Learning patterns/Facilitating a productive discussion

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A learning pattern forconferences
Facilitating a productive discussion
problemCommunity discussions are an important tool for progress and decision making in our movement. In order to be productive, they usually require a discussion facilitator, who makes sure the discussion progresses as planned. What makes a good facilitator? What are some do's and don'ts for a successful facilitation process?
solutionSome tips for before, during and and after the discussion
created on15:28, 2 August 2016 (UTC)

What problem does this solve?[edit]

Community discussions are an important tool for progress and decision making in our movement. In order to be productive, they usually require a discussion facilitator, who makes sure the discussion progresses as planned. What makes a discussion facilitation process a successful one?
Below are some tips for facilitators to consider before, during and after the discussion. We hope you find these tips useful and please feel free to add to the list!
Good luck with your discussion facilitation!
Shani & Lodewijk.

What facilitating is all about!

What is the solution?[edit]

As facilitator, you are responsible for the process. Making sure people participate, that not a single person keeps talking for a long time, and that the conversation is respectful, diverse and inclusive. You are responsible to make sure the conversation moves forward and that points are clear, by summarizing points if they are too elaborate, by moving on to the next point in the discussion if it gets repetitive. You’re also responsible for the progress of the discussion and that a conclusion/recommendation is reached. If you could identify one or two people who are expert on the topic and want to introduce or actively participate, that’s always awesome!

And finally -- prepare well. Then let go. :) Don't forget that not everything is under your control and you have to keep an open mind and flexibility to accommodate what happens in real life. Consider the following and you'll have a successful discussion!

Things to consider[edit]

Before the discussion[edit]

  • Time allocation: Make sure your have sufficient time for a productive discussion. 45-60 minutes would be ideal. It's better to leave the room longing for more discussion, than with the feeling that you should have stopped 10 minutes earlier.
  • Estimate the number of participants: This impacts how big the room is. If there are many people, you need bigger rooms and 3-4 microphones - one for the facilitators and the others rotating between participants. Also, the buzz will be different.
  • Room: a round table or long rectangle tables are best for discussions (possibly with a second circle of chairs around it), as they invite participants to be actively engaged in a conversation, much more than a room filled with rows of chairs (which is better suited for a presentation with Q & A). If possible, see the room in advance.
  • Etherpad: Open an etherpad in advance and link it to the event's program. Put the rules/expectations of the discussion there, and your expected outcomes. This way, everyone knows what you're looking for.
  • Note taking: Try to secure a note taker in advance
  • Technical demands: make sure there's projector connected to a computer or laptop in the room, so the etherpad can be projected during the discussion for the audience and they can see what is being documented and participate. Whiteboard/flipchart is optional, depending on the complexity of the topic and your drawing skills.
  • Prep: Prepare a short intro to the sessions, which includes why it matters, what you aim to achieve in the session and some discussion questions.
  • Ownership: A good discussion outcome could be recommendations and / or decisions made. The fact that they are documented in an etherpad means nothing, if someone doesn't take ownership of following up on them. Find that someone (or someones), whether they are Board of Trustees members, a chapter's board, a dedicated committee, WMF relevant teams, volunteers, etc. Make sure they are part of the discussion and are willing to follow up on the decisions and recommendations made during a discussion, so it has an actual impact and the discussion is not run in vain.

During the discussion[edit]

Intro: (about 5 minutes, 7 if there's an introduction round, in a 45 minutes discussion)e.

  • Open the session by stating its name - sometimes there are a few discussions at the same time and it's good to make sure everyone in the room are in the right plac
  • Present yourself and your note taker, as well as any special contributors to the session or people that it is important for attendees to recognize. For example, in the Roadmap to Wikidata discussion[1] during Wikimania 2016, Lydia Pintscher, Product Manager for Wikidata, was also introduced to the audience. If you were not able to secure a note taker in advance, ask for a volunteer from the audience, give him / her credit for helping, make sure the etherpad is open and visible to participants and invite them to contribute
  • Give a very quick introduction of the topic and why it matters.
  • Explain what the intended outcome is. For example: that the goal is to work towards a joint conclusion/recommendation and who will follow up on it. Alternatively, the goal would be to arrive at a list of ideas/approaches to be inspiration for others to work with.
  • Explain the ground rules of the session: ask participants to be constructive, concise and avoid name calling or pointing to other people.
  • If there are photographers, you could check if anyone has a problem with that.
  • If you have time and the room is not too big, make a quick round and ask everyone to introduce themselves (name & main project, or something else factual relevant to the discussion). Ask people to be very quick (5 seconds), or it will take too long. This is just to have everyone speak up once at least, and make them feel comfortable. Also useful to get a better understanding which groups/organisations/countries/languages are represented.

The Discussion itself: (about 30-35 minutes in a 45 minute discussion)

  • Ask the 2 or 3 'introduction questions' listed in the etherpad with raise of hands. After that, you can use this as starting point if you don't get a response to open questions.
  • From time to time, ask questions that require a "show of hands", to check whether participants agree/disagree. You could use this technique after a request / decision / recommendation is made by one participant, to both engage people and make sure there is an overall agreement that this point should go under recommendations / decision. You can start the sentence by restating the recommendations / request and ask for participation, with sentences similar to "What I hear you are saying is... Do you all agree? Let's see a show of hand." If there's disagreement, it will help you move the conversation forward by asking something like, "From those who disagreed, can someone share why?".
  • Go into the different subtopics you prepared in advance, but keep an open mind and flexibility to accommodate what participants are bringing up. Give more time to more constructive discussions or debates. If it’s just ‘your word against his’, try to move to something new.
  • Make sure you engage as many participants in the discussion as possible. Some participants might be more enthusiastic than others, try to participate too many times or talk for too long. Make sure no individual(s) "take(s) over" the conversation. If that happens, thank them politely and remind participants there is a time limit and comments must be brief. Another polite way of cutting them off, is by asking them to please summarize it in a short sentence - or you can do it for them. If you ask a question, choose someone who did not participate yet to answer.

Closing the sessions: (about 5 minutes in a 45 minutes discussion)

  • Ask people to think about a main outcome/conclusion/recommendation. Whether you will be able to arrive at a single conclusion, depends on the topic and the group.
  • While they think about that, ask the note taker to quickly summarize the discussion.
  • After that, take a few minutes to quickly get to an outcome / recommendations / decision. If you feel you need more time for this, reserve some extra. The note taker may recommend a recommendation. Try to aim for consensus, but a majority is fine too. The outcome should be no longer than 120 characters.
  • Thank everyone for participating. Thank the note taker. Point out the next discussions / sessions.

After the discussion[edit]

  • Right after the sessions, check the etherpad to make sure it covers the discussion. If not, add points that were not covered, while it's still fresh in your mind.
  • Send a link with the etherpad note to interested parties, including the people who agreed to follow up on decisions / recommendations.

When to use[edit]

  • Discussions during movement's conferences such as Wikimania[2]
  • Local chapters / usergroups discussions


See also[edit]

Related patterns[edit]

External links[edit]