How to lead a discussion

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A discussion is an interactive debate about a specific topic. In the Scouting context, a discussion is typically led by a Scout working on their Springbok Scout Award. They will choose a specific topic, and either invite people to join the discussion, or hold it during their normal troop meeting where the whole troop would be invited. It is this Scout's responsibility not only to decide on a topic, but also plan the structure of the discussion, and manage the discussion to avoid it going off-topic, and to ensure the participants have learnt something meaningful.

Planning your discussion

Choosing a topic

A discussion could be about any topic, but in the Scouting context is often about mutual respect or a local social issue such as differences in religion, gender or ethnicity. It would be wise to choose a topic that you are not only passionate about, but also one for which you are keen to learn different views on. It should be a topic that is relevant to your invited participants.

Be prepared

  • As the discussion leader, you should come into the discussion with a discussion outline, and several "big" questions.
  • Be prepared to ask the next question when discussion dies down. The more prepared you are, the more confident you'll look which will earn you respect.
  • It can be helpful to give participants 1-2 questions in advance to give them more time to provide thoughtful contributions when the discussion comes.
  • Have a structure written out, and some spare questions to ask for when the discussion dies down early.
  • Provide a shared frame of reference to start off the discussion. This could be a short story, poem or news article that is read out, or a video.
  • Have a clock and keep track of time. Stick within your planned time.

Create a discussion outline

  1. Welcome and thank everyone for their time
  2. Briefly state why you are having a discussion
  3. Explain the ground-rules or guidelines
  4. Introduce your topic. You may want to briefly say if this topic has some personal meaning to you.
  5. Read an article or show a video to get everyone interested
  6. Ask a question that inspires a productive conversation, and encourage debate
  7. Ask big question number 2
  8. Ask big question number 3
  9. Start winding down. You may say that we are running out of time, and give some concluding remarks.
  10. Thank them for their participation, and encourage them to continue the debate offline.

How long should the discussion be?

45 min to an hour is ideal.

Where should you hold the discussion?

You could hold the discussion at your regular troop meeting, but it could be helpful to hold it somewhere peaceful in a park or forest.

Don't set up the seating in classroom style. You are not lecturing the participants. Try have everyone sit in a circle, so each person can see each other. This may encourage better participation.

How to ask effective questions

The best questions are neither too open-ended nor too limited.

Rather than asking "Should SCOUTS SA (SSA) force all troops to be open to boys and girls?" (only requires Yes/No), or "What do you think about boys-only and girls only troops?" (too open-ended), try questions such as:

  • In what ways do boys-only troops make sense?
  • How do boys-only troops fit in with the SSA constitution?
  • What disadvantages are there to a troop which is boys-only?
  • What disadvantages are there to SSA allowing single gender troops?

During the discussion

  • Start off by introducing why you are holding the discussion and setting some ground rules.
    • This is where you will explain what a discussion is, and encourage participation.
    • Let the group know what you expect. Do you want them to raise hands when they want to talk, or do you want a more free-flowing conversation? Do you want to make use of a "talking stick"?
    • Explain that each person has an opinion, and there are no right and wrong answers.
    • Each person has the right to be heard and the responsibility to be respectful to the others.
  • Make sure everyone is on the same page regarding your topic. Some people may have different experiences, so do not assume that everyone understands the issue raised right from the beginning.
  • Present yourself well. In order to lead a meaningful discussion, you should strike a balance between confidence about what you know and a willingness to learn more.
  • While the outcome should be greater understanding of the topic, you should not be steering the conversation so hard that the group feels that this is a lecture disguised as a discussion. Encourage some debate even if it is in a different direction to where you feel the moral of the story is.
  • A discussion is an adventure, and you may not know exactly where it will go, but you can lead the way.
  • If you are willing to be vulnerable in showing that you don't know everything, the group will be more likely to be vulnerable too.
  • Be genuine and excited to hear the opinions of the group. You could point out great comments and ask them to repeat for emphasis.
  • Be enthusiastic and energetic. This will be contagious. Being tired and disinterested is also contagious!

Things to keep mind

  • Ensure that you are always respectful, and ensure the group is as well. You may be discussing a topic that has huge but unknown relevance to someone and they may be very sensitive to it. Be aware of people's reactions and feelings, and try to respond appropriately.
  • When the discussion wanders too far from the subject or when it gives signs of flagging, it is a good thing to summarise the main points made up to that moment. The discussion can then be redirected by another question from the leader.
  • Encourage those who might normally be reluctant to speak their minds. Often, quiet people have important things to contribute, but aren't assertive enough to make themselves heard. A good group discussion will bring them out and support them. But be careful not to put them on the spot too much.
  • Control your own biases. Encourage disagreement, and help the group use it creatively.
  • Don't let an individual or few members dominate the discussion, and don't let one point of view override others.
  • Don't assume that someone from a particular culture, race, or background speaks for everyone else from that situation.

Things your examiner may look for

  • You planned ahead with a well structured outline that included enough information and resources.
  • Your topic was introduced and clear guidelines were given.
  • You engaged with your discussion participants.
  • You expressed appreciation for the views expressed.
  • You rectified and addressed any stereotypes that may have been expressed by participants.
  • You led and took control of the discussion, but it was not a "lecture".
  • You concluded the discussion well and thanked everyone for their participation.
  • The objective of the discussion was met.