Facilitate group conversations

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TL;DR recommendations
—Craft a powerful invitation —Use inclusive conversation formats —Listen actively to take the conversation deeper —Be comfortable with silence —Share observations —First diverge, then converge —Keep track of the group’s progress

How often have you asked a group, “Does anyone have anything to add?” and were met with crickets? 🦗

The great news is that inclusive and engaging conversations can be designed. Let’s learn how!

👉 Tip #1: Craft a powerful invitation

Asking expanding and thought-provoking questions is an art in itself. There are a couple of elements that powerful conversation invitations have. Do they invite reflection? Do they make participants feel seen and valued? Do they encourage exploration instead of narrowing down options? Usually, questions starting with “What”, “How”, “How come” lead to richer, more elaborate conversations.


👉 Tip #2: Use inclusive conversation formats

Inviting participants to “pop while they’re hot” and share their thoughts in ‘popcorn style’ will more often than not lead to having the extroverts and those of us that ‘talk to think’ take over the conversation. You can use several structured activities to design a space where everyone can contribute equally.

—When you’re short not time, you can go for the thinking alone versus thinking together flow. Allow everyone to reflect on their answers in silence, while you play some music in the background. Then pair them in smaller groups to exchange notes, before bringing them back into gallery view for the final sharing. Two activities you can experiment with are 1-2-4-all and Think-Pair-Share.

—When you’ve got plenty of time, you can choose an exploratory conversation format. These structures allow participants to take ownership of their engagement and learning process and build on each other’s ideas. You can experiment with variations of a Fishbowl, an Open Space Technology, a World Café, or a Lean Coffee format.

👉 Tip #3: Listen actively to take the conversation deeper

Often, we race through questions and answers. We stay at the surface level and miss the opportunity to dig deeper. Daniel Stillman talks about the Listening Triangle to deepen and slow down conversations:

  1. Ask a real, powerful question. Well-crafted questions are a facilitator’s most important tool. Questions can deepen a discussion (”Can you tell me more?”), they can suggest a different direction (”What’s the big picture here?”), nudge the group to go places they avoid (”What are we not saying regarding this topic?”).
  2. Actively listen, ie, paraphrase and confirm that you got it right.
  3. Re-ask. Don’t move on to another topic. Shift your question just a little bit to dive one step deeper and help triangulate your understanding of the person’s position.


👉 Tip #4: Be comfortable with silence

Silence feels uncomfortable, but it’s an extremely powerful tool for a facilitator. If the group engages in fruitful conversation, resist the urge to paraphrase and emphasize everything being said. This will unnecessarily bring the attention back to you for no reason. Allow the conversation to flow, and don’t intervene after each contribution unless you have something valuable to add.

👉 Tip #5: Share observations

We see skilled facilitators often share observations regarding the things that are being said. Even more powerful is to be mindful and surface observations regarding the unsaid: body language, silent participants, group dynamics, shifts in group energy or focus, cultural difference and so on. “It sounds like we moved from understanding the problem fully to finding solutions for it”, or “The room is quieter since we brought X into the conversation.”

These interventions will help the group become aware of certain dynamics between them and address them if needed.

👉 Tip #6: First diverge, then converge

If we want to go deep, we must diverge and explore during our conversations. Allow time for questions, be curious and inquisitive. But equally important is the process of narrowing down and landing on a conclusion, concrete takeaways, or clear learnings. Otherwise, a beautiful conversation risks being seen as a waste of time, or the participants will lack the ability to transfer the insights into their context and reality.

Our favourite way to converge after a conversation is individual reflection. You can use the Open-ended Polls and go for a “I used to think…, and now I think…” reflection or a “What? So what? Now what?” activity.

👉 Tip #7: Keep track of the group’s progress

While open discussions are challenging to facilitate and land on an outcome, they are usually very fruitful. Insights surface, ideas are shared, and conclusions are drawn. You can verbalize or capture these on a whiteboard as you spot them. They will prove useful when you lead the group toward the outcome of that conversation. Use this information to probe for agreements and move on: “Before we continue, I hear there's a common understanding regarding X. Is that right?”.

🧰 For your toolbox:

📚 If you want to explore this topic further, explore The Nine Elements of Transformative Facilitation by Daniel Stillman where he lays out the Conversation OS Canvas

📚Also from Daniel comes this great article: Facilitation Means Designing Conversations.