Tips for Leading Effective Discussions

Tips for Leading Effective Discussions

Good discussions will give young people the opportunity to think about a question and decide how he or she feels about the topic.


By encouraging participation in meaningful discussions you can help young people to open up, to find expression for those things they long to share, and to help them discover a community that is open to them and their ideas and dreams.

Here are some helpful hints for leading a discussion:

  • Be familiar with the subject matter. Take some time in advance to prepare or review the kinds of questions you want to ask.
  • Give a brief introduction to the subject matter if it has not already been done. Then ask the group questions, beginning with easy or non-threatening ones. After this, move on to the more difficult or specific questions.
  • Be sure to address everyone in the group by name.
  • Ask focused or specific questions. Try to frame your questions in the context of their lives. Relating something to their lives or the lives of their family or friends will elicit a greater response than something theoretical or disconnected.
  • Encourage the participants of the discussion to ask questions of one another. This will keep from having the focus continually come back to you and maintain the conversational tone of the discussion.
  • Explore how the participants feel about the topic. This will keep the conversation interesting and meaningful and away from simply reporting the facts.
  • When trying to evoke personal sharing, make sure everyone is talking in the first person “I” and “you” rather than “he” and “they.” If someone is talking in vague generalities, softly urge him/her to be specific and concrete.  Gently challenge the person to be open.
  • Avoid questions that require a simple “yes” or “no” answer. If “yes” or “no” questions are necessary, be sure to ask “why” or “why not.”  The best tactic however, is to ask open-ended questions such as, “If you had to….,” “What do you think the most effective way….,” “If it were up to you how would you have handled….,” “What do you think or feel about this?”
  • Understand and be comfortable with silence. This might seem contradictory to maintaining a good discussion; however, the participants might be taking some time to think about their response. Another reason for silence is they may not have understood what you asked. Be aware and alert to their body-language and facial expressions in order to respond properly, and clarify when necessary.
  • Avoid evaluating people’s answers with comments like “good answer,” or “nice point.”  Help the other participants understand why responses should not be evaluated. This will serve to keep the atmosphere open and objective.
  • When you ask questions, be sure to ask in a kind and non-confrontational manner so that no one feels as if they are being put on the spot.
  • Do not take disagreements personally; these are simply opportunities for the group to think about a variety of views on an issue.
  • Be orderly and focused.  Beware of tangents; group leaders and members should eventually be able to call the group to task when they stray from the topic or when the group gets too noisy.
  • Give everyone a chance to talk, but don’t exhaust the topic. Watch for signs of boredom.
  • Throughout the discussion, and particularly at the end, summarize all that has been said, to check whether or not the subject was covered thoroughly and everyone had the opportunity to have their say. A variation on this idea is to ask if there are any participants who would like to summarize.

Helpful Hints for Active Listening

  • Stop talking!  You can’t listen while you are talking.
  • Empathize with what the other person is saying. Try to put yourself in his or her shoes.
  • Make the person speaking the experts. Ask open-ended questions about friends, school and family.
  • Maintain eye contact (where culturally appropriate) while you listen and share. In some ethnic groups, eye contact helps the other person know that you are paying attention, while in other groups direct eye contact is not encouraged.
  • Pay attention to body language—yours and the speaker’s. Are you facing the other person? Remember that 85% of communication is non-verbal.
  • Give feedback to what you hear. Rephrase his or her statements to be sure you understand what they are trying to say. When unclear, ask for further explanation.
  • Listen for emotions rather than facts.
  • Understanding, not suggesting solutions, is the goal of effective listening.

Being a good listener does not come naturally for most people. Many of us would rather share a joke or story than listen to someone else’s.


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