10 Tips for Facilitating Discussion

The Commission on Professionalism encourages providers and facilitators to see professional responsibility CLE as a vehicle for transforming attorney behavior. We hope that you will use the limited time you have for your program to not simply deliver advice in the traditional “talking head” form, but to produce interactive programming that engages your attendees and allows them to fully participate in the learning experience.

To that end, we are providing this short list of CLE tips and tools for facilitating discussion. This sheet is designed to accompany our Interactive Learning Video which demonstrates how to design and facilitate an interactive learning course. A learning experience that combines traditional information transfer, interactive dialogue, and facilitated discussion allows you, the facilitator, to better achieve your learning objectives and leave your learners satisfied with the time they have spent in your course.

1. Know Your Audience.

It is difficult to facilitate a discussion without having a prior general understanding of your participants. If possible, ask the provider beforehand about the composition of your participants – position, seniority, experience, etc. – and utilize that knowledge to both customize your course and direct your discussion.

2. Ask Open-Ended Questions.

Utilize open-ended questions to make points, identify issues, and quickly assess whether your participants are understanding what you are telling them. You can do this throughout your information transfer and during the facilitated discussion.

3. Paraphrase and Engage in Responses.

Once your participant responds to your question, do not let his answer stand there. Rather, provide supportive and constructive feedback. Paraphrase his response and ask the participant if that was what he meant to say. Provide the participant with an opportunity to expand on his original answer. In addition, encourage others in the group to engage in the participant’s response. A single response can often lead to the most in-depth group discussion as other participants agree and disagree with the original responder.

4. Connect and Contrast Responses.

As you receive multiple responses from participants, try to connect their responses to each other. Not only will it encourage them to respond to each other rather than to you, it will also help stimulate their own thinking and advance deeper discussion.

5. Link Responses to Learning Objectives.

Learning objectives are crucial. They ensure that all participants understand why they are attending the course and what specific knowledge and/or skills they will obtain once they leave the course. It also allows you the facilitator to demonstrate at the conclusion of the course that all learning objectives have been met. Therefore during your discussion, try to link comments to those learning objectives. Expand upon the response and tie it to other points that you have raised throughout your information transfer.

6. Reframe Unhelpful Responses.

Occasionally, you will receive a response from a participant that you find unhelpful to the learning experience. Try not to dismiss the response or quickly move on from it. Rather, reframe the statement to bring the comment back to something more helpful to the group, whether by contrasting the comment with another previous comment, by linking the comment to the learning objectives, or by using another constructive method.

7. Consider Pairing or Grouping Participants.

Depending on the discussion, it may be helpful to pair off participants and have them discuss the question then report out to the group. Again, you want to ensure that participants are fully engaged in the learning process.

8. Don’t Hesitate to Play “Devil’s Advocate.”

The goal of a CLE is to have your participants leave having acquired knowledge or skills that they did not have before, or, at the very least, interpret a previously held belief in a whole new light. If a participant is expressing a strongly held opinion, do not be afraid to challenge the opinion and offer an opposing view, particularly if you think the whole group shares the original perspective.

9. Remember Your Role.

Facilitated discussion is directed and managed discussion. If a participant is monopolizing the conversation, your job is to limit the amount of talking that person does. If a participant is ignoring you by checking his phone or typing on his laptop, your job is to reengage him in the discussion. You are not there as a passive observer but rather as an active facilitator.

10. Conclude by Summarizing the Responses.

Facilitators are usually hurried at the end because they allow the discussion to run on right until the stop time. Ensure that you leave a few minutes to summarize the discussion and, again, link the discussion back to the learning objectives. Finally encourage your participants to apply their newly acquired skills and knowledge to their everyday personal and professional lives.