By Dick Mooney
There are often occasions at support group meetings where interactive discussion is required. These occasions may involve a meeting-opening “round table” where members introduce themselves and tell a bit about their background; open discussion of amputation-related issues such as accessibility problems members have encountered at local businesses; and “brainstorming” ideas for future meetings, activities the group wishes to engage in, or identifying problems and suggesting solutions. The question and answer period that follows most formal presentations is also an opportunity for interactive discussion. These kinds of discussions need to be “managed” effectively or the members will not feel good about being able to participate productively and will not receive the greatest possible benefit from the meeting.
As a support group leader, you will often play the role of discussion leader during group meetings. But “facilitating” is a bit more than just discussion leading. The dictionary says “to facilitate” is “to make something easier.” A facilitator, then, is a person who makes group discussion easier. This is an important point and why I prefer the term “facilitator” to “discussion leader.”
In this article, I will suggest a variety of skills, techniques, and behaviors that will help you become a better facilitator.
Room Setup – The way the meeting room is arranged plays an important role in promoting interactive discussion. Auditorium or classroom style arrangements where the members all sit facing the speaker tend to generate an unconscious feeling among the members that the speaker’s role is to speak and their role is to listen. This is fine for formal presentations but deadly to interactive discussion.
Much better are square or circular arrangements with the facilitator in the center, or U-shaped arrangements with the facilitator at the open end of the U. These kinds of arrangements work well for both formal presentations and interactive discussion. The circle, square, and U enable the people to see each other’s faces and capitalize on the fact that it’s much easier to talk to a face than to the back of a head. Also, with a circle, square, or U, no one can “hide” in the back row to avoid participating. Everyone has an equally important front row seat in these seating arrangements.
As for facilitating discussion, it’s probably immaterial whether or not tables are used. I prefer tables whenever they’re available because people will have a place to write if they want to take notes and a place to put materials such as purses. Also, tables can be more comfortable when people can alternate sitting back with leaning on the table. (If refreshments are served during the meeting, tables are much better.)
Body Language – The facilitator’s demeanor can set the tone for the discussion and sometimes for the whole meeting. A facilitator who is physically quiet, with a deadpan facial expression and a soft voice will probably set quite a different tone than a facilitator who is physically active, facially expressive, and speaks enthusiastically.
The physical energy that’s displayed by the facilitator tends to be picked up and duplicated by the group. Low energy begets non-energetic group involvement and vice versa. When I facilitate a meeting I like to be in the center of the circle and walk around a lot. I try to remember to smile because I know that my natural face is serious and I know that just doesn’t work as well as a smile. Often I wave my arms, I crouch, I lunge, I lean toward who’s speaking. It sounds silly, but people tell me repeatedly that it makes the discussion much more lively and much more fun. I know from experience that when people see I’m “getting into it” they tend to “get into it” with me.
I’m certainly aware that many amputee support group leaders have physical limitations that I don’t have, and that it may just not be possible for them to be as active as I am. But if you can walk, walking is better than sitting. If you use a wheelchair, rolling around is better than staying in one place. If you only have one arm, wave it occasionally. And we can all smile and speak enthusiastically with a big voice.
Eye contact is a critical form of body language. It says “you’re important to me” and “I hear you.” If you also lean toward the speaker, that simply strengthens the favorable effect. Nodding your head says “I agree.” That’s a good idea even when you don’t, because “I agree” is reinforcing while body language that says “I don’t agree” stifles participation.
I love it when the discussion gets active and energetic and when everyone is anxious to speak. It’s my chance to play body language traffic cop. I point my finger to tell someone to speak. I hold my palm up to someone who’s interrupting. I move my hand in a circular “come here” motion to encourage hesitant speakers. It works! When I’m having fun it encourages everyone to have fun.
Of course, it would be a mistake simply to copy the body language of another facilitator if you’re not comfortable with it. Instead, remember that your energy level is an important factor in encouraging the group to participate energetically. Do what’s natural for you, but do make it a goal to step up your energy.
Listening – Good facilitators are effective listeners. They believe Zino of Citium who said, “We have been given two ears and but a single mouth, in order that we may hear more and talk less.” They also know what radio operators have always known; you can’t receive when your transmit button is locked down.
Sure, we always have viewpoints we want to express but it’s more important in an open discussion to get everyone else’s viewpoints first. We can always find a way to put our two cents in later. The important thing is to relax and listen. Anyway, if we don’t understand in complete detail what people are saying, there’s no way we can facilitate the discussion by learning from it and by steering it in productive directions.
There is a companion article in this issue on “Listening” that will provide more information on this valuable leadership skill.
Getting the Discussion Started – As facilitator, you will need to explain what the subject of the discussion is and, if it’s not obvious, why a discussion of that subject is necessary. Also you will want to explain any “rules” that may be in effect such as, “Tell your name, something about your disability, and something about your life since your amputation,” or “This is a time to ask any question you want and have the others suggest some answers.”
Sometimes it’s best to have a known talker start off, especially if you know the group to be bashful or if it contains a large number of new people.
If you know the group to be reluctant to talk or if you’re dealing with a group you aren’t familiar with at all, it will help to come armed with a number of open-ended questions to prime the pump. (Remember, open-ended questions are those that can’t be answered with “yes” or “no”.)
Keeping the Discussion On Track – It’s the facilitator’s job to keep the discussion on track. It’s also the facilitator’s job not to stifle the discussion by pushing it along that track too aggressively. This is a delicate balance and requires some experience and finesse on the facilitator’s part.
The effective facilitator will remain constantly aware of the goals for the discussion and the ebb and flow of the discussion as it either follows the proper direction or digresses or heads off on a tangent. With a cooperative group, some digressions and tangents can be ignored and the discussion will get back on track by itself. If it doesn’t, the facilitator should nudge with a gentle comment, “That’s fine but we need to keep talking about. . . . ” Another good way to get back on track is to jump into a natural pause in the discussion and summarize what has been said or decided so far.
Handling participants who want to dominate or who are simply unaware that they are babbling on and on is sometimes more difficult. Every situation is different so there’s no “formula” solution to this problem. Usually, gentle comments such as, “That’s a good point, Jim. Now let’s see what the others have to say” will be enough. But sometimes a more assertive approach is required. The important point to remember is that the group will grow to resent the constant talker or interrupter and will also grow to resent the facilitator who doesn’t deal with those problems.
Visual Aids – With some kinds of discussions, such as those involving identification of problems and solutions or brainstorming, a blackboard or flip chart will almost be a necessity. Using a flip chart to list key points as the discussion progresses is also a good way to help keep on track.
Encouraging Non-Participators – The facilitator should remain aware of who is contributing and who is not. People who are not participating can be called on by name and asked for their ideas, but it’s only safe to do this once. Some people find that speaking out in public is so stressful for them they will avoid it at all costs. Insisting that they participate or calling on them more than once only increases their discomfort.
Reinforcing – Remember: to keep the discussion flowing, people’s comments should be reinforced. A “thank you,” “good idea!” or simply a smile and nod of the head can be reinforcing. Silence is not reinforcing. Criticism and judgmental comments are negative reinforcers.
Handling Extreme Emotion – Occasionally, you may be surprised when someone breaks down crying in the middle of their comment. This may paralyze the group but you must not let it paralyze you. An empathetic comment like, “I can see it really hurts you to talk about this” is appropriate. It is also appropriate to ask if they want to go on or if they would like you to come back to them. In extreme cases, you might call a short recess during which you or another member can comfort the person privately.
If the person runs from the room, it’s okay for you to continue the discussion but another group leader or an experienced group member should follow them and comfort them.
It’s important to remember that how you handle such cases will impact others in the group. The appropriate impression to leave is that it’s okay to have emotions and it’s okay to cry.
Co-Facilitators – Generally, it’s safest to have a single facilitator. It is possible for two people to facilitate the same meeting but they must be very experienced at doing this together or they can cause chaos.
In some cases, when you are facilitating a discussion involving complicated issues for example, it would be appropriate for you to appoint another person to observe and take notes. This has the added advantage of freeing you to listen and direct the discussion.
Ending the Discussion – When it’s time to end the discussion, be sure to thank everyone for their participation. If the discussion involves “business” such as problem solving or developing ideas to improve the group, be sure to sum up what was said or decided.
As with many other leadership skills, being a good facilitator requires three important things; practice, practice, and practice!