Have you ever felt ‘stuck’ in a conversation with three or more people that just wasn’t going anywhere? People are droning on and on about this and that, leaving you bored and wishing you could just slip away? This is an all too familiar social situation – we’ve all been there and, chances are, we’re unaware that we can help shape our conversations to be more productive and meaningful for all involved.
You can make a difference in group conversations, if you choose. You can “facilitate” them so that they’re rewarding to you and the group as a whole. To do so, you must be willing to take responsibility for the course of the conversation without being pushy or “in charge.” In well “facilitated” conversations, those unfamiliar with facilitation skills will know they’ve had a good experience, but they may not know why.
Basic Group Process Skills for Rewarding Conversations
Here are five guidelines to effectively facilitate group conversations. As a caution, keep in mind when making interventions, to be polite and take a “curious” versus a “commanding” perspective. This is particularly important in those social situations where you have not been granted the role of official group facilitator.
1. Get everyone involved. One problem with group conversations is that they often turn into monologues for the most vocal people in the group. People often politely allow others to monopolize a conversation when they’re obviously uncomfortable. We’ve all felt the awkwardness and read the obvious body language of those tolerating a tirade.
In this situation, validate the speaker, and then ask for input from someone else. This might sound something like, Wow Bill, I didn’t realize you were so tuned in to the stock market, it reminds me of how important investments are to us all. In fact, it makes me think about Joe having recently started his own business, how is that going for you Joe?
One important thing to notice is that I connected what Bill was saying to something completely different, but related to another person in the group. Recognize that you can make connections from one thing to anything if you simply put your mind to it for a moment.
2. Know it’s OK to interrupt when appropriate. One thing to consider when redirecting a conversation is that you may have to interrupt people. This is hard for many of us who’ve been trained to listen when others are speaking. The funny thing is, I’ve found “over talkers” actually expect interruptions, as this is the only way they can experience a dialogue. For example: Excuse me Bill, your story reminds me of a similar experience I had one time…
3. Ensure you are actively listening. Listening is the key to all good conversations. We’re often thinking of our response while others are talking. Good conversations require us to stay present and pay attention when others, and ourselves, are speaking. This means that we don’t entertain other thoughts while we’re listening. Whenever our mind wanders, we bring our attention back to the speaker. When we’re listening closely, we’re better able to interject and ask clarifying questions or redirect the conversation in the presence of “over talkers.”
4. Stay on track but be willing to leave it. Some of the best conversations I’ve had moved all over the place. Not in a disjointed fashion, but like a dance, forming a mosaic of meandering patterns that fit together into a coherent whole.
Be flexible and willing to move from one subject to the next, but beware of leaving incomplete ideas hanging. This is particularly common in conversations where poor listening and unconscious interruptions occur. If the conversation shifts to a new subject when an idea hasn’t been brought to completion, politely interrupt and ask the group if they’re complete with the idea, or say something yourself to feel complete about it. The simple act of intervening to get completion often has the effect of drawing others into deeper listening and better dialogue. Staying with a subject long enough to truly express ourselves around it increases our connection to others. Excuse me Amy, I didn’t get what you meant when you said ‘I want to do more of ‘this’. What do you mean by ‘this?’
5. Work on cultivating your relationships. We humans are social creatures who sometimes just need to talk. So coming together simply to chat isn’t always a bad thing. However, if we really want to have better conversations, ones where we feel closer to the others in the group, we need to work on relating better to one another.
How do we do this? Start by asking yourself how you like to be related to. For me, it’s about being heard, respected, and having others “be real” with me. In your next conversation notice the following: Do you truly listen to yourself when you speak? Are your words respectful to yourself and others? And most importantly, are you being real in the conversation? Then get ready for others to nearly invite you to facilitate!
Try these skills out in your next conversation or share them with your clients who complain about their small group meetings. Please share your comments, questions, and experience on this topic in the comment section below. I’d love to hear from you.