Facilitation techniques and managing group conversations

Facilitation techniques and managing group conversations

Last updated: 4th October, 2023

Good facilitators manage discussions to keep conversation friendly, inclusive and on-track, not too broad or narrow. Facilitators can significantly affect how valuable discussions are for participants. Facilitation is very much a learned skill; it takes time and practice to learn how to do this effectively. The resources below should help you learn the basics and be well-equipped to facilitate welcoming conversations.

1. General guidance

  • Keep comments to 2 minutes at most.
  • Try to keep back-and-forths to at most two iterations (so person A, person B, person A, person B, then move on to someone new).
  • If the conversation has lasted too long in a particularly technical/expert domain, move onto the next question to bring the conversation back down to an accessible level.
  • You may wish to break the discussion in two if two or three people seem keen to head the discussion in a different direction.
  • Keep things light-hearted - humour is good.
  • After one person speaks, ask others for their responses rather than responding to each point yourself - you’ll end up doing too much of the talking otherwise. You can open the floor to objections, agreements, or any other thoughts.
  • If side conversations crop up within the group, politely ask people to rejoin the main conversation, perhaps by asking one of the people to share their thoughts with the whole group. If this happens a couple of times, you can suggest that people break off and have separate discussions.
  • Steer conversation to safe ground if it may be becoming controversial. Explicitly change the topic if needed. Remember that uncomfortable people are unlikely to voice their discomfort. It can be helpful for a facilitator to shift the discussion even if they are unsure whether anyone is getting upset.
  • If anyone acts inconsiderately, it is worth saying that their comment isn’t welcome. If it is only mildly inconsiderate, or if you think bringing it up might make the discussion worse, talk to the speaker privately after the session to let them know. Some people may genuinely not realise they acted offensively.
  • Sometimes, individuals will dominate discussions. It is worth having a quiet conversation after the event to let them know how they came across and ask them to reduce their contributions in the future.

2. Specific tactics you can use

  • The same people are always talking? Ask if anyone who hasn't gotten a chance to speak as much would like to add anything.
  • Slower conversation? Share discussion content ahead of time so people can think ahead about what they would like to say.
  • Jargon gets used? Ask the person who used it to define it.
  • Everyone in agreement? Ask explicitly if anyone disagrees or can think of a reason one might disagree.
  • Off on a tangent? Ask if we can put a pin in this and come back to it after the discussion so that we have time to cover all of this week's points.
  • Quiet group? Ask people a question round robin (go around and have everyone answer).
  • Silences? Be okay with them. Sometimes it takes people a while to speak up.
  • One person keeps interrupting? Ask the group as a whole if we could be cautious about letting people finish.
  • One person never talks? Watch their facial expressions for cues that they might want to say something and ask them directly if they have something to add.
  • One person continues to talk too much? Have a chat with them after the discussion thanking them for their contributions but gently explain that you would like to get to hear from everyone.

Here is a document outlining ways to deal with common questions, misconceptions, and criticisms about EA.

3. Setting discussion norms

Consider setting up discussion explicit norms, particularly if your group has more than 6 people in a single conversation, or if one or two people tend to dominate. These norms are popular:

  • Raise your hand (or * in the chat in an online event) means “I want to discuss a new point”.
  • Raise your finger (or ^ in the chat in an online event) means “I want to comment on the existing point”.
  • Raise your fist (or ? in the chat in an online event) means “I am confused, you’ve used jargon I don’t understand” (otherwise known as the fist of confusion).
  • Facilitators then can ask those raising their fists first, then those raising their fingers until it feels time to move on from that specific topic.

4. How to improve your facilitation skills (training video and exercise)

We recommend you watch this video of a facilitator training session.

If you are preparing to facilitate with a group of people, we recommend practising this facilitator exercise.