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Faith A. Hunter is an educator and currently serves as an associate editor for the Sabbath School and Personal Ministries Department of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.


Facilitating a Small Group Discussion (pdf)

“The aim of argument, or of discussion, should not be victory, but progress.” - Joseph Joubert.

In any society that claims to be progressive, one of the greatest ways to effect change is through discussion. Discussions take many forms – debates, town hall meetings, panels, church groups, classroom groups and online forums. However, many discussions take place in a small group. Participating in a small group discussion is simple enough but what about facilitating one? While it may be a little intimidating to facilitate, especially if it is for the first time, there are some useful skills that can be acquired from that role.

Facilitating can be used in discussions at home, in the workplace or at church. Therefore, facilitation can be very helpful for ministerial spouse leaders or anyone in a leadership role that involves discussions. So, what are some of these skills necessary to becoming a great facilitator?    

Group Discussions and the Facilitator

A group discussion is a critical conversation about a particular topic or range of topics.  In a group discussion, many different ideas and viewpoints are considered in a group of a size that allows participation by all members. A facilitator makes that happen. The word, facilitate, is from the Latin facilis, which means easy. Therefore a facilitator allows the exchange of ideas, and makes it easy. That means the facilitator doesn’t have to have all the answers or know what the group should do but should allow others to express their opinions and ideas. Sometimes the group discussion is for the purpose of solving a problem or deciding on an action. Other times it is just to increase understanding between two parties. Other times the discussion is to offer support. Whatever the form the discussion takes, there are some roles of the facilitator that will help to achieve the desired outcome. Facilitators create a suitable space; establish ground rules; maintain the process; support participants and encourage an action resulting from the discussion.

Key Roles of the Facilitator

Create a suitable space

While finding a space for a group discussion probably doesn’t rank the same as landing prime real estate, location and environment play an important role. The seats should be comfortable so that participants feel relaxed. They should also be arranged, as far as possible, so that everyone can be easily seen and heard.

Maintain the process


Invite God’s Holy Spirit to be with you and the group members as you embark on the discussion. Regardless of the purpose of the discussion, we can rely on Him to create the change we need in our lives.

Establish ground rules

You may ask group members to come up with a list of acceptable rules. The list below covers some very important ones.

·      KEEP CONFIDENCES – the Vegas rule (what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas)

·      Everyone should treat everyone else with respect – no name calling

·      No arguments directed at people – only ideas and opinions

·      No interrupting

·      Respect the group’s time – keep comments short

·      Consider all comments seriously, and try to evaluate them fairly

·      Don’t be defensive if someone disagrees with you

·      Everyone is responsible for following and upholding the ground rules

Use an icebreaker

Use an icebreaker game that gets everyone warmed up to each other. Even if participants already know each other, they may learn something new. It also gets everyone participating.

Guide the discussion

Ask good questions.

§  Open-ended – “What can we do to make our church more visible in the community?” vs. “Is our church very visible in the community?”

§  Follow-up or clarifying – “What I think I heard you say was…”

Start an argument – if everyone seems to be agreeing with each other, say something like, “What would you say to someone who disagrees with that?”

Summarize and clarify as you go along

Ever so often summarize the points being said to be sure that the discussion is staying on track and that everyone has the same understanding.  “So Melissa you agree with Ed that a panel discussion between minister’s spouses and the church would be a good idea, right?”

If group members appear to be confused at times, clarify points being made by saying, “So what I hear you saying is… Is that correct?”

Record the main points of the discussion

Record the main points of the discussion in a visible way. Use whatever equipment or technology is available to help everyone see what is being recorded. This helps to keep the discussion on track and it helps you to summarize at the end.

Support the Participants

Handle challenging behavior

One of the functions of a group discussion is to allow everyone to participate. Remind participants of the value of diversity of perspectives. Let them know that each person has something unique to contribute that no one else can. However, total participation can become a challenge because of certain types of participants.

The Dominator – This person has a lot to say and wants to say all of it!

§  Handle that challenging behavior by saying something like, “This is an interesting point and certainly worth the time we’ve spent on it, but there are other points of view that need to be heard as well. I think Mindy has been waiting to speak…”

§  Use the post-it note method. Give three post-it notes to each person when the discussion begins. As they contribute have them give you one of their post-it notes or put it out of sight. If someone is dominating the conversation, say something like, “Your points are very interesting but let’s hear from someone who hasn’t used a post-it yet or who has post-its remaining.

§  Call on one of your more reticent group members directly by asking an opinion.


The Observer – This person is quite happy to observe without contributing. Some ways to increase the Observer’s participation are:

§  Round robin participation – start with one person and go around the group, expecting and encouraging each person to say something.

§  Pair-share discussions – group members form groups of two and discuss an idea. One person may report to the general group once it reforms.

§  Asking opinion questions – most people are willing to give their opinion when asked.

§  Using the post-it note method. (see above) Say, “I see you haven’t used any of your post-it notes yet.”

§  Suggest that they write down their thoughts (the post-it notes are really handy for that).


The Tangent-starter – This person gets the discussions off track by introducing new and unrelated topics. Keep this behavior to a minimum by:

§  Keeping a list of questions and issues on a board and refer to them as you proceed.

§  Asking another participant to summarize the discussion.

§  Say something like, “That’s an interesting point that sounds like it could make a topic of discussion for another time.”

The Persecutor – This person makes personal attacks on other members, make fun of answers, cuts people off, becomes very defensive when he/she is not agreed with or a variety of other offensive behaviors.  Here is what you can do:

§  Remind everyone of the guidelines.

§  If someone has been personally attacked, say, “Let’s look at John’s idea and not John himself.”

§  Suggest meeting with that person outside of the group.

The Arguer – This person gets into conflict with other group members. He or she insists on his or her point without trying to see the other person’s point of view. The discussion cannot move forward as group members are caught in a volley of remarks with that person.

§  Say something like, “It sounds like we have a difference of opinion here,” or “Let’s hear from both points of view and continue until both sides agree they have been understood.”

§  Refer participants to an authoritative source – a research finding, a book written about the subject, personal testimonies, etc.

§  Remind group members of how values and beliefs may affect opinion. For example, if it is someone’s belief that children learn best in a very sedentary environment, then that person may be adamant that active participation in a children’s Sabbath School would not be effective. Dealing with underlying beliefs may promote understanding.

§  Speak to that person outside of the group.

The Error-giver – This person states incorrect information as facts. Say something like:

§  I’m very glad that worked for you. Other people have found that ______________ worked better for them.”

§  “I’m glad you brought that up. That used to be what was generally recommended, but now new research has found that…”

§  “That’s too bad. What could you have done differently, if you had the information we talked about today?”

§  “That’s a really interesting issue. Let’s check some other sources and see what they say about it.”

Create a safe environment

§  Keep confidences – Don’t refer to things that were discussed in another group or what someone else outside of this group said. Group members will feel that you will do the same to them.

§  Accept and respect someone’s feeling without necessarily agreeing with his opinion. Say, “I see you feel strongly about that. We appreciate your passion. Does anyone else have another point of view on this topic?”

§  Affirm all who share even if you don’t agree with their point-of view. Say something like, “Thank you Tricia for sharing your opinion. That is certainly a different perspective from what we are used to. Does everyone else see it the way Tricia does or is there someone with a different point of view?”

§  Model and help group members to evaluate statements fairly. Don’t agree or disagree with someone based on who that person is or is not. For example, it might be easy to agree someone who has been the community service leader for years when discussing ways that the church could be more involved with the community. Or it may be easy to accept a high school teacher’s opinion when talking about a youth service. It might be harder to accept the views of someone who just became a member of the church or someone from a different country or culture.

Encourage an action

If the purpose of the discussion was to decide on an action, then encourage group members to put into words the action that has been decided on. Decide on the steps needed to implement the action and assign someone to oversee the implementation. If the discussion was to offer support or inform, urge group members to use the information they have gotten to make a positive change in their lives. Say, “What one thing can you do differently in this next week to start living out what we have learned here today?”

Leading a group effectively takes prayer, an awareness of the process of group discussions, and a commitment to supporting the participants. There is also a commitment to stay neutral, but if involved, to model acceptance and respect and freedom from preconceived ideas. In addition, be lighthearted whenever possible and you will be well on your way to becoming an effective small group facilitator which is a skill you can use for years to come.  



Facilitating Effective Group Discussions: Tips http://www.brown.edu/about/administration/sheridan-center/teaching-learning/effective-classroom-practices/discussions-seminars/facilitating 

Facilitating WIC Discussion Groups – Guidelines, Concepts and Techniques https://wicworks.fns.usda.gov/wicworks//Sharing_Center/WA/Connect/Facilitating.pdf

How to Facilitate Discussions http://blink.ucsd.edu/HR/training/instructor/tools/discussions.html

Techniques for Leading Group Discussions  http://ctb.ku.edu/en/search/node/Techniques%20for%20Leading%20Group%20discussions

Tips for Facilitating a Group Discussion http://www.smallgroups.com/articles/2008/tips-for-facilitating-group-discussion.html