Guidebook V: Facilitating Discussion
How to guide your group and deepen understanding.
Sam did a head count as people took their seats. The atmosphere in the room was charged as different personalities jostled for space. Sam was nervous but held back from speaking until everyone was settled. He consulted his notes and shared a few thoughts. In the discussion that followed, Sam was able to identify those confident enough to share their opinions openly. There was one who might happily talk all evening and several content to be silent.
Before unpacking the study, Sam gave them the task of splitting into smaller groups. He asked them to discuss their experience of similar groups they had attended and how they felt about contributing in an open forum. The stories were slow to emerge at first, but within several minutes were in full flow. He overheard one girl sharing her tale of embarrassment when she misquoted the Bible, and someone corrected her publicly. Another member talked about his church background that discouraged women from participating, and how much he now enjoyed hearing a female perspective. A trio of men debated the merit of providing information rather than sharing their personal feelings on topics.
Sam allowed the discussions to take as much time as was needed for each member to speak. Then he drew their attention with a story of his own. By the time they settled down to discuss that evening’s topic, there was an air of mutual respect and understanding.
How to Talk
As Group Guide, you have the role of navigator. You know where you would like the discussion to go. Your group participants will want to stop along the way. It is up to you to guide conversation in such a way that it serves the evening’s goal. Sometimes this is as simple as having a few key phrases up your sleeve that you can pull out when the need arises:
Thank you for that perspective, I would love to come back to that some time. Tonight, however, we’re focusing more on…
I’m going to make a note of that point to follow up on it another time.
I’d like to jump in here and remind you that we’re talking about this tonight…
Perhaps we could continue this conversation over coffee?
It’s important to hear different perspectives on these issues. Would anyone like to disagree?
We could talk about this all night. How about we stop there and move on to…
It is possible to talk too much as Group Guide and it is equally possible not to talk enough. If you dominate conversation, there is less space for other people to be heard. If you lack the confidence to step in and re-direct the flow of discussion, you cede control of the group to its most opinionated members. You need to find the line somewhere in the middle of these two positions. Here are some boundaries you may want to set to facilitate that balance:
Stick to a plan
It is helpful for everyone if you have a plan for the evening and that you communicate it to the group. Tell them at the start of your time together what the structure for the session is and stick to it.
Reflect what you hear
Rather than sharing your personal opinions, you can reflect the thoughts of your Group Members and so deepen their understanding of the topics. Provide a summary of the ideas shared and then move on to the next point.
Set time frames
When allowing space for small group discussion, set a time limit, and adhere to it.
Advice for You
The role of Group Guide in the context of open, honest conversation is challenging. It requires that you listen well, while remaining mindful of your plan for the session and the topics you hope to cover. In the midst of that demanding balancing act, you need to take care of yourself too. Here are some ways to do that:
It takes courage to step in and take control of a conversation that has veered off topic. When you have a clear plan for the session that you have outlined from the start, all that is required is a gentle reminder. The group will function better when you can communicate this with strength and clarity.
If things are not working in your group, you can encourage members to share that. The issues can be discussed without naming names. It is not your responsibility to fix interpersonal disputes, but you can create a safe forum in which problems can be addressed.
Go easy on yourself
You won’t always get it right. The dynamic in your group will also evolve over time. Some evenings conversation will flow, and other times it will be more of a struggle. The burden of good communication does not rest entirely on your shoulders. You can only act as a guide; it is the responsibility of the group to follow your lead.
How are you?
Take some time to consider where you want your group to go. What is your goal for your time together? Is there anything specific you need to meet that goal? Are there obstacles preventing you from enjoying meaningful and honest discussion? What steps can you take towards deeper understanding in your group this week?
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