A good discussion leader is vital to the success of a study circle. It is not necessary to have training or experience in facilitating group discussion as long as you are enthusiastic, friendly, a good listener and able to think on your feet. It is essential that you understand the study circle concept, know your role and prepare carefully for each session. You do not need to be an expert in the topic being discussed but you should know enough about it to be able to ask sensible questions and to raise points that have been missed by the group. You must be able to create a friendly atmosphere of cooperation and trust where participants are comfortable sharing their opinions and ideas. You are not a teacher; you do not have answers to all the questions; you help the group find their own answers.
Tips for effective discussion leadership
Be the best prepared person in the room. This means understanding the goals of the study circle, being familiar with the subject, thinking ahead of time about the directions in which the discussion might go, and preparing discussion questions to help the group in considering the subject. Solid preparation will enable you to give your full attention to group dynamics and to what individuals in the group are saying.
Set a relaxed and open tone
- Welcome everyone and create an atmosphere where each participant feels at ease expressing ideas and responding to those of others.
- Refreshments help people to relax.
- Well-placed humour is always welcome, and helps people focus on differences in ideas rather than on personalities.
Establish clear ground rules
At the beginning of the study circle ask the participants to help you lay out the ground rules on a flip chart and ask if they agree to them or want to add anything. Keep the list and post it for each meeting as a reminder. Some typical ground rules are:
- Everyone is encouraged to participate - at their own comfort level.
- Allow everyone to be heard - no one person should dominate the discussion.
- All views will be respected - everyone's input is valuable.
- Disagreements will not be personalized - put-downs, name-calling, labelling or personal attacks will not be tolerated.
- Confidentiality will be maintained - this can be extremely important if people are to be comfortable revealing personal stories.
Identify the goal or purpose
Make sure you all know why you are there. Ask for a list of questions the participants want answered. Keep it and post it for each meeting for reference. Review the agenda or study plan and adjust it to suit the participants.
Assist the group process
- Guide the discussion according to the ground rules but remain neutral.
- Keep the group focussed on the content of the discussion. Monitor how well the participants are communicating with each other - who has spoken, who hasn't spoken, and whose points have not yet received a fair hearing.
- Consider splitting up into smaller groups to exams ne a variety of viewpoints or to give people a chance to talk more easily about their personal connection to the issue. Giving each small group the task of making the best possible case for an option is very effective.
- When you have to intervene, put it off as long as you can. Too many interruptions stifle discussion. Let it go until you are sure they are not coming back to the topic.
- Don't talk after each comment or answer every question; allow participants to respond directly to each other. The most effective facilitators often say little, but are always thinking about how to move the group toward its goals.
- Don't be afraid of silence. It will sometimes take a while for someone to offer an answer to a question you pose. People need time to think.
- Don't let anyone dominate; try to involve everyone.
- Remember that a study circle is not a debate but a group dialogue. If participants forget this, don't hesitate to ask the group to help re-establish the ground rules.
Help the group grapple with the content
- Make sure they consider a wide range of views. Ask them to think about the advantages and disadvantages of different ways of looking at an issue or solving a problem. In this way, the tradeoffs involved in making tough choices become apparent.
- Ask participants to think about the concerns and values that underlie their beliefs.
- Either summarize the discussion occasionally or encourage group members to do so.
- Help participants to identify common ground, but don't try to force consensus.
Use questions to help make the discussion more productive
- Prepare lots of questions. You will find a list of useful questions at the end of this section.
Reserve adequate time for closing the discussion
- Use the last 20 minutes or so to wrap up on a positive note.
- Ask the group for last comments and thoughts about the subject.
- You may wish to ask participants to share any new ideas or thoughts they've had as a result of the discussion.
- If you will be meeting again, remind the group of the readings and subject for the next session.
- Thank everyone for their contribution.
- Acknowledge that exploring controversial issues is hard work. New learning, even around old material is hard work.
- Provide some time for evaluation of the group process, either through sharing aloud or through a brief written evaluation.