An important tool for trainers, and especially facilitators, is discussion leading. Presentation is a good method for communicating new facts and knowledge, but when the knowledge is within the group and high commitment to the outcome is needed, it is difficult to beat a good discussion. In this article we will cover:
A definition of discussion
Discussion leading has been defined as:
It is a way of learning by participation where the flow of interaction is between the participants themselves and the discussion leader is there to help them be more helpful to each other.
Types of discussion
Discussions can be 'free' or they can be 'guided' to varying extents. In a 'free' discussion members of the group come to their own conclusions without direction by the discussion leader. The leader simply helps the participants to proceed in any direction they want to take.
In a 'guided' discussion the leader guides the group towards pre-determined conclusions or, at least, steers them towards considering certain aspects of the topic under discussion.
These are the two extremes. The 'free' or 'unstructured' discussion is used in some social skills training situations but it is less commonly used at work than the 'guided' discussion. The optimum amount of structure will vary from situation to situation.
The purpose of discussion
Discussion is not suitable for giving information to a group of people. The purposes of discussion are to expand existing knowledge and experience in the group and to promote changes in opinions, attitudes and behaviour.
Discussion can only be used where the relevant knowledge and experience are already contained within the group. This knowledge and experience may be present because of the prior work experience of the group members - or it may have been gained by lectures, reading, etc.
In most training situations we are dealing with adults who have a lot of useful experience and knowledge which can be shared with other group members to 'deepen' or 'widen' their understanding of the topic. Because the group as a whole does not receive any new information in a discussion it may seem that nothing is gained by discussion. But this is not true - the experience within the group is shared by all the members which results in a gain for each member.
Uses of discussion
Discussion can be used for formal and informal training. It may be used in the lecture room, following a lecture, film, demonstration or reading assignment. It may be used in 'workshops' in conjunction with other exercises such as case-studies or work projects. It may also be used as part of on-the-job training by managers and supervisors. It can also be used online in a 'chat room' environment.
It is suitable for all levels of people. The members of the group can be managers, supervisors, students, engineers, salesmen, etc.
It can be used for a very wide range of topics and these topics can be dealt with in a variety of ways. For example, a group may learn some general principles or a theory. In discussion the theory can be applied to specific cases, thus increasing the members' skills in applying principles to practice. Problem-solving and decision-making are other uses for discussion. In fact discussion may be appropriate, and can be considered, for any case where the basic condition is met - the condition that the information and experience already exist within the group as a whole.
One trainer, when questioned about the uses of discussion in training, said:
This trainer added that there were side-benefits to be gained from discussion. Sometimes the trainer learns a lot. He may, for example, find a better way of teaching something if one of his students comes up with a really good explanation of a topic during discussion.
Advantages of discussion
Some of the advantages of discussion have already been mentioned. Other advantages worth considering are:
Disadvantages of discussion
The disadvantages stem more from poor discussion leadership than from inherent defects of the discussion method itself. If the discussion leader makes a poor job of planning and conducting the session, confused thinking will be generated and the participants will get frustrated.
If this happens two further things are likely to happen: the discussion may degenerate into casual chatting with no particular point to it or participants may start attacking each other verbally, because they are frustrated. In either case the discussion leader's task becomes progressively more difficult.
The role of the discussion leader
A discussion leader does a different job from that of a lecturer. A lecturer's main job is to transmit new knowledge whereas a discussion leader is there to help the members of the group to understand or think through some aspect of their work. This often makes the role of the discussion leader seem more passive than that of a lecturer; but this isn't really so. The lecturer is active in talking - discussion leaders must be active in listening. To be successful they must be very aware of the process of discussion - who is speaking, who is listening, who is bored, who is irritated. They must also be aware of the content of what is said. Unless they have a very quick grasp of what is being said the cannot control the direction of the discussion.
Another difference between lecturers and the discussion leaders is that lecturers are more separate from the group. They stand alone and deliver. Discussion leaders are more like a member of the group, although not an equal member because they do have a special function. That special function is to serve the group. They does this by asking questions to clarify members' understanding, challenge assumptions and prevent energy being wasted.
Although lecturers don't usually learn much from their audience, discussion leaders may very well learn a lot; not so much in terms of new knowledge but in increased understanding of existing knowledge.
A discussion leader must organise the discussion session and conduct it. This involves:
Guidelines, hints and tips, will be given for each of these tasks, where guidelines can be given. Some of these may be useful to you, others not. You will have to consider what is said, use anything that is useful and let pass anything that is not useful to you.
The real test of anything that is said comes when you try to put it into practice. That is really the only test. And you will probably find that you can have read an awful lot about discussion leading, but that when you actually start leading a discussion it all goes out of your mind. There is just you there, with a group of people.
For this reason the simpler the guidelines are, the more likely they are to have an effect. A most useful idea is this:
This is the sort of thing that can be helpful when you are actually leading. It may pop into your mind quite suddenly when the situation is getting a bit sticky. Simply asking yourself the following questions can be very helpful:
Controlling direction is related to the content of discussion. It means ensuring that members of the group keep to the point as much as you want them to. It means channelling the group's energy in a useful direction. It means relating anything that is said to your objective, which includes making good use of the unexpected. It means encouraging positive, constructive contributions and discouraging personal attacks or other energy-wasting activities.
Controlling participation is related to the involvement of the members. It may not be appropriate in every discussion for every participant to contribute the same amount. But all members should be given the opportunity to contribute. In fact they should be given frequent opportunities. This will sometimes mean shutting someone up, so that another person can get a word in. You need to be rather sensitive, all the time, to what is going on in the group. (John hasn't said anything for a long time - is he tired? Is he in agreement with what is being said? Has he stopped giving attention? Is he looking for an opportunity to speak?)
A difficulty of discussion leading
The main difficulty for the discussion leader centres around these two tasks:
The difficulty is that you have to do both at once. Of course they are not actually simultaneous: at one instant you will be dealing with direction; and at another instant you will be controlling, or attempting to control, participation. However, they are so bound up with one another - you are always jumping from one to the other - that for all practical purposes it is fair to say that you have to do two things at once.
This is never an easy situation for any human being. It's certainly the thing that many people find most difficult. It means that as you are listening carefully to what someone is saying so that you can use it to move the discussion forward, you also have to be looking round to see what everyone else is doing and how they are reacting so that you know who to call on next or whatever needs to be done. That isn't easy. It gets easier with practice, though. It's a bit like driving a car where you have to change gear, give signals, respond to road signs and steer the car as well. Discussion leading is a very similar activity to driving in this respect. When you are learning to drive you find it difficult to operate all the controls and, at the same time, control the direction of the car. Eventually it becomes so easy that you may be hardly conscious that you are doing it at all. You become natural and relaxed.
It is the same with discussion leading. First it is necessary to become familiar with the control mechanisms and then it is necessary to practise until you use them in a natural, relaxed way. So let's consider some of the methods of control that are available to a discussion leader.
How to control discussion
Discussion leaders must try to keep the discussion moving within the group as much as possible - so that the members are speaking to each other, rather than all the interaction being between individual participants and the leader. They must also guide the discussion towards achievement of the objectives. Leader have three basic tools to use in controlling the discussion:
Of these three techniques, the most important one is undoubtedly questioning. It is possible to do almost anything that needs to be done to lead a discussion by the skilful use of questions.
So if you can remember something else, as well as Control Direction and Control Participation, remember to Make Everything a Question (or words to that effect).
The quality of the questions asked by the discussion leader influences the quality of the discussion a lot. Good questions can help members of the group to think and to take part in the discussion. Good questions can also clarify understanding and stimulate members to take an active approach to the topic. If discussion leaders use questions rather than statements they are far less likely to fall into the trap of contributing their own ideas and opinions to the discussion.
That last point is worth expanding upon - because it really is a trap. Although discussion leaders are members of the group, they have a special job to do: the job of controlling direction and participation. The more leaders state their own views about the topic the more difficult it is perform the controlling function. Leader must be neutral, or, if that is hoping for too much, must at least appear to the group to be neutral. This makes it much easier for members to make conflicting contributions. If leaders state their own position it tends to kill discussion.
If you make almost all of your contributions into questions this trap is fairly easily avoided. Neither skill in keeping your own opinions to yourself nor skill in the use of questions come without practice.
The Opening Question
To start a discussion it is usually necessary for the discussion leader to give a short introduction. This might include the objectives of the session, an outline of the subject matter, possibly a definition of terms and possibly a plan or procedure for the discussion. This introduction will probably take two minutes in the case of a half-hour discussion. The introduction should finish with the opening question...
Having asked your opening question there is only one thing to do - keep quiet. The members need time to reflect on the question. You must give them the time they need. Don't jump in and start explaining what you meant by the question or putting it another way: it should have been clear in the first place - and even if it wasn't perfect the best thing to do is let it go at that and just wait.
This waiting can be the most hair-raising experience for a discussion leader but there is no way round it. If it frightens you, just put up with being frightened and go on waiting. Some people say it helps to count the seconds silently to yourself while you are waiting. This sounds like a good idea - it would give you something to do. Normally it isn't more than about ten or fifteen seconds before someone responds. This is true even if they don't understand your opening question - because they can't stand the silence any more than you can - and they are not keeping quiet deliberately, as you are.
The opening question is unique in that you only have one of them in any discussion. The other types of questions, which follow, will probably be used many times during the discussion - either to control direction or to control participation. By the way, these types of questions are not mutually exclusive. For instance, the opening question will almost always be an overhead question.
An overhead question is a question addressed to the group as a whole. The use of this type of question has some advantages:
A direct question is a question addressed to a particular individual. It has many uses, some of which are:
If you are a teacher this advice may conflict with what you may have been exhorted to do in the classroom. Teachers are often advised to 'pose, pause and pounce' which is intended to mean:
The 'pose, pause, pounce' method can be very useful in the classroom but do not use it when you are leading a discussion. It is too likely to interrupt the flow of the discussion. It comes as too much of a shock to the people you pounce on, who may have thought you were asking an overhead question to which they had decided not to respond. In the classroom this rather fierce pouncing technique is used to keep everyone awake and involved. In discussion it shouldn't be necessary to resort to such techniques because the discussion method is more involving in itself. So don't try it. You might however, usefully watch what happens when other discussion leaders do it.
Something which often goes wrong with discussions is that discussion moves back and forth between individual members and the leader, without there being much 'across the table' talking. Redirecting questions can help to avoid this: statements and questions raised by one member can be passed to another for comment.
A relay question is similar to a redirected question, except that, instead of passing a question raised by one member to another member, you pass it to the group as a whole. This is a good way of avoiding answering questions which are directed to you - and you will often want to avoid answering direct questions, since you are trying to keep your own views and opinions to yourself.
This technique is that of getting the people posing a question to answer it themselves. You may do this to encourage them to think again or because you know they have views which should be expressed. A discussion member may say to you, the leader, "Why is delivery of stationery always late?" and you say: "Well what do you think is causing it?"
The form of the question
Four distinct forms of questions will be mentioned. Two of them help and the other two hinder. (There are more than four forms of questions but no doubt you will be able to generalise what is said when considering any other form of question.)
The four forms are Open, Imperative, Rhetorical and Leading. Open and imperative questions are valuable: rhetorical and leading questions are of little value - at least when you are discussion leading. Consider these examples:
These imperative 'questions' do not have the grammatical form of a question, but, for our purposes, they may be taken as questions just put in another way.
Open and imperative questions like these are thought-provoking because they are capable of being answered in a wide variety of ways, whereas this is certainly not the case with the next two forms of questions: the rhetorical question and the leading question.
Questioners do not expect answers to rhetorical questions. Everyone knows that they are going to answer it themselves or that no answer is required. Don't use rhetorical questions when discussion leading. (A point to consider, though is the way a question is asked. Look at the second of the two examples given above. To what extent could it be an open question if asked with the right tone of voice?)
Don't use 'leading' questions when 'leading' discussions because they don't 'lead' in the right way. They don't provoke thought and they make it easy for you to fall into the trap of pushing your own views and prejudices.
Guidelines for asking questions
You don't need to use statements much at all. You could manage without them entirely and do everything by questioning. Statements can be used, however, to do two things:
The first of these two requires caution. If you are doing a lot of 'putting in information that the group lacks' is discussion the best technique to use? Maybe you should bring the discussion to a close and change to another way of working.
The second (clarifying or reflecting views) is more likely to be needed. You make a statement, in your own words, to try to express what someone has said or to express the feeling of the group. You can do this for different reasons - you may be trying to help everyone understand an important point which has been badly stated - or you may be making sure that more time is spent on a topic which you feel to be important in terms of the objective of the discussion. Possibly the most important use for statements is when giving summaries.
Summaries will be needed at certain points during the discussion (interim summaries). A final summary will also be needed. The discussion leader must gather together related contributions and express them simply as a coherent whole.
That last point is important. Timing matters - and one of the easiest ways to control timing is by using summaries.
The Final Summary
Good listening is essential but few people can do it well. When trying to control both direction and participation do not be fooled into thinking that you can get by with merely a general impression of what a member is saying. You cannot.
What you can do is this. If you find that you have not been listening (you may, for instance, suddenly wake up and realise you haven't really been attending to the point being made) you can attempt to summarise or you can ask members to restate their points, or summarise themselves.
The 'pressure' of silence has already been mentioned. Some silence usually occurs (if you let it occur) after you have asked your opening questions. We have already mentioned one possible thing you could do to make this silence more endurable for yourself - counting seconds silently to yourself.
Counting seconds certainly helps to pass the time but there is something you can do which is actually useful to the group - and that is listen. It may sound a bit silly to listen when no-one is saying anything. Nevertheless if you listen carefully it will help the group to think - your increased awareness will give more life to the situation - and you will be more awake when someone breaks the silence with a contribution. So listen carefully during silence: listen to the sound of your own breathing; listen to the sounds within the room; listen to the sounds outside the room; listen to the silence itself. The idea is to remain awake and alert, rather than wandering off into daydreams.
Dealing with difficult behaviour
People sometimes behave in various difficult ways during workshops, meetings and training sessions. Dealing with them is a matter of judgement and experience, as are most training skills. The tips which follow are to be accepted, rejected, considered or tried out at your discretion.
Notice that this section is called Difficult Behaviour - not Difficult People or Problem People. This is not to say that there is no such things as difficult or problem people - it's just more productive for us to consider behaviour we have difficulty with.
The categorisation which follows is not really intended to be a set of boxes to classify people into, but to be a breakdown of problems into simple categories so that they can be considered.
Subject experts, if present in a discussion, can discourage others from making comments. Be aware of this possibility and counter it by trying to generate an atmosphere in which everyone is making a genuine effort to increase their understanding. Ensure that the less expert members have enough time to contribute their own ideas and experience and questions. Do not let the expert lecture too much.
As long as you do your best to clarify your own understanding and the understanding of the participants you shouldn't have much difficulty in handling the session, so don't look for problems that aren't really there. Don't be too worried by disagreement either - it is a help, not a hindrance, and should be welcomed. Disagreement often results from different understandings of the topic. Your job is to clarify the understandings of the participants and bridge the gap between them. This benefits the whole group.
Presence of managers and subordinates can have a similar effect to that of an expert. Apply the same guidelines, although the situation may be more difficult to control. Because of this, consider carefully (when planning the lesson) whether it is necessary to have managers and subordinates together. If it is, you will probably have to be much more directive than usual during the session.
Why are they talking a lot? Are they just naturally talkative? Do they think they know all the answers? Do they know all the answers?
If what they are saying is useful and relevant it may be a good idea to let them talk, within reason. Is it that they can't express themselves concisely? If so, you maybe able to get the gist of what they are saying and summarize it for them.
If they are going on and on, and it's not useful or to the point, interrupt, thank them for their contribution and direct a question to someone else. If you find it difficult to interrupt people remember that everyone has to draw breath. Watch carefully, and when they take a breath interrupt in a positive and definite manner. Don't hesitate.
Don't assume that silent people haven't learnt anything. Don't assume that they are in agreement with what has been said. You haven't much to go on unless they say something - so use a direct question - and make it one which you think the person will be able to answer. They may be shy, in which case it is best not to put too much pressure on them.
Encouragement may help: show you are interested in their views and that the group needs them. Support their views if they need support. If they are not participating, give them some work to do by asking them direct questions. The main thing is to find out why they are silent - and the main way of finding out is questioning.
Quibblers may have a minor point of that they want to concentrate on. If you are fairly sure of your ground you can ask the group whether they want to spend time on it - they will almost certainly not want to. Or you can suggest that this point is dealt with later. Write the point on a flip chart so that they can see that the point has been noted.
Persistent questioners may be having trouble understanding what is going on, in which case you can patiently try to clarify things - but only up t"o a point: you must consider the needs of the whole group.
Objectors may just be feeling quarrelsome. If they object persistently try to pin down the objections by asking them to be more specific, or to give reasons for what the say, or to produce evidence for what they say. Keep saying, "Why?" e.g. "Why do you say that?"; "What evidence is there to support that view?" etc.
Preparing for a discussion
Some discussions are pre-meditated affairs; others are spontaneous. Thus the amount of preparation and planning needed or possible is very variable. Planning is useful. It can be overdone though - if you plan everything that's going to happen during the discussion the members are (not surprisingly) going to feel they are being over manipulated. However, in practice it is much more likely that too little preparation and planning will be done. So the ideas which follow should be put into practice as far as possible. For example, if you are going to run a very important discussion, on a sensitive topic, in a week from now it is probably worth doing a certain amount of written preparation of objectives, plan etc. If, on the other hand, you decide to have a discussion on the spur of the moment it might be helpful if a few planning ideas flashed through your mind as you handed out the coffee.
Objectives for discussion
It has been said: "The trouble with people knowing what they want is that they may get it." What does that mean? Perhaps it means 'choose carefully' or 'be careful what you wish for'.
Anyway, the following list of general objective is a starting point. They are general - no subject included. Clearly, when you write a real objective you will specify the subject as accurately as possible. The following list gives pointers towards possible kinds of objectives for discussions:
Planning the discussion
Having done all this planning, be prepared to depart from it, either in part or altogether, once discussion gets under way. You must respond to the real needs of the situation and it may turn out that your prior analysis of the situation was wrong. But don't be too ready to depart from it - successful discussion leaders plan more than unsuccessful ones; and they stick to their plans more often. It's not a question of planning until you get so experienced that you don't need to plan. It's more a case of experience convincing you of the value of planning and preparation.
Some questions to ask yourself
The following questions are intended to help you to reflect on your own discussion leading performance. If structured feedback or informed comment is not available to you, ask yourself these questions after you have led a discussion:
The Fable of Plato's Horse
nce upon a time, many years ago (386BC or thereabouts) in Ancient Greece there was a philospher by the name of Plato. Besides writing his dialogues (sounds like a contradiction in terms doesn't it?) he founded a Training School which he called the Academy. One of his main teaching methods was discussion leading.
One fine Grecian evening Plato and a group of his students were seated around a rock on the shores of the Aegean Sea. (They had taken an Awayday from Athens.) After a while the discussion centred round teeth - horses teeth in fact - and more specifically: "What do you consider to be the correct number of teeth for an adult, male horse to possess?"
Glaucon said that as a horse had such a small mouth it was obvious that there could be no more than fifteen teeth.
"Nonsense!" cried Thrasymachus "Any fool can see that a horse has a very long jaw bone so it must have forty-two teeth."
By this time the discussion became very heated and Plato decided that it was time to control the pace of the discussion by summarising: "Glaucon has said that a horse has fifteen teeth because it has a small mouth, and Thrasymachus has said that a horse has forty-two teeth because of its long jaw." (Notice how careful Plato was not to put forward his own ideas on the subject. Plato was convinced that a horse has eighty-two teeth because of an image that he saw in the shadows of some cave or other.)
But this strategy didn't work. As soon as Plato had finished his summary, Aristophanes threw aside his pet frog, jumped to his feet and exclaimed that a horse must have twenty-three teeth because it takes 23 minutes to eat a bag of hay.
The discussion went on this vein for a further two days and nights. (They had to hitch-hike back to Athens because their Awayday had expired.) Eventually Socrates who was not looking very well and had remained silent for the whole of the discussion (black mark to Plato for not bringing him in earlier) suggested that they should walk over to one of the horses, that were used for giving rides on the beach, open its mouth and count the number of teeth. The class was so amazed at the sagacity of the suggestion that silence reigned for the first time in three days.