Brazilian educator Paulo Freire claims that through conscious efforts of education, reflection, and action people can build movements that change conditions. Meeting that goal requires that we
define ourselves and our communities, deciding what a democratic society should look like and how it ought to work. Study groups - small, democratic, and participatory - are a proven
method for social learning. They offer a way to voice our own histories and experiences and to engage one another in matters of our common life. Study groups give us an opportunity to pay
as much attention to our process of interaction as the content of what we discuss, since democracy is something you do, not something you have.
- Stay focused without being rigid. Most people do not find a rambling discussion useful.
- Don't allow the most talkative people to dominate. Effective group discussion guidelines enable such behavior to be interrupted without hurt feelings.
- Encourage comments from quiet participants. Create space that welcomes this without putting anyone on the spot. Examples: "Is there anyone who has not yet spoken?" "Are there
some ideas we might be missing in this discussion?"
- Encourage active listening. Hearing and understanding what people say and responding appropriately helps a group stay on track and fosters respect for the process and the
- Pay attention to the group process as well as the discussion content. Sometimes called a "vibes watcher," one person can take on this role (rotating each time), or anyone in the group can
make observations about the style of interaction at any time.
- Use conflict constructively. Avoid personalizing disagreements and keep different views focused on the issue at hand.
- Pauses and silences are fine. They allow thinking and reflection.
- The discussion can be synthesized, summarized, and refocused occasionally, a leadership function anyone can provide at a given moment.
- If necessary, one person takes on the role of being timekeeper. If the group has agreed upon a time limit for each person to speak, then someone should have a watch to keep track. This
role should be rotated.
- No "experts" are needed. There are no "right" answers. This work is about sharing views, developing understanding, and mobilizing energy.
- Make sure the physical space is comfortable and conducive to relaxed democratic conversation.
STUDY GROUP FACILITATION TECHNIQUES
There are many styles and purposes of facilitation, but this document does not attempt to mention or describe them all. Facilitation for a meeting at which a group is trying to make
decisions and adhere to an agenda can be different from a general discussion like that for a study group, although many aspects may be similar.
WHAT DOES A FACILITATOR DO?
The primary function of the facilitator in a study group is one of traffic cop - the main purpose is to keep the conversation moving by managing who speaks
when. At the beginning of the session, the facilitator should call the group to begin and review the process by which the group will proceed for the discussion period. It is a good idea to post
the agreed-upon discussion guidelines and review them. Some groups rotate a role of writing a synopsis of the readings and sharing that at the beginning. Others start by deciding whether
they will allow a certain amount of time for each question or article, or, alternatively, let the facilitator or the group just decide organically when it is time to move on. You may come up
with other procedural matters that are important to the members of your group that the facilitator manages. Another option is that each facilitator may do things slightly differently and
begin the session by proposing a process that the group accepts. Any of these and other variations are possible.
HOW CAN A FACILITATOR HELP PEOPLE PARTICIPATE?
When the discussion gets going, it's not uncommon for more than one person to want to speak at a time, so here is a commonly used
facilitation technique. As one person talks, other people who wish to speak next raise their hands and the facilitator notes that person's name on a list. The person who's raised her/ his hand and
the facilitator make brief eye contact, the facilitator nods so the person knows they've been added to the list, and then that person can put their hand down, relax, and listen until s/ he is called on
to speak. The facilitator keeps a written list (some people can do it in their heads) and then calls on people in the order they were added to the list. If the discussion is energetic and/ or if the
facilitator wishes to make sure everyone is on the list, when calling on the next speaker s/ he might say something like, "I have Roy, then Kris, then Chuck, then Charlotte. Is that everyone?"
That way, if someone who already raised their hand is missing from the list, they can be sure to get added to it right then.
Here are some dynamics to observe while managing this process. It is not uncommon for the facilitator to give 100% of their attention to the person who's speaking, but a better amount is
about 90%. A good metaphor is driving a car. When you're driving, it's recommended that every ten seconds or so you should check your rear view and side mirrors and glance out your
side windows so you always know what's going on around you, because things are constantly changing on the road. The same is true when you're facilitating a discussion. It's important to
listen to the person speaking, but every ten seconds or so you should unobtrusively glance around the group to see if anyone has their hand up. People could think of something they want
to say at any point when someone else is speaking, and since people are often eager to share their comments, it's important to get them on the list so they can relax and really concentrate on the
current speaker without worrying that they won't get their turn.
Note that the facilitator can put him or herself on the list as well. Being the facilitator does not mean you do not participate in the conversation.
Sometimes people worry that if there are several people ahead of them on the list, they'll forget what they wanted to say. You might jot down a few words or a phrase that will reconnect you to
your idea, since other speakers may take the discussion in a different direction before you get to speak. If this happens, you might start by saying something like, "I'd like to go back to what
Audrey was saying about…"
What about someone who monopolizes airtime?
Some groups need to set a discussion guideline of limiting how long each person speaks. It is a matter of respect for the
group that no one person dominates the conversation, but some people don't have a very good sense of time and just really aren't aware of how long they speak, or don't realize when they're
starting to repeat themselves. If this is happening, the facilitator might gently say something like, "Are you almost finished?" giving the person a chance to complete their thought and reminding
them that it's time to stop. If a facilitator needs to be more directive, s/he could say something like, "OK, I'm going to cut you off now" to a particularly loquacious person, especially after
they've been given a warning that their time is up. Because the study group is small, you are not
likely to need such a time length guideline or intervention technique, but it's handy to know about it in case the group decides it would be helpful.
Avoiding conversations of two.
A dynamic to watch for is cross-talk. Remember that this is a group discussion, so one goal is to avoid a dialog between just two people in the group. If the
facilitation is very casual, the way this sometimes happens is that one person is speaking and another asks them a short, direct question (usually without being on the list) that the speaker
feels compelled to answer, and sometimes this can happen several times while the rest of the group just watches. In this case, the group counts on the facilitator to remind people to raise their
hands so everyone gets a fair chance to speak, although anyone in the group should feel empowered to remind the group of the discussion guidelines. You can simply say something
like, "I'd like to remind everyone that we've agreed to raise our hands before we speak."
Points of clarification.
There is a behavior that looks similar to cross-talk, but isn't, and is an exception to people being on the list. This is called asking for a point of clarification. If a person
can't hear the speaker or doesn't understand a word they've used, or just doesn't understand what they're saying, they can immediately ask for a point of clarification. Examples are: "Excuse
me, did you say 'permeate' or 'punctuate'?" or "I'm sorry, what did you say after 'In 1886'?" or "What does 'tesselate' mean?" or "I'm completely not following you." (This last one is rare.) A
point of clarification is NOT, for example, "Based on what you said, what kind of items do you think should be on a party platform?" A speaker's response to a real point of clarification is
usually short and does not break the speaker's concentration or flow while it enables the listener to understand what the speaker is already saying, not expanding on it. It is appropriate for the
questioner to ask the facilitator if they can ask a point of clarification. Sometimes the questioner asks the speaker directly, but then that momentarily puts the speaker into the role of facilitator
without the agreement of the group. Sometimes this puts the speaker in an awkward position, especially if the group is counting on the facilitator to keep the group organized.
Staying on topic.
One of the most challenging parts of being the facilitator in these study groups is trying to keep the conversation on track. People drawn to these discussions have a
wide variety of experience and knowledge, and it's easy to get sidetracked onto all kinds of interesting topics. You want this other information to enrich your conversation - that's the
whole point of bringing disparate people together - but you also want to try to keep it tethered to the topic at hand. Anyone in the group who feels the discussion is straying too far should feel
empowered to point this out or just ask the question "Have we gotten too far off topic?" so the group can decide whether to continue that thread or shift back to where they started. But it is a
good idea for the facilitator to be particularly alert to this phenomenon and watch for it.
Including all participants in the discussion.
In any group discussion there may be a few people who are quieter than others. In these study groups the number of participants is
small so that everyone has enough time to participate meaningfully, but some people may have less to say about one topic than another. Who is quieter in any given discussion may change
from meeting to meeting. The facilitator should try to keep track of who hasn't spoken and check in periodically to see if they want to participate. This can be unobtrusive - for example, "Does
anyone who hasn't spoken yet want to speak?" - - which can prevent putting someone on the spot. Or you can be more directive - for example, "Tim, Brenda, we haven't heard from you in
awhile. Do either of you want to say something or pass for now?" Some groups use a guideline that says no one should speak twice until everyone has had a chance to speak once. If you choose
to implement this, then the facilitator needs to keep track of who's spoken and who hasn't. People should not feel that they must speak, just be given the opportunity to do so.
Occasional need for summarizing.
Another role the facilitator may perform is to summarize the discussion periodically, particularly when it is time to move to another question.
Again, anyone in the group should feel empowered to do this when it seems appropriate. The
group may not feel the need for summaries - this is something that is often necessary in groups that need to make decisions, which is not the purpose of a study group. Some facilitators find it
easier to make summaries than others do, so you may just leave it to whoever is facilitating to decide. Also, there may be no real summary to make - this is, after all, a discussion group, and
each person can make a summary for him or herself.
- Checkin. This is an opportunity for participants to build community, sharing something that's going on with them or a thought or question related to the day's discussion. A limited amount
of time (usually one minute) is allotted for each person.
- Agenda review. Go over what is planned for the discussion and allow modifications or additions by the group. Agree upon an ending time and, if appropriate, allocate time blocks to
certain questions, readings, or other topics.
- Review the discussion guidelines.
If the group has decided that each time one person should perform these functions, assign or confirm a timekeeper, notetaker, and/or vibes watcher.
- If the group has decided to use this format, one or two people can make a brief presentation of the materials to get the discussion rolling. This should be highlights only to ensure that
everyone is "on the same page."
- Facilitated discussion.
- Plan for the next session. Distribute the readings and choose a facilitator and any other needed roles.
- Wrapup and evaluation (what worked well for people; what did not).
Challenging Corporate Power, Asserting the People's Rights
This evaluation form is distributed to participants at the first study session. Participants
may fill it out as they go or at the end of the ten sessions. We encourage you to both fill it
out on your own and conduct an evaluation session as a group.
1. Was the number of sessions:
___ just right
___ too few
___ too many
2. Who facilitated your meetings?
___ the same person each time
___ a different person each time
___ another system (please describe):
How well did your group process work and what would you do differently?
3. In regard to the materials provided for the ten study sessions (use additional paper if
Did you find the readings gave you important information and ideas useful to your
discussions? Can you be specific about which ones worked and which ones did not?
Did you find the order of the sessions effective for learning and discussing?
Did you find the questions accompanying each session helpful in provoking and
4. How would you describe the overall educational effect of the study group? Please
check as many as apply:
___ I learned a lot
___ I was already familiar with much of the material
___ I found the discussions to be stimulating and empowering
___ I found the discussions to be mostly a waste of time
___ I don't believe some of the things I read
___ I was very discouraged to learn this material
___ We are planning to continue our study as a group
___ I am going to continue my study on my own
___ I will encourage others to form study groups
___ I'm interested in helping design a local campaign to put this analysis into action
Please provide any other feedback:
Many thanks for taking the time to tell us what you think! If you have any suggestions for materials that
could be used in future study groups, send a copy along with this evaluation to Molly Morgan, 4328
Piedmont Dr., San Diego, CA 92107-4135