How to lead engaging group discussions in workshops and meetings

Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

Know your objective

Before you start sending out invitations for a meeting or a workshop, make sure that this is the right format for what you are trying to accomplish. There are lots of studies about meeting impacts on costs and productivity: we all want to avoid unnecessary meetings and “Zoom fatigue”.Get clear about the following:

  • Your goal. What do you need to accomplish? What input do you require to get there?
  • Format. Is a meeting or workshop the best way to achieve your objective? Is it possible to use asynchronous methods to increase productivity, such as recorded videos with a walkthrough for feedback, or team communication apps for Q&A?
  • Participants. Who needs to be involved, how many people do you need, how important is an interaction between them?

? Helpful resource: Workshop Planner in Miro by Carla Amaral

Set the right expectations

An effective group discussion requires participants to understand the purpose of the conversation.Send out a brief description of your sessions that includes:

  • Purpose. Explain why we are meeting and what we want to accomplish.
  • Agenda. Let your participants know how long the meeting will it last and how it will be structured.
  • Interactivity. Will the session be presented as a lecture, group discussion, or interactive work session?
  • Requirements. How do you expect your participants to attend the session? Will they require specific equipment such as a video camera, or a desktop computer instead of a phone? Will they need access to any specific tools? Should they prepare or bring anything beforehand?

? Helpful resource: Agenda design by Session Lab

Create a welcoming environment

Before diving into the discussion, it’s important to create a positive and welcoming environment.

  • Introduction: Start by introducing yourself and explaining the purpose of the meeting. Let participants know that their input is valuable and that this is a safe space for sharing ideas.
  • Icebreaker: Begin with an icebreaker activity to help participants feel more comfortable with each other. It can be as simple as a quick round of introductions or a fun question to break the ice.
  • Discussion Guidelines: Establish discussion guidelines at the beginning to ensure clarity and structure. This can include guidelines such as speaking one at a time, being respectful, and focusing on the topic at hand.

? Helpful resource: Icebreaker ideas by Pipdeck 

Provide structure

As a meeting host or workshop facilitator, you are responsible for keeping the discussion on track and on time. Focus on:

  • Time Management: Set clear time limits for each discussion topic. This helps maintain focus and ensures that all points are covered within the allocated time.
  • Visual Aids: Utilize visual aids like a whiteboard or a projected slide with key discussion points. This helps participants stay focused and provides a visual reference for ongoing conversations.
  • Parking Lot: Create a space to capture input or questions that are not immediately relevant to your meeting objective. This allows you to keep the discussion focused but not dismiss input from your participants.

? Helpful resource: Parking Lot by NNG

Encourage active participation

Sometimes groups need a little external support to get into the discussion mode. Here are some strategies to consider:

  • Open-ended Questions: Ask open-ended questions that require more than simple yes/no answers. This encourages participants to think critically and share their thoughts.
  • Wait Time: After asking a question, provide sufficient wait time to allow participants to formulate their responses. Silence can feel uncomfortable, but it’s important to give everyone a chance to reflect and contribute.
  • Engage Introverts: Make an effort to involve quieter participants by directly asking for their input or moving into smaller groups to allow them to share their thoughts. Utilize tools like sticky notes or online collaboration platforms to gather ideas anonymously.

? Helpful resource: Design for Balance by SessionLab

Handle dominant voices

There is also the opposite effect, where certain participants are overly engaged and don’t leave room for other voices. In these situations, you can:

  • Acknowledge their input: Dominant voices often speak up because they have a lot to contribute. Start by acknowledging their input and thanking them for sharing their thoughts.
  • Redirect the conversation: When a dominant voice starts to monopolize the conversation, try to redirect the conversation to include other participants’ thoughts and perspectives. You might say something like, “Thank you for your input. Does anyone else have something to add?”
  • Take a break: If the conversation becomes overwhelming or unproductive, taking a break can be a good way to reset. Encourage participants to take a few minutes to reflect on the conversation and to come back with fresh ideas.

? Helpful resource: 10 ideas to treat dominant behaviour by North Star Facilitators

Summarize and Reflect

In order to bring your group discussion to an end, you want to get an alignment on the main outcomes.

  • Summarize Key Points: As the discussion progresses, periodically summarize the key points raised by participants. This reinforces their input and helps participants see the progress made. Using a whiteboard and sticky notes can help to keep everyone on point.
  • Reflect on the Discussion: Towards the end of the workshop, take some time to reflect on the discussion as a group. Ask participants for feedback on what worked well and what could be improved. This provides valuable insights for future workshops.

Wrapping Up

Bringing people together will always lead us to new and interesting outcomes. You might not always get the engagement that you were hoping for — but with careful planning and good facilitation techniques, you can shape the group dynamic a lot.Remember, each workshop is a learning experience for both you and the participants, so stay open to feedback and continuously improve your facilitation skills.

Happy facilitating!