• Responsibilities of Facilitators and Participants in Discussion

    First, let's deal with some critical misconceptions.

    Misconception #1.
    The discussion leader knows (or should know) all the answers.

    The discussion leader helps guide the group to discern what needs to be discovered. Sometimes the facilitator has more knowledge. Often that is the case when the facilitator is the teacher. However, knowing more about the issue generally does not necessarily translate into knowing the exact answer to a given problem. The facilitator’s job is to help the group determine how to approach the problem under discussion.

    Misconception #2.
    The discussion leader should get students to "fish for" and "catch" the "right" answer.

    When the facilitator is viewed as having all the answers, it naturally follows that the job of the rest of the group is to figure out what is in the facilitator’s head. This approach to a class session can be useful if it is necessary to test the knowledge of the students. It is not, however, conducive to inquiry.

    Misconception #3.
    Participants don’t have to do much work. Their job is to listen and guess at the right answer to a series of yes/no questions posed by the facilitator, who will give hints as to what the right answer is.

    This misconception is a logical progression from the viewpoint that the facilitator is responsible for knowing the material. In this scenario, the participants sit back and absorb it. Class sessions are a modified form of lecture. If students view class discussion in this light, it will fail. Discussion cannot progress satisfactorily when participants are unprepared to talk about the material. The responsibility of participants in class discussion is in many ways more demanding than in lecture classes: all participants must be thinking about the material and thinking hard about the material. All participants must be willing to pursue their thought, even when they do not feel confident about it. The nature of inquiry demands this openness as well as commitment.

    So how should discussion facilitators and discussants participate? Use the following suggestions to guide your efforts as both a facilitator and as a member of a discussion led by someone else. See also Gall & Gillett, 1980; Hill, 1987; Dillon, 1988.

    Responsibilities of Discussion Participants

    A discussion will not work unless all participants take responsibility for its progression. All participants, not just the facilitator, are responsible to do the following.

    Identify and explore critical issues

    • What are the most important elements that need discussion time? For example, are there issues that must be clarified before meaningful discussion can take place? Is it most important to evaluate the issues under discussion? 
    • How does the material relates to other knowledge or other issues? 

    Analyze the points of view or positions expressed

    • All participants must take responsibility to ask for different points of view, to ask for clarification if needed, to ask for reasons behind the opinions expressed by others. 
    • All participants must be willing to give reasons for the opinions expressed. 
    • All participants need to be willing to explore the reasons that are given (their own and others) in order to gain understanding. 

    Hear others

    • "Listen" is commonly identified as an important "skill" for discussion, and it is. But listening is not enough. You also have to "hear" what others say. To do that reserve judgment until you fully understand what the ideas and arguments actually are that are posed by others. 
    • If you don't understand, take the risk to say that you don't. There are probably others that feel the same way. 
    • If you aren't sure you understand the position someone else has taken, paraphrase it and ask if that is what is meant. 
    • Try to find the connection for remarks that seem tangential or irrelevant, and if you can't find it, ask. 

    Evaluate different positions

    • Work with the group to identify the criteria you all are using or should be using as the basis for evaluating the ideas, issues, concepts, and perspectives being explored.
    • All members of a discussion need, at some point, to explore the strengths and weaknesses of positions and reasons under discussion 

    Create a climate where participants feel safe enough to say what they think, to explore controversial positions and to experience critical questions.

    • Talk with each other; it is not necessary to go through the facilitator.
    • Encourage others to participate by asking them what they think. Ask for the opinions, evaluations, and reasons of others. 
    • Provide an opening for quiet members to speak. 
    • Practice respect for your colleagues: 
      • Don't attack others for the ideas they hold.
      • Don't act as though the point brought up by another is irrelevant.
      • Don't roll your eyes.
      • Don't talk to your neighbor while someone else is talking.
      • Assume others have good reasons for thinking as they do. You may not agree with those reasons, but that does not mean they are of no value or that you cannot learn by exploring them. 
      • Remember that a "safe" climate may not necessarily be a "comfortable" climate. Growth usually means experiencing discomfort. Talk with your colleagues about the difference between "discomfort" and "dangerous," and what moves a climate from one to the other. 
       

    Do a self-evaluation of your role in the discussion

    • Look carefully at your own communication behavior.
    • What made it easier for your to participate? 
    • What made it more difficult? 
    • How did you contribute to the progression of the discussion? 
    • How did you hinder the progression of the discussion? 
    • If you could do this discussion again, what would you like to do differently? What would you do differently? If those two things are not the same, what contributes to the difference? 
    • Set goals for yourself. What do you need to do to be a better discussant? How will you do those things? 

    Responsibilities of Discussion Facilitators

    Facilitators are discussion participants. They need to do all of the above. In addition, a facilitator needs to have a sense of where the discussion needs to go. They serve as guides. They help keep the group on track. They help the group focus on the critical issues, help the group make connections among diverse ideas (often by asking the group to do so), push the group to deeper analysis, and try to provide access to the floor for all participants. In addition to the responsibilities there for all participants, the facilitator will also:

    Guide the group

    • Ask participants to identify critical issues for clarification and evaluation.
    • Guide the group to set priorities: have the group decide what they want to spend the most time discussing, with justification.

    Focus on analysis of the points of view of positions expressed

    • Attend to whether those holding different points of view have access to the floor.
    • Insist that group members listen and fully understand the reasons given before evaluating them.

    Allow all a chance to be heard while maintaining focus

    • Try to identify the relevant questions that need to be addressed so that you can guide the discussion back to them.
    • Act as gatekeeper: make sure all have a chance at the floor; ask those who have not said very much what they are thinking; ask those who have dominated the discussion to provide space for others.
    • Listen to others' ideas.
    • Don’t take on the mantle of "expert" who knows all the answers. 

    Use the next suggestions with caution. If the moderator paraphrases or summarizes too often, the participants may come to depend upon the moderator to provide the "real meaning" in the discussion.

    • Paraphrase areas of agreement and disagreement.
    • Offer summaries of discussion progress. 

    Bring up the need to evaluate different positions if no one else does

    • It can be helpful to summarize the positions or arguments expressed during discussion, with reasons given. Even better, ask someone else to do it. 
    • Bring up the need to explore the strengths and weaknesses of the arguments made, if no one else has done so. 
    • Work with the group to identify the criteria you all are using or should be using as the basis for evaluating the ideas, issues, concepts, and perspectives being explored 

    Create a climate where participants feel safe enough to say what they think, to explore controversial positions and to experience critical questions

    • Support every person’s right to his or her own opinion.
    • Resist the temptation to fill in all the quiet spots: don’t fear silence.
    • Ask others what they think.
    • Respect others: assume others have reasons for thinking as they do. You may not agree with those reasons, but that does not mean they are of no value or that you cannot learn by exploring them. 
    • Insist that others show respect for discussion participants. If discussants act disrespectfully, tell them to stop doing whatever it is that they are doing. (see Guidelines to Facilitate Effective Discussions) 

    Do a self-evaluation of your role in the discussion

    • Look honestly and carefully at your own preparation and your own participation communication behavior.
    • What made it easier for your to participate? 
    • What made it more difficult? 
    • How did you contribute to the progression of the discussion? 
    • How did you hinder the progression of the discussion? 
    • If you could do this discussion again, what would you like to do differently? What would you do differently? If those two things are not the same, what contributes to the difference? 
    • Set goals for yourself. What do you need to do to be a better discussion facilitator? How will you do those things? 


    From Patricia R. Palmerton, Talking, Learning: Oral Communication Across the Curriculum: Copyright © Patricia R. Palmerton, 2001, all rights reserved. A limited number of copies may be made for scholarly or classroom use if the material is distributed without charge and includes the full citation including the URL. Others must contact Patricia R. Palmerton at ppalmerton@hamline.edu for permission.