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Facilitating group discussions
Facilitating group discussions

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6.1 Under-participation

Some participants are very quiet and aren’t participating in the discussion.

The challange

  • While some people speak up, others sit in silence.
  • When asked if they have anything to say, they decline.
  • Sometimes an entire group will sit back and say nothing.

What’s really going on

  • Some people are unaccustomed to attending meetings, let alone being asked to participate in discussions.
  • Some people feel insecure about the quality of their ideas.
  • Others may fear that their ideas aren’t going to be heard or, worse, fear that they’ll actually get rebuked for speaking out.
  • Participants may be afraid of saying something inappropriate in front of their peers or managers.
  • The presence of a senior person may intimidate participants and cause them to shut down.
  • Over-participants may be shutting down the quieter people.

Facilitator pitfalls

  • Failing to find out if the presence of certain people might have a negative effect on participation.
  • Assuming that quiet people have nothing to add.
  • Sticking with a large group format for most discussions.
  • Not setting ground rules that create safety and comfort at the meeting.
  • Leading a discussion in which only the high participants have a voice.
  • Forgetting to invite quiet people into the conversation.

Intervention strategies

  • Put people at ease at the start of the session by assuring them that no one will be asked to do anything that puts them on the spot.
  • Design your meeting around techniques that create safety and get everyone involved (e.g. get people to talk in pairs before talking in a bigger group; use small group discussions; invite people to write their ideas on Post-it notes or flipcharts distributed around the room).
  • Encourage the group to create ground rules that encourage open participation by asking: ‘How can we make sure that everyone participates and no one dominates?’ or ‘What conditions or assurances would encourage people to speak freely?
  • Maintain eye contact with the under-participants so they know they’re not forgotten and are always welcome to add their views.
  • Call on quiet people by name, especially if their body language indicates that they may have something to say.
  • Find non-threatening roles for quiet people, such as timekeeper, to make them feel valued.
  • Encourage under-participants by thanking them for contributing.