9 reasons to engage in group discussions and 10 ways to generate good ones

When asked to form discussion groups in a workshop, on a training day or at an event ….do you do so grudgingly or with an energy and enthusiasm?

Discussions come in many guises and can be:

  • Informal or formal
  • Structured or unstructured
  • Open to those with an interest e.g Twitter chats #ldinsights on a Fri morn
  • Closed to invited members e.g LinkedIn group
  • Held face to face
  • Held synchronously through virtual mediums such as Google Hangout, Skype, Zoom RealtimeBoard,  AWWapp
  • Held asynchronously which gives flexibility and control, time to think and reflect before responding

Effective discussions are an excellent way of learning. Here are my top 9 reasons why discussions can help you to learn:

9 reasons to engage in group discussions

  1. At the table, a group of people will each have their own lens of how they see the world, beliefs, preconceptions and assumptions. This provides rich fodder to gain multiple perspectives, broaden understanding and increase  our emotional awareness  as we try to understand those who may have different worldviews
  2. Knowledge skills, experience are pooled together to develop a richer and deeper collective understanding of the topic / issue
  3. The above leads to the co creation of knowledge and collaborative learning
  4. You can use the ideas / knowledge of others to improve your own thinking, build on prior knowledge and experiences and develop new ideas/ perspectives
  5. It improves your skills in engaging in discourse – listening, communicating ideas, taking turns, respecting other people’s opinions, hold each other to account
  6. You develop a shared understanding and identity with group members
  7. It helps you to develop your voice and perspectives in relation to your peers / group members
  8. You are able to solve complex problems more easily than you would on your own
  9. It fosters curiosity and builds wisdom – the more you engage in discussions with different people from different backgrounds, cultures, places, viewpoints…your depth and breadth of understanding and worldview widens. In a personal capacity this has led to greater tolerance, emotional resilience and humanness

I believe that good discussions are a result of effective preparation and excellent facilitation where meticulous attention is paid to process, content, inter and intrapersonal dynamics, energy, flow and by a facilitator who is able to engender trust, is flexible with the ability to challenge yet be supportive and has a toolkit of styles, approaches and techniques to help participants engage in meaningful interactions through critical inquiry, debate and reflection.

Good discussions require participants to engage, contribute and work together. A facilitator needs to manage not only the process but also the dynamics of the group.

 10 ways to generate good discussions

  1. Be prepared (what are the learning outcomes, how will you manage the time, what preparation dos participants need, what questions will stimulate thinking and inquiry…)
  2. Consider the space (room layout, light, seating, breaks ….if virtual may need to recap / explain tools to ensure members can  use)
  3. Create a sense of community and foster a safe space where each person can be heard, has a voice , can express their ideas and feelings and can speak openly and honestly  without ridicule or fear
  4. Begin the above by cultivating connections right at the beginning. How much time you allocate to this will depend on how long group members will be interacting and working with each other. So whilst a 10-15 minute activity may be applicable for a group that will be working together once for a short time, more time will be required if this extends to days, weeks, months…Utilise activities such as human bingo, storytelling circles, appreciative inquiry interviews to get people connected
  5. Establish how the group would like to work and get them to generate their own ground rules e.g. on respect, confidentiality etc…this encourages ownership and accountability
  6. Model good discussion techniques. For example, building on another individual’s contribution (as Mike stated…); follow up questions that deepen the discussion (how would you respond to Adrian’s comments?)
  7. Monitor and manage group processes, keeping track of how group members are participating (who has spoken, who hasn’t, whose points haven’t been heard…) and manage group dynamics and personalities appropriately
  8. Consider splitting the group to examine a variety of viewpoints, to give people a chance to talk more easily, to help quiet and shy participants put their points forward, for example, use :

Circle stories: Start with an individual reflection which is shared with another person. Pairs join with pairs and share in a quartet. A quartet  join with another quartet and so on….

World café

  • Break the large group into groups of 4-5 people in a group
  • Provide each group with a table covered with paper that they can write, doodle, draw on
  • Allocate each group a different coloured pen
  • Provide topic, issue or question to discuss (use the same question for each table or pose different questions)
  • Give 15-20 minutes to discuss
  • Group elects a ‘table host’ who remains at the table whilst the rest of the group (travellers) goes  to the next table taking their coloured pen with them
  • Table host welcomes them and gives a brief overview of the discussion that has taken place. The travellers add their ideas, comments, suggestions
  • Continue until all the groups have had an input into each others’ issue/ topic
  • Bring together for feedback, sharing of discoveries and insights, identifying any emerging patterns and harnessing collective knowledge

9. Use your facilitation skills to judge when to intervene, to encourage participants to respond directly to each other, allow time for pauses, silence, reflection; keep the discussion flowing, manage energy levels , summarise, wrap up, draw together outcomes, next steps, actions..etc

10. Help participants to reflect on the process and learning by getting them to:

– summarise the discussion to pull together interpretations, reactions, ideas, collective knowledge

– reflect on  ‘what role did I play in the discussion?’, ‘How did I contribute?’, ‘What would I do differently next time?’

– articulate the conditions facilitated or hindered the learning process

– think about, ‘did I suspend my beliefs, opinions, perspectives to consider alternatives and how have they changed?’

Most of us engage in some form of discussion everyday.  Approach each one with a curious mind, empathetic listening,  a non judgemental attitude and an openness to learn.

What are you tops tips for facilitating discussions?

What has your greatest learning been from participating in discussions?  

Read the rest of the #AtoZofLearning series:

Action Learning – what it is, benefits, how it works

Blogs and Blogging – why read, where to find them, how to start blogging

Coaching – why use, how to find the right coach for you, questions to ask your coach and yourself

I’m an executive coach, leadership facilitator and learning & development consultant working with leaders to develop the skills and behaviours to inspire performance, drive results and achieve career success. Within organisations, I help to facilitate better conversations, designing learning interventions which deliver practical and lasting solutions aligned to business strategy and goals.

If you enjoyed reading this post, please follow, like, comment, share and connect with me @verawoodhead




About verawoodhead

I'm an executive coach, leadership facilitator and learning & development consultant working with managers and leaders to develop the skills and behaviours to inspire performance and drive results; achieve promotion ; make successful career changes, be resilient and thrive at work. Within organisations, I help to facilitate better conversations, design learning interventions which deliver practical and lasting solutions aligned to business strategy and goals. Connect with me on Twitter @verawoodhead
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