Working in Groups and Facilitating Discussions

This is a post from the tomorrows-professor newsletter by Rick Reis of Stanford University

Working in Groups and Facilitating Discussions

Some students are good at helping groups work together, address conflicts, and solve problems. Some aren’t. Teaching students group skills is not typically part of any academic discipline, but the work environment requires that students learn to use these skills effectively.

Group Composition

* Do not let students pick their own groups.
* Be aware of seating patterns before you set up the groups so you can split up friendship groups if appropriate.
* Before groups begin work, ask them to introduce themselves and share contact information.

Group Process Issues

* Ask students in their groups to discuss the best and the worst group they ever belonged to. Then have them report their findings to the class and draw some general conclusions about what makes a group work well. Summarize this list of effective behaviors and write the list on a whiteboard or blackboard and/or post it online. It is also illuminating to have a classroom discussion about why these behaviors make a group work. You definitely do not need to be the expert. You just need to listen, summarize, and if appropriate ask the students how this approach to group work might help them in their careers. This discussion might even provide an opportunity for a grad to come to class and talk about work environment or for the students to talk about places where they have worked.

* Ask students within their groups to discuss how they handle conflicts or what they do when they really disagree with somebody, report their findings, and discuss good conflict management strategies. If you need support in the conflict management strategies area, try searching the topic online, inviting a member of the student affairs staff to co-teach that class, or find a partner on the faculty who is experienced in this area.
* Have each group pick an easy to use signal for stopping work when somebody feels ignored. This can be as simple as saying, “I’m stuck.”

Group Facilitation Skills (for the professor)

There are at least two keys to effective group facilitation. One is active listening and the other is observing group dynamics.

Active Listening

* When you listen to what students are saying, try not to think about what you are going to say afterward. Listen with a clear mind (see Appendix B) and listen for themes. Then tell the students what you have heard or seen. For example, “You seem to be confused about who’s at fault in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. You seem to want to place the blame on one of the groups.” Rephrasing what the student said before responding assures the student that you have understood the student’s intended meaning. The student is then more open to listening to new information. This process creates the beginnings of a dialogue.

* Encourage students to speak with each other rather than to you alone. For example: “Jorge, that was an interesting idea. Susan, you seemed to react to what Jorge said. What do you think about the idea? Anybody else want to respond?” I think of this aspect of group facilitation as weaving. You want to teach the students to listen to each other because it builds trust, encourages self-authorship, and teaches them how to treat differences of opinion respectfully. After you have exhausted a particular topic, summarize what you think you heard. For example: “It sounds as if you are concerned about being misunderstood or not being able to express yourself accurately. Some of you may be concerned about being attacked or dismissed for your opinions.” Then ask the students if you got it right or missed anything important.

Observing Group Dynamics

* Watching group dynamics is like watching a pot of soup heat up. As the soup gets hotter you can see currents and bubbles in the pot. These currents affect the various ingredients in the soup differently depending on their density, size, and so forth. You can also see dynamics in any body of water by watching currents and the objects floating in the water. If you like to fish you have seen this phenomenon. If you haven’t noticed, perhaps you should go fishing. Once you experience dynamics in fluid, try watching a department meeting. Similar phenomena occur.

* In your classes begin observing the connections among your students – either positive or negative. When some students speak, everybody listens. Others seem to evoke eye rolling, looking down or toward each other, or arm crossing. If there are out-of-class alliances in the group, students may speak in an invariant order. For example, as soon as Kemesha speaks, her friend Jamal may follow up. If people ignore Kemesha, Jamal may get agitated. If students have competitive relationships or are trying to outspeak each other, the follow-up is likely to be a contradiction or a challenge. There are gender patterns to this phenomenon as well (Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, & Tarule, 1986).

* Be aware that sometimes the professor is the target of the dynamic process. You are the authority figure. Students who are engaged in the self-authorization process may begin to challenge authority. This is normal but uncomfortable for the target. Generally speaking, this is not personal, however personal it may feel. It is very important to respond impersonally. For example: “There seems to be some agitation [distress, upset, anger, and so on] in the conversation. Anybody want to talk about what’s going on?” Your role is to encourage reasonable expression of feelings and minimize student attacks or disrespect. You can refer to the class rules. You need to think of yourself as an observer and a person who helps students talk to each other. Remember to summarize what you have heard before adding your observations or additional information.

* Do not join the conflict. Remember, your job in this situation is to observe the dynamics and label them, not to join the conflict. Take the lid off the pot before it boils over. What people really want is to be heard. Summarize what you’re hearing. That typically calms things down considerably.

* If you know you will be teaching a class where conflict is inevitable, and you want to use conflict as an educational tool, invite a person with good group skills to join you for that class. Group process experts can be found in student affairs, in departments of communication, and possibly in the human resources department of your institution.

* Learning to watch and use group dynamics as an educational tool is an endless process. Start where you are. If what you see doesn’t make sense to you, find somebody who is an experienced facilitator to discuss the situation with you. I recommend seeking out student affairs people, but there are also many academic departments that teach about groups. Ask your friends for suggestions. Do not talk to people who are more likely to have group counseling experience because what you are doing is not counseling and counseling issues will probably confuse the process.


* If you really want to explore this topic in greater depth, search out group decision-making styles online. Many assessment tools are available that can be used to help students develop a language for addressing and resolving differences of opinion. If you don’t feel comfortable participating in the clarification process as a facilitator, ask a staff member from student activities or residence life to help. Many of these people know how to use these tools. There are also potential partners in communication and business departments.

* Consider consulting a book on group dynamics. My favorite group dynamics book is Joining Together: Group Theory and Group Skills (Johnson & Johnson, 2013). This book organizes group process by issues and contains many exercises to illustrate each topic.


* Make the students assess the quality of the group work as part of their final grade. I usually ask students to write a short reflection paper after completion of a group project. This allows me to find out who really did what and how satisfied with the group the individual members were. If there are different renditions of what happened that is a good subject for a meeting with the group.

Remember, the key to good assessment of group skills is to identify specific behaviors that are the positive contributors. You can probably develop the list from the earlier student conversations about how good groups work.


Belenky, M.F., B.M. Clinchy, N.R. Goldberger and J.M. Tarule. 1986. Women’s Ways of Knowing. Basic Books, NY.

Johnson, D., & Johnson, F. (2013). Joining together: Group theory and group skills (11th ed.). Minneapolis, MN: Pearson.