Leading Discussions and Facilitating Better Training Outcomes

This post contains information on how to guide a discussion and is taken and adapted from THE UNITED STATES MARINE CORPS, Marine Corps University User's Guide to Marine Corps Values, which is a 452 page document (don't worry this post is no where near that long). It is packed full of good information, just try not to get too wrapped up in the linear outline. As I was reading this guide I realized it has some great information on leading discussions. These discussions could be you as a leader holding meetings of value or, where I really see the value is in you as a teacher, facilitating programs of instruction, most especially scenario based experiential learning, that includes case studies, tactical decision games and after action reviews. The effectiveness of this methodology is based on ones ability to facilitate group discussions.

The Discussion Leader's (facilitators) function is to lead and guide the discussion not direct it. It is not a "by the numbers" lecture, but a more subtle approach to leadership training. Understanding the discussion group process is a valuable tool which will benefit you throughout your career, whether in a command, training, or front-line.

A guided discussion is a training session where a designated discussion leader guides participants in a discussion of a given subject. Obviously there are Advantages and Disadvantages of a Guided Discussions and they are:


  1. Groups have more resources than individuals have.
  2. Group members are normally motivated by the presence
    of others.
  3. Group members may feel a stronger commitment and
    esprit de corps when they participate in a discussion.
  4. Participation leads to increased understanding.
  5. Members acquire or improve communication skills
    useful in other situations.
  6. Members teach each other by discussing their


  1. More time-consuming than other methods.
  2. Discussion can suppress convictions.
  3. Discussion may substitute talk for action.

The principal two factors you face in conducting guided discussions are time and group size. It usually takes longer to conduct a discussion of a subject than to lecture about
it. Also, guided discussions work best with small groups.

All of us at one time or another are either a participant or a leader involved in problem solving meetings/discussions, and these discussions are quite similar to the leadership training technique we are discussing here. All are oriented towards an objective or solutions, involves group discussion, and have a leader.

Each member is an individual and brings to class many different factors which influence the initial total group makeup. Each person is influenced by numerous sets of forces which have a bearing on his behavior in the group. Although they are invisible forces they nevertheless manifest themselves throughout the meeting or program of instruction, some becoming apparent immediately, some hidden behind a thin veil of camouflage, some only being revealed by nonverbal language. Some of the factors found in groups are listed below:

  1. Theories, assumptions, values, beliefs, prejudices, attitudes about self, others, things, groups, organizations, and cultures. These serve as a point of departure for each person's behavior.
  2.  Loyalties to other outside reference groups, i.e., his/her family, profession, religion, political affiliation, etc.
  3. A repertoire of behavior skills which permit or prevent him/her from doing what he/she really wants to do (diagnostic skills, listening skills, etc.).
  4. Feelings: sick, sad, depressed, unhappy, angry, frustrated, suspicious, etc.

At the beginning of a group learning experience, people know very little about each other. This ambiguous, uncertain atmosphere often creates uneasiness, discomfort and confusion.

The burden is upon the discussion leader to eliminate the above negative conditions and create a relaxed atmosphere where trust, acceptance, respect and all the positive things necessary to facilitate group learning and sharing becomes a reality. The discussion leader's personality and technique are of utmost importance in accomplishing that.

There is no tool more important than the discussion leader's attitudes; attitude towards others, towards himself/herself, and towards the group as well as individuals in the group, the quality of the relationship with each member of the group is of utmost importance.

We should not consider the use of group discussion unless we believe that its effect will in some way be better than a lecture (NOT HARD TO BELIEVE) in which he alone contributes to the group. Several additional factors need to be considered in which the discussion leader must believe:

  1. Group members have something to contribute. For some this contribution may be a new idea; for others, an idea borrowed from someone else; for others, a fact or observation picked up from reading; for still others, an expression of feelings, a report of their experiences, or an evaluation of the discussion. Much of the value is in questions asked. The effective discussion leader considers all of these to be important.
  2.  Each individual is unique the effective discussion leader understands each person is different from everyone else. Consequently, he/she has the potential for making some unique, fascinating, enlightening, educational, meaningful contributions one that no one else could possibly make because no one else is quite like him/her.
  3. The group exists for the achievement of the members' goals.

The discussion leader sees the group as the vehicle for the achievement of the goals of all its members, including him/her and its purpose for being there. "What are the leadership needs of each person?" is a question that must continuously be asked by the good discussion leader.

To hold values such as those mentioned above means the discussion leader needs to feel secure himself/herself. He/she needs to be an experienced leader, to have "been there before" with a wealth of experience, and be able to share and communicate them.

He/she must be secure enough to tolerate others having opinions different from his/her own. In a very real sense, he/she must respect his/her, own uniqueness, otherwise how can he respect the uniqueness of others? A strong desire to pattern others in our own image is usually rooted in a deep sense of insecurity, inferiority and powerlessness. The mark of a good leader with considerable inner strength and security lends itself to the willingness for others to be themselves, to have their own thoughts and to see the world as an individual.

Among many other things, the discussion leader must also:

  1. Function as an expert and project himself/herself as a person.
  2. Be an outsider who brings in skill and knowledge and at the same time, be an insider who can participate meaningfully.
  3. Work hard to obtain trust from group members.
  4. Understand the private world of others and be able to communicate some of that understanding.
  5. Have a positive, warm, accepting regard (attitude) for others and feel that regard unconditionally.
  6. Realize that the quality of the learning is heavily dependent upon him/her. "There are no bad groups, only bad discussion leaders."
  7. Vary his/her roles depending on the group.
  8. Avoid adopting the member role which will prevent him/her from providing guidance demanded by his/her trainer role.
  9. Be aggressive, protective, and supportive at the appropriate time.
  10. Accept feedback openly.
  11. Be alert for mannerisms which may reveal some emotional feeling on the part of a group member, whether silent, animated, or otherwise (e.g., expressions, foot tap pings, etc.).
  12. The discussion leader must also realize the difficulties found in the group process such as: (a) Members accept the group leader but have low trust in each other due to fear of rejection by peers (but the authority figure is trusted.) (b) Members have problem with authority figures the discussion leader has not Inspired them out of their lethargy.

A favorable climate is of tremendous importance for learning since the process of learning is greatly affected by the situation. Confronted with an idea that is at variance with an old idea, a person must reorganize all of the attitudes, values, and concepts that have become intimately related to the old idea.

Mark Twain stated that "Education is unlearning that which we have learned,"--not a simple process by any means. To do this a person must feel it is safe for him/her to express those attitudes, values and concepts that he/she will not be criticized or ridiculed if he expresses opposition to the new idea, discusses his doubts or defends the old idea.

Thus, there must be an accepting, non-evaluative climate in the learning situation. The earlier this climate is set, the better for all concerned. Many of the techniques listed for good counseling are applicable to good discussion leading; other things to consider are listed below:

  1. Eliminate useless formalities such as raising hands for permission to speak or standing.
  2. Listen to what each has to say.
  3. Set aside your own evaluation of ideas offered. (Have faith in the group.)
  4. Avoid preaching, teaching, or moralizing.
  5. Avoid pushing people into participation before they feel like it.

The discussion leader is a resource--if not, there would be no reason for him to be there. This refers to special skills, insights or information he might possess that others do not have. Group members look to the discussion leader as being a resource though it may never be said and is usually a tacit agreement by all concerned. It is easy, however, to overlook the fact that every group member is also potentially a resource. One of the difficult problems for a discussion leader is to avoid becoming the group's only resource or the "duty expert."

Most members are willing to let the leader do the work and to sit back and listen; this is especially true in learning situations; traditionally, teachers teach and students learn. It is often overlooked that teachers can learn from the student (who can teach). This is one of the many advantages of the group discussion; it provides an opportunity for problems to be solved with the resources of many people.

Additionally, recognizing contributions from members without going abruptly on to someone else is very important; it has a positive effect and tends to encourage others to "open-up," gives a feeling they are contributing something worthwhile, and usually increases the volume of good discussion.

The tendency must be reduced, then, for the group to be solely dependent upon the discussion leader. The principle concern of some traditional leaders is how they can most convincingly present their knowledge so members will learn what they know.

Discussion leaders can also become so preoccupied with what they will say and how it will be delivered that they are neglectful of the potential importance of each member and overlook (don't listen ) what is said when a member finally does get the opportunity to speak. It takes time and effort to create the conditions whereby group members learn to consider each other as a resource and to draw on this special information and experience that each brings to the group. The biggest contribution to this objective is the discussion leader's attitude:

  1. If he/she does not believe that he always knows best.
  2. If he/she is willing to learn from others.
  3. If he/she does not have a strong need to always be seen by others as the expert.
  4. If he/she sincerely believes others can contribute, then he has a real chance of releasing the group's own resources.

The importance of two discussion leaders (primary and assistant) per group is also worthy of note. With two instructors there is added expertise, continuity, objectivity, instructor feedback, and support when needed. It may take time for the two leaders to effectively work together as a team, but once this is accomplished they can complement each other significantly, and the resulting benefits are well worth the investment. If one discussion leader has difficulty the other can support him/her by providing additional expertise without "turning off" the group or inducing a loss of self-esteem on the part of the primary discussion leader.

The primary discussion leader can get more involved in the group while the assistant observes the primary leader, each member of the group and the entire period of instruction. This is invaluable to the group process and provides excellent feedback to the primary discussion leader. This "two discussion leaders" method works fantastic and use it often facilitating the Adaptive Leader Program and, The New Sergeants Leadership Class for the Massachusetts Police Training Committee (MPTC).

Facilitating or leading discussions, goes way beyond rote lecture and memorization, that is all too often forgotten, only weeks after the program of instruction is complete and never applied. Learning through cases, discussion and critiques, identifying  outcomes and measures of effectiveness,  is a holistic approach to the planning, preparation, execution, and assessment of training that goes beyond task proficiency and incorporates a focus on developing critical attributes in Leaders by emphasizing the “why” behind actions and the consequences of decisions within a wider context, as we develop our people how to adapt to new circumstances through education (How to Think) and training (How to Do).

Yes, robust discussions, combined with experiential learning methodology, "discussions" are actually a big part of experiential learning, and will help you affect the training outcomes you seek, while building confidence and competence in those you lead.

Stay Oriented!