What makes a good discussion?

Groundrules for Discussion and Support Groups


The value of a group like this will be greatly enhanced if members know they can speak openly without fear that what they say will be repeated outside the group. If they are to speak freely about the pressures they are under, they may need reassurance that no one will relay what they’ve said to the one they are caring for. The group must also decide whether it is appropriate to discuss outside the group, even with one of the group’s members, something said in the group. On the whole this too is not helpful, though there may be times when to be too strict about this would prevent mutual support.

A common formula is that what arises in the group can be discussed in a general way but never to link any point to any particular person. In this way insights and issues of general relevance can be discussed without any individual’s privacy being compromised. (If the leader is receiving support from someone in their leadership of the group, that relationship is exempt from these requirements).

Some ground rules for discussions

The following sample list of ground rules is simply to aid your discussion – you may well have other points you want to raise but this is intended to help you get the ball rolling …

In this group:

Everyone’s input is equally valued and their ideas, experiences and feelings are respected.

Only one conversation happens at once (unless working in twos and threes).

Everyone is responsible for keeping the group focused; when conversation diverges from the set questions, this may lead to valuable discussion or to anecdotal chatting – everyone is equally responsible for avoiding the latter.

It’s appropriate to invite someone who hasn’t spoken recently to say something but equally acceptable for them to decline. Verbal contributions are only one of the ways group members participate.

Body language and non-verbal responses are encouraging not disrespectful.

Judgemental comments are not acceptable; rather group members are invited to support each other and respect differences.

Everyone is responsible for making sure they don’t have more or less of the group’s time than is their proper share. Anyone who feels the group’s time is not being appropriately shared says so.

When someone is speaking they are listened to without interruption.

When what someone says is unclear, it’s good to ask them to repeat it or explain it. For example, ask, ‘Can you say more about that?’

Everyone speaks from their own experience and avoids putting words into other people’s mouths.

People are not afraid to take risks. This can be anything from talking about personal issues to respectfully challenging another’s opinion.

We refrain from personal attacks.

Or here is another possible set of rules from Michigan State University.

  1. Arrive on time, remain for the entire session, and do not wander in and out of the session. (If the group meets for more than an hour, consider having a short planned break.)
  2. Unless you’re expecting an emergency call, please turn cell phones off. (Using laptops or other gadgets is also generally not appropriate.)
  3. This group is for discussion/support, not debate. No one is right; no one is wrong.
  4. Listen. Hear what the other person is saying. Let them finish talking. Think before you react. Realize that the same word or phrase may mean different things to different people.
  5. Talk about yourself and your own experience. You may ask questions of others, but do not challenge the validity of another’s personal experience.
  6. Keep your comments brief and to the point, so everyone has a chance to speak.
  7. Do not generalize from your experience and feelings to the experience and feelings of others. Let people speak for themselves.
  8. Do not attack, or try to hurt, or pass judgment on anyone, whether or not they are present.
  9. Treat this group session as a private conversation, do not repeat elsewhere what is said here.
  10. Stay on topic. (If the group has a specific focus.)

It’s a good idea to repeat the rules before every session of a group, even if the people present are ‘regulars’.

Perhaps the most difficult rule for most facilitators to enforce is #6. Some people really like to hear themselves talk. Because most groups meet for a relatively short time, it’s essential to enforce that rule or some people will not have a chance to participate.

Facilitating a group is hard work! Good luck!