One of the things I love to do is facilitate discussions. This is WAY different than teaching or running a meeting, but many people miss it. Team meetings, board meetings and small group meetings are often less effective or helpful because the leader isn’t effective at facilitating the exchange of ideas. Over the past 30 years of ministry I have had the chance to facilitate hundreds of discussions in dozens of environments, and along the way I’ve picked up some principles for what works and what doesn’t; here are my top 10:
10 Commandments for Facilitating Discussions
1. Don’t teach
If the goal is the transfer of information, then the need is a teacher. If the goal is the free exchange of ideas, then the need is a facilitator. Most pastors make lousy facilitators because wherever two or three are gathered together they see a chance to teach. Don’t do it, it kills real discussion.
2. Warm up the crowd
Always start with some kind of ice breaker. It can be corny, serious or somewhere in between, but it can’t be too personal and it needs to be something anyone can answer. And there isn’t a right or wrong answer. (See #4 below) The first question is like warming up before you exercise, it makes things go better later.
3. Stick to essay questions
A quick poll of the group is fine, but good discussion questions should lead to, well, discussion. No simple one or two word answers.
4. Avoid wrong answers
Asking factual questions makes it feel more like a quiz than a discussion, and introverts will disappear for fear of getting the wrong answer.
5. Focus on opinions, feelings and actions; in that order
Not everyone (anyone?) knows the correct definition of apostle, but everyone has opinions and feelings; and anyone can take an action. Use questions like
-What do you think about…?
-How do you feel about…?
-What will you do about…?
A sub-rule is “All opinions and feelings are valid.” This makes the legalist in me shudder, but it’s true. My opinions and feelings are mine, so you don’t get to decide if they are valid or not. As a facilitator you need to let the Holy Spirit do the work of convicting and judging. You don’t have to agree with an opinion or feeling to validated it.
6. Admit when you don’t know
Sometimes questions will come up you don’t know the answer to; admit it. Promise to find an answer if you can. Making crap up ruins a discussion. (You can tweet that.)
7. Get comfortable with silence
Silence in a discussion is seldom comfortable, but often necessary. Processors need silence to gather their thoughts before jumping in. Resist the urge to rescue the group and break the silence. Too much silence, however, can be a bad thing. If the lame duck question has been laying there for a couple of minutes put it out of its misery and move on.
8. Include as many in the discussion as possible
This is more art than science. Some people need permission to express their thoughts to the group, others would rather be forced to dance the Macarena naked than talk out loud. You have to watch for visual cues to separate the reluctant from the terrified. Call on the reluctant, make the terrified dance. Not really, just leave them alone.
9. Help talkers move on
Letting a talker dominate the discussion makes everyone (except the talker) miserable and kills any meaningful exchange. Learn to interject phrases like “Let me jump in…” and “Great stuff, thanks for sharing. Let’s move on to another question.” Don’t just sit there and take it, that’s why you’re the facilitator. Be careful, though, if you embarrass the talker the rest of the group will turn on you. Gently, gently.
10. Always encourage
Every comment should be acknowledged with an encouragement. Encouragement isn’t agreement, it is being thankful for the contribution. Everyone who contributes should feel appreciation for their gift.
Facilitation is a blast when done right, and is a way to help people and teams become better. So don’t suck at it.