The first article in this series explained how to plan a group discussion.
In this article, we describe best practices when leading a group discussion.
There’s much more involved than simply getting people in a room, waving a magic wand, and declaring “Discuss now!” Your role as a discussion leader is complex and requires great mental dexterity and tact. How can you keep the discussion steadily flowing in a productive way at the right pace towards achieving your objectives?
Every discussion is different, and being a successful leader requires you to adapt to your individual situation. Still, there are a set of best practices which will lead you to success more often than not.
1. Use tools which promote discussion.
Flip charts, whiteboards, and sticky notes are ideal. The nature of these tools make them ideal for encouraging participation: a blank canvas, easy to erase (or turn the page) and iterate.
Resist slides. Slides feel permanent, and give the impression that there’s nothing left to discuss. (Occasionally, you may kick start a discussion with a few slides to set context, but don’t overuse them.)
2. Diverge first, then converge. Repeat as necessary.
A common mistake made by discussion leaders is to converge too early. Not only does this strategy carry the risk of missing a good idea, but it makes participants tentative, fearing embarrassment for offering an idea that may be immediately eliminated.
Instead, consider starting your session by brainstorming and letting the ideas flow without analysis and judgement. This encourages early participation and gets everyone involved. Later, with many ideas on the table, start narrowing the options together and converge on the best ideas.
3. Restate and summarize often.
Summarizing is important to remind your group of the consensus that has been achieved. Be sure that your summary reflects the opinions expressed by your group; don’t skew reality to push your personal agenda.
In short discussions (e.g. thirty minutes or an hour), it is sufficient to summarize only at the end.
In long discussions (e.g. a day or multiple days), summarize at regular intervals. (I try to do this at least every 60 or 90 minutes.) This allows you to naturally “close” one topic and move on to the next.
4. Be open-minded and curious.
Be genuinely interested in hearing the opinions of others, and be open to changing any preconceptions you hold. Ask questions sincerely. When someone contributes a fresh idea, explore it wholly, regardless of what your initial reaction might be.
The sign of a poor discussion leader is one who attempts to systematically convince everyone else in the room that they are always right. That’s not a discussion; it’s a lecture.
5. Build consensus.
As the discussion heats up, emotions can run high among participants. If left unchecked, the atmosphere may begin to feel combative. Participants may start to dig in and entrench themselves in positions, and forget about the common objectives.
Resist the temptation to “take sides” or pretend that you are the judge or referee. Instead, help all participants understand and appreciate the perspectives being offered by others. Find the common ground which binds together diverse opinions and share these connections.
To succeed, draw upon classic public speaking skills e.g. tell stories; make analogies; walk up and down the ladder of abstraction.
6. Beware negative language.
As leader, you have great influence over the mood of the room. The words you choose and the non-verbal communication you exude are infectious, whether positive or negative.
Exhibit genuine positive emotions, such as happiness, excitement, curiosity, optimism, surprise, and thoughtfulness.
Attempt to stifle negative emotions, such as anger, boredom, disappointment, disgust, indifference, hopelessness, or misery. This isn’t always easy; I have felt all of those at various times when I’ve led discussions.
7. Record minutes as you go.
If minutes are required for your discussion, it is your responsibility as the leader to ensure they are recorded. Don’t attempt to do this yourself; delegate someone from the group to take minutes.
The moments when you summarize verbally are excellent opportunities to clearly document decisions you have reached. Each time you record a shared decision, it builds momentum for the group.
8. Stay on schedule.
When the discussion is flowing, it is tempting to ignore the clock and let it flow. This is a dangerous habit. Schedule slips inevitably lead to unsatisfied objectives.
Sometimes, you need to be flexible and consciously reschedule on the fly. Most of the time, however, it is wiser to stick to the schedule. In a lengthy session (e.g. all day), enforcing the schedule early sends a message to all participants that the schedule is “real” and not “just a guideline”.
9. Take care of your participants.
Remember to take breaks at regular intervals; exhausted participants will tend to lose focus and become quiet.
Resolve problems with the environment as they occur. Act decisively.
10. Delegate leadership when appropriate.
There may be situations where it makes sense for someone else to lead the discussion for a certain topic within your overall session. Delegate leadership of the discussion to have the “right” person lead for a while.
Do not “surprise” them on the spot — this never turns out well. Ask them ahead of time so they have a chance to prepare. Let them know when you will pass control to them, for what purpose, and for what duration of time.
When the time comes for the transition, make sure this shift is communicated clearly to the group. Support the temporary leader by being an active participant.
Next in this Series…
In the next article of this series, we’ll learn how to manage challenging personalities within your group.