Welcome back to the last day of this coffee course. In today’s post, we discuss some of the common challenges faced in facilitating discussions and how certain risks can be reduced or mitigated.
“We are not natural facilitators.”
Most teachers in higher education are not trained teachers or facilitators – they are often researchers and content experts who have been placed in teaching positions. Some people have the flare for facilitation while others, like myself, may not always find it easy. Day 2 provided an in-depth discussion into the role of the facilitator and in this short section, we’ll share some tips to troubleshoot through sticky situations.
- Prepare answers – Beyond planning the format, structure, questions, etc. for the discussion, you can also plan your answers ahead of time. These may range from content specific answers, relevant resources to what you might say in a conflict situation.
- Invite a co-facilitator who may be a student – In this way, you can bounce ideas between each other or take much-needed breaks.
- Listen – As a facilitator, it is important to breathe, listen and ask follow-up questions. Students want to know you value their opinion.
- It is okay to not have all the answers – During discussions, tricky and complex questions may be raised. You can open these questions up to the class or simply acknowledge that you don’t have the answer as yet and provide further details at a later date.
- Silence is okay – Silence can be uncomfortable and we are often eager to fill the void. However, these silent moments may serve as opportunities to reflect on the questions asked and invite new perspectives to be formed. If the silence goes on for a long time, remember that it can be confronting for students to discuss a contextually difficult question and instead of expecting students to speak up, provide examples or ask more relatable/easy to respond questions (e.g. personal experience).
Participation in discussions
In discussions, offline or online, you often get a few active participants while others remain silent. While these active participants are very valuable, it can also narrow the scope of the discussion. You may want to:
- Summarise what an active participant says and ask for additional inputs. Sometimes, it may be as simple as asking if others agree with the sentiments and why.
- Redirect the conversation through asking other questions or reframing the issue.
- Assign roles to students so that normally active participants become observers or note takers while quieter students are assigned to take the lead in discussions. Be sure, however, to provide students with adequate time to prepare for their roles!
- Ask relatable questions – non-participants may not be responding because they are afraid to “get the answers wrong”. Try asking questions that ask for examples or experiences and build towards unpacking these through a conceptual or theoretical lens.
Other response management strategies include:
- Get students to talk to each other instead of with you
- Give students time to think, prepare and even write their responses before a discussion
- Provide students with different avenues to respond – e.g. Padlet
- Move around to break down the power dynamics/distance between you and them
Discussion goes off track
Just like day to day conversations, discussions can go off track very easily. This may not be a bad outcome as it exposes students to other related conversations to the topic. However, when discussions go way off track for too long without any sign of heading back to the original discussion, it is important for facilitators steer it in the right direction. Some techniques include:
- Framing: Having a list of questions, discussion objectives and/or issues to be covered available in a visible space. This may be on a slide, the whiteboard or at the top of an online forum.
- Take notes: Facilitators or students may be able take notes that are visible to all during the discussion. This can help you to keep track of where the discussion is heading.
- Redirect: Facilitators can acknowledge students’ points and ask questions to redirect conversations back on track. In an online discussion, it is still important for facilitators to acknowledge students’ contributions even if they are not addressing the question! Remember that your role as a facilitator is not just to assess their contributions but to help them think deeply and critically about the topic of discussion.
Controversial topics and managing conflict
I once sat in a class where a student said: “We should take a global and westernised approach to human rights!” I don’t remember how the tutor managed the discussion but I remember the shocked faces.
Controversial comments may come up at different points in a discussion. Certain topics and issues invite more controversy or contention than others and preparing for them is important. Conflict may be between participants, participants and yourself or participants and the topic in question (e.g. Contentious topics like abortion). As a facilitator, you may be caught off guard and may not have a suitable response at hand.
Here are some tips on how can you tackle controversial topics and manage conflict:
- Acknowledge the issue and clarify the conflict
- If it is a factual dispute, point them to the right resources to clarify the error
- If it is one of values, help participants to become aware of the values involved and reflect on them
- Identify and clarify the purpose of the discussion – If you know your class will be tackling a controversial topic, always be sure to clarify the purpose of the discussion – e.g. What is the outcome you are looking to achieve?
- Establish ground rules – Remind people to be respectful; criticise ideas, not people
- Provide a common basis for understanding – Setting up context and boundaries around the topic for discussion can help reduce misunderstandings and confusion
- Be sensitive to feelings and emotional reactions
- Prepare writing exercises like one minute papers to provide opportunities for pauses and breaks
- Defer the conflict/argument if it is becoming unproductive or personal and move the discussion on to another topic. Ask students to talk about the disagreement (particularly if it is personal) after the session.
As a facilitator, how do you deal with conflict? What is your role in conflict management?
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced as a facilitator? Share your experience and let us know how you dealt with the situation.
Brown University (N.D.). Tips on Facilitating Effective Group Discussions, The Harriet W. Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning, retrieved from https://www.brown.edu/sheridan/teaching-learning-resources/teaching-resources/classroom-practices/learning-contexts/discussions/tips
University of Michigan (N.D.). Guidelines for Discussing Difficult or Controversial Topics, Centre for Research on Learning and Teaching, retrieved from http://www.crlt.umich.edu/publinks/generalguidelines