discussion, the participants automatically fall into 'for' and 'against' categories (or 'agree' and 'disagree'). Try to avoid this; however, should it happen, see to it that you balance both the sides.
It may happen that one of the two groups is in minority. However, that should not make them feel like their views are not being regarded. Make sure you give both the groups an equal chance.

Direct and Divert

As the facilitator of the group discussion, you have to ensure you keep participants focused. At the same time, the discussion should be flexible and should grow outward, so that relevant questions are raised, that will help enlarge the sphere of discussion.
Direct the group discussion to suitable areas that will help increase the scope of the discussion. Divert participants away from controversial, biased or irrelevant areas.

Fair and Square

One of the most important measures to facilitate group discussion is to keep the discussion fair, just and unbiased. However, this should not only apply to the discussion, but also to the participants.
Make sure that none of your participants feel left-out, or like their views are not being considered or entertained. Observe their body language, it will give you important clues. The discussion should not turn one-track minded either. Keep the discussion fair.

Questions to Question!

You can ask important, crucial questions that will facilitate the group discussion. Apart from that, remember the questions you ask to support the discussion should also help you in your quest to make the discussion productive.
A group discussion should not be simply led in one direction after another without any of these endeavors being useful. Use questions to your advantage, so that:

✤ You control the topic being discussed

✤ You facilitate group discussion of other relevant topics
✤ You ensure everybody participates (for example, you may turn to the less active participant and ask him/her for his/her view on something)

✤ You keep the group focused on what is being discussed and not let them go askew

✤ You can generate relevance and perspective in the discussion

Follow the Flow

One of the most important tips to facilitate group discussions is to make sure that everybody follows the discussion without getting lost in their own thoughts. If you really want the discussion to be productive, it is important that everybody keeps track of the different ideas and views being discussed and put forth by the participants.
One way to do this is to repeat the key point or the gist of someone's view after he/she is done expressing it (don't do it all the time!). Another way could be to ask follow-up questions (for instance, if someone puts forth a new concept, you can ask some participant what he/she thinks about the concept). Most importantly, make sure everybody is listening.

Yes-No, Black-White

The kind of questions you ask to facilitate and ease a group discussion is important. Good idea to avoid the 'yes-no', 'black-white', 'true-false' kind of questions; a discussion can assume the properties of a debate if you do that.
Try to stick to open-ended questions. Make sure your questions are not too narrow, or too direct either; it may make the participants feel cornered or triggered. Frame your questions in such a way that they encourage a broad spectrum of views, opinions, concepts and ideas in the form of answers.

People and Personalities

The kind of people that make up a particular group that has gathered for a group discussion will be versatile and dynamic. There are going to be all sorts of people, from all kinds of backgrounds, with different upbringings, who will have different views.
Although this is in fact a good thing, there can be times when it turns against the group discussion. In general, the facilitator should be wary of (and be able to handle) 4 main kinds of people.
✤ Those who talk too much (this is a group discussion, not a monologue!)

✤ Those who talk too less (you are part of a group discussion, so speak up!)

✤ Those who talk insensitively (ok, that was just plain, simple rude!)

✤ Those who talk on tangents (and what has that got to do with what we are talking about?)

Materials and Methods

It is always a good idea to facilitate group discussion with aids like a whiteboard (use this to keep track of the discussion), perhaps a wary PowerPoint presentation (use this for the introduction, before the discussion begins), etc.
You can hand out small writing pads to the participants so they can use it to scribble notes, or jot down points or issues they want to raise, etc. You can even use pictures or video clips wherever necessary/relevant. If the discussion is going to have an audience, you can even involve the audience through a poll.
You can have a drop-box in which participants may drop in their questions (which they would like to raise in due course of the discussion) and suggestions (at the end of the group discussion).
You can even print handouts to give participants background information about the issue that is going to be discussed; mention the aim and objectives of the discussion in the handout too. The idea is to make the group discussion as interactive and easy as possible.
Finally, remember that this is simply an activity and should not turn out to be too serious, or any more serious than necessary. Make sure the atmosphere in the room is warm, welcoming and friendly. Make sure the seating arrangement is not too structured or rigid. Keep some refreshments for the participants. Take a break if the discussion gets too heated.
One idea to dissipate the tension in a group discussion can be to introduce humor. Humor is the best 'pin' to 'burst' the tension bubble.
If the facilitator of a group discussion bears these 9 tips, every group discussion can turn out to be a wonderful and interactive exercise that is appreciated by all the participants and that helps everybody gain different points of view and perspective on a particular issue.