Participating in Discussions
Whether you are at a social occasion, studying, or at work you will find discussions are being held and you are expected to participate.
What is a discussion?
A discussion is an activity where people talk about a topic and share their ideas and opinions.
Randolph Bourne, an American progressive writer and intellectual, states that So much can be learnt from having discussions and they can be enjoyable.
What can you learn through discussions?
By participating in discussions you can learn to:
- Enjoy the opportunity to hear the thoughts and ideas from others
- Understand a subject or topic area more deeply
- Explore ideas and exchange information
- Expand and clarify your knowledge
- Improve your ability to think logically
- Improve your ability to think critically
- Improve your people skills
- Improve your language skills
- Increase your confidence in speaking
- Work collaboratively on problems and solve them
- Assist a group to make a particular decision or come to a conclusion
- Value that a discussion can change your perspectives, attitudes and ideas
What strategies will improve discussion participation?
What skills do you need to be a confident, effective speaker in a discussion?
How do you lead a discussion?
To answer these questions let’s take them one by one.
- What strategies will improve discussion participation?
There are several strategies for improving your participation in discussions. If you find it difficult to speak up or ask questions within a group of people, then observation, active listening, preparation, practice and participation are key actions you can take to overcome feeling nervous in discussions.
Observe how other people enter into the discussion, ask questions, disagree with or support the topic. Notice how others make critical comments. Note the special phrases they use to show politeness even when they are voicing disagreement. Do they signal to ask a question or make a point? Learn from people who are effective communicators.
Listening is an essential skill and an important element of any discussion. Effective listeners don’t just hear what is being said they think about it and actively process it.
- Be an active listener and don’t let your attention drift. Stay attentive and focus on what is being said.
- Identify the main ideas being discussed.
- Evaluate what is being said. Think about how it relates to the main idea or theme of the discussion.
- Listen with an open mind and be receptive to new ideas and points of view. Think about how they fit in with what you already know.
- Test your understanding. Mentally paraphrase what other speakers say.
- Ask yourself questions as you listen. Take notes, if you wish, on points to which you could respond.
If you know the discussion topic prior to attending the discussion then know your own opinion, know some opposing views and research the topic if required. Be informed, as this makes you feel knowledgeable and confident and you will appear knowledgeable and confident.
Practise, practise, practise
Practise discussing in informal settings at home, with friends, within the community, at Speaking Made Easy meetings. Begin by asking questions. Ask for people’s opinions such as “What do you think?” or “How do you see the situation?”
Practise listening and responding to what people say.
Becoming accustomed to expressing your views will help you develop skills you can take to a meeting or a discussion group, during tutorials and workshops, in educational settings and social situations.
If you find it difficult to participate in discussion, set yourself goals and aim to increase your contribution each week. An easy way to participate is to add to the existing discussion. Start by making small contributions by agreeing with what someone has said. Alternatively, ask them to expand on their point. Ask for an example or for more information. If possible prepare a question to ask beforehand.
When you feel comfortable, the next step is to answer a question put to the group, provide an example for a point under discussion, disagree with a point or give your opinion. Remember to support your view with evidence.
How do you participate? Remember to mind your manners and language. Consider other people and their opinions.
- Respect the contribution of other speakers
- Speak pleasantly and with courtesy to all members of the group
- Listen well to the ideas of other speakers; you may learn something
- Remember that a discussion is not a fight. Learn to disagree politely
- Respect that others have differing views and are not necessarily `wrong’
- Think about your contribution before you speak. How best can you answer the question and contribute to the topic?
- Try to stick to the discussion topic and include only relevant information
- Be aware of your body language and keep it ‘open’ and friendly. Avoid gestures that appear aggressive
- Agree with and acknowledge points you believe are worthy
- Stay with the topic. If the discussion does waiver, bring it back on topic by saying something like, “Just a final point about the last topic before we move on” or “That’s an interesting point, can we come back to that later?”
- Try to speak clearly and confidently. Don’t whisper; even if you’re feeling uncertain about your ideas or language
- Be prepared to ask for clarification if a person’s point of view is not clearly understood. Paraphrase or summarise other people’s comments to make sure you understand their content
- Remain calm and choose the friendly tone when speaking
- Take offence if a person disagrees with you. There will be times when other speakers will have different points of view. They may disagree with your ideas, and they are entitled to do so.
- Ridicule the contribution of others. Don’t use comments like, ”that’s stupid”, “that’s ridiculous”, or “you’re wrong”.
- Try to intimidate or insult another speaker.
- Use a loud or angry tone. Others will not want to listen to you if you are being aggressive. Use a moderate tone and medium pitch.
- Avoid negative body language. Gestures like finger-pointing and table-thumping appear aggressive.
- Try not to dominate the discussion. Confident speakers should allow quieter attendees a chance to contribute.
- Avoid drawing too much on personal experience or anecdote. Remember not to generalise too much. Be specific.
- Interrupt or talk over another speaker. Let them finish their point before you start. Listening to others earns you the right to be heard.
2. What skills do you need to be a confident, effective speaker in a discussion?
The skills you need include attentiveness, listening, reasoning, creativity, good communication and time management.
Attentiveness and Listening
Attentiveness and good listening skills are a must in any discussion. These skills allow you to contribute effectively within the discussion.
You will need to follow what is being said and place your thoughts and supporting information in a logical order for delivery to the group.
If possible, look at the topic or ideas presented from another perspective and offer a different point of view. Build upon suggestions from other participants.
The ability to communicate well will assist the presentation of your thoughts. Think of your tone, body language including posture, and your eye contact to engage the other people. Present your content well.
If necessary, paraphrase another speaker’s material to bring clarity of understanding. Be prepared to summarise parts of the discussion.
Be concise. Don’t ramble on and on, or continue to repeat what you have already said, or go off on a tangent. Taking this action will cause you to lose your effectiveness and disengage the others.
3. How do you lead a discussion?
To lead a discussion you need to implement the following:
- Introduce yourself (if not known to the participants) and state the purpose of the discussion
- Ask questions to stimulate the discussion
- Make sure no one dominates the discussion. Invite and encourage contributions from all attendees
- Make sure all participants have approximately the same time to speak
- Ensure only one member of the group speaks at a time
- Ensure the discussion remains relevant and doesn’t drift off topic
- Summarise or rephrase a speaker’s points
- Be objective in summarising the group’s discussion, achievements and ome
- Thank the group members for their contribution
Suggested Vocabulary for leading a discussion:
(a) Getting started (if required):
“Okay, are we ready to start?”
“Is everyone ready to begin?”
(b) Bringing people into the discussion:
“(Name), what do you think?” “(Name), do you have anything to add?”
(c) Engaging everyone to participate:
“What do you think about (named)’s point?” “Would anyone like to comment on what (name) said?”
Join in as many discussions as possible to learn, contribute and enjoy. To know some phrases you can use when expressing your views, please read the Speaking Made Easy blog titled, Giving an Opinion.