How to Lead Discussion

Group discussion can be organized in a number of different ways. The methods used in a given command will depend upon the local situation as judged by the individual who takes the lead in the planning. In one unit, small and in-formal discussion groups may be preferred, with little use of public speakers. In another, the popular American forum for a large audience may be desired.

Six common methods of discussion are described. It is recommended that the leader study in particular what is said about informal discussion. Even if one of the more formal discussion settings is chosen as suitable for use in a given command, many of the suggestions for conducting informal discussions will be found applicable to the panel, the forum, and the symposium methods.

The Informal Discussion Group

Under thoughtful and effective leadership informal discussion is the best of all methods of attaining the objectives outlined in Section I. This is true because the small and informal group encourages participation by every member. Maximum learning of facts and exchange of viewpoints is possible. Morale is built up in each individual who feels he has had a direct share in the proceedings. Furthermore, the best way to learn is by doing. If, therefore, one of the goals of discussion is training in exploring facts and opinions related to important public issues, informal discussion groups will provide this training for a much larger proportion of group members than the more formal methods suitable when attendance is large.

Informal discussion groups may profitably be limited in size. Give and take of question and opinion between all members normally will not be attained in a meeting of much more than twenty or twenty-five persons. Fifteen or sixteen is an ideal size, though only six or eight are needed for a lively discussion. In order to attain a desired size, it is often practical to organize two or more groups which meet at different times or places. At a large camp where distances are great it is a good idea to hold several meetings at various locations which will enable personnel to attend without having to walk long distances.

A good leader can make big contributions to the success of informal discussion. If he is tactful and friendly in personality, he will probably be able to draw out the best in the men who make up the group. It is a very helpful thing in a lively discussion to have a tolerant leader who accepts a participant’s opinion as something to be considered thoughtfully instead of jumping in at once to refute a view that disagrees with his own.

Classify TypesThe leader should be able to think quickly and to express himself clearly and with economy of words and time. If he has a good sense of humor, he will be able to ease tension from time to time by joking remarks. The better he likes his job and the deeper his interest in the subject under discussion, the more successful the whole affair is likely to be. That of course does not mean that he should adopt an air of artificial heartiness, but rather that he should have a genuine friendly interest in his group and its problems. Such a leader will want to feel confident of himself in handling the particular discussion technique that is used, and he will want to be as familiar as possible with the subject that is chosen for study.

These may seem very high qualifications, but it is a rare command that will not produce many men who can meet them. Moreover, it should not be forgotten that skill develops by practice. Sometimes men can be found who already have had practice in leading group discussions. Others will find that their skill will increase as the discussion groups continue. And, as will be shown later, even a leader without experience can do a good job if he takes the trouble to prepare carefully for his meetings.

a. Relation of the leader to the group: The relationship of a discussion leader to his group differs from the conventional idea of military leadership. Unlike a commander, a discussion leader does not lead by example or attempt to inspire confidence in himself as an expert. He must not be a propagandist. On the contrary, he must himself be an inquirer. He wins confidence in his leadership by his acquaintance with the background of the discussion and by proposing a way to the next step in the discussion. He does not take the next step and expect the other members to follow. He is in essence a good teacher rather than an academic lecturer.

The skillful leader opens the discussion with a brief statement of the question and the salient facts related to it. This takes perhaps five minutes. Then he starts the discussion with a pointed question. He keeps the discussion alive, if it falters, by summarizing points made or issues considered and by asking a question that redirects the talk. At the end he summarizes all major points that have been considered, without attempting to state the “sense of the meeting.”

This last point is important. The leader must avoid the temptation to clinch the discussion with some stated conclusion. He must remember that one of his chief duties is to leave all conclusions to the individual.

The success of a discussion depends upon the thoughtfulness, breadth, and openmindedness of the talk that takes place—not upon such tangible results as conclusions reached. If an enlisted person is selected as leader, it is wise whenever possible to have an officer present at the meeting. Since off-duty education is a function of command, a representative of the commander should see that the objectives of discussion are attained as outlined here.

The leader, of course, need not feel that he should never state his own opinion. There are many occasions when he can do so in a manner that will not jeopardize his standing as chairman of the group. He expresses his own opinions as the others do when the opportunity occurs, but he is usually more successful in his leadership as he reduces the amount of discussion time which he personally uses.

Many leaders assign the opening statement or final summary or both of them to members of the group—a device which is particularly useful when some group members are even better informed on the subject than is the leader. This is an illustration of how the leader can both simplify his job and get valuable educational results by delegating certain tasks to others. As a further example, at one meeting the leader might ask one individual to give the introductory statement of facts and request a second to take minutes and make the summary which closes the meeting. In this case the leader would be responsible for the opening question and for guiding the course of the discussion with necessary questions and interim summaries.

b. Preparation by the leader: The leader must prepare for each meeting thoroughly. This is far more important than that he be facile in the conduct of the actual meeting. By careful preparation a leader can do much toward assuring an interesting meeting even if he is not an experienced chairman. The necessary preparations can be briefly stated, but they require time and thought.

  1. The leader must, if possible, learn in advance the interests and points of view of the individuals in his group. If he can talk informally with them before the meeting, he can learn the general point of view of each and at the same time help each to become acquainted with him. This will tend to break down any stiffness which may be natural in the first meeting of the group.
  2. The leader must familiarize himself with the subject for discussion to the extent necessary for intelligent leadership. This does not mean that he is obliged to make himself an expert on any subject that may come into his program. To do so would be pretty obviously impossible. But he must know enough about the important issues to enable him to keep the train of talk on the track and moving forward. Like a good instructor he must not hesitate to admit lack of information. When a question arises, his normal procedure in any case is to direct it to some group member for answer. If no one sufficiently informed is present, he can with a feeling of perfect assurance suggest a source from which the missing facts may be secured.
  3. The leader should prepare an outline of the course of the discussion as he foresees it. He will, either as part of his outline or separately, prepare a list of questions which may or should be asked. He must not, however, permit his prepared outline to become a strait jacket for the discussion. The actual discussion can be expected to follow a different course from the one planned in advance, but an outline will assist the leader in his personal preparation. It will also help him to distinguish between major issues, which should be developed when they arise, and minor or unrelated issues, which should be quickly passed over.
  4. The leader must decide in advance whether he will use assistant leaders, and must see that they too are prepared.
  5. The leader must decide whether he will use such aids to presenting his basic facts as a blackboard, charts, diagrams, or other visual aids. He must have any such desired materials ready for use.

c. Conduct of the meeting: In describing the duties of the leader much has already been stated or implied about the conduct of the meetings. Here is a summary of a number of additional details which the leader must have in mind:

  1. Physical surroundings should be as comfortable and informal as possible. Whether the group is seated outdoors or in a library, day room, service club, or tent, the members should arrange themselves so as to be able to see each other. Smoking should be permitted. If the meeting is held indoors, the leader should be careful that the room is properly ventilated.
  2. The length of the meeting should be rigidly limited. An hour is about the right time. It is better to close a meeting while the interest in the subject is high than to risk boredom by allowing it to continue overtime in order to attain some aim or conclusion preconceived by the leader. Many of the best radio forums close in the very middle of lively discussions. It is not necessary to exhaust the subject—and the audience.
  3. To a newly organized group the leader should announce briefly the procedure to be used; that personalities are not to be discussed and that comments or questions must bear on the subject or be disallowed.
  4. Stimulating and guiding the discussion is the most important job of the leader during the actual meeting. He should guide almost entirely by asking questions, by briefly citing a specific case followed by a question, or by summarizing. His questions should ask for reasons and causes (why?), for facts (what?), for circumstances under which certain things may be true (when?), for expressions of opinion (what do you think?), and for common ground upon which some agreement may be reached. The leader should avoid rhetorical questions and any question so obvious that it can be answered simply by “yes” or “no.” These usually block discussion.

    Very occasionally a question requiring “yes” or “no” for an answer, however, can be used effectively. A leader for example will state briefly a definite position that can be taken with respect to an issue. He will then ask a member whom he points out: “Do you agree with that or don’t you?” The member’s “yes” or “no” under the right circumstances will start a lot of protests on the part of those who disagree with him, and the discussion is off to a new start.

    Skillful leaders will ask questions only when necessary. Many good questions will come from the group. They should be encouraged by friendly comment: “That is a good question. Who can answer it?” The leader usually needs only to start, to change the direction of the discussion, to bring the members back when they wander too far, and to bring out different points of view.
  5. Both controlling and encouraging participation by all members requires understanding and tact. The talkative member should be allowed only his share of the time, and then should be thanked for his statement and reminded that everyone must have his opportunity to speak. The silent member can be encouraged to speak if the leader will ask him a direct question about which he is known to possess information or to hold an opinion. The opinionated member must be led to understand that positions different from his are reasonable and that thoughtful persons do change their opinions. When the anecdotal member launches forth into his personal experience at great length, he must be handled as the talkative member. The impatient member is looking for a quick, cure-all solution and is perhaps too lazy to think a problem through. He needs to be told that the process of discussion consists, not of giving, but of carefully searching for conclusions upon which each individual usually must decide for himself.
  6. When the discussion wanders too far from the subject or when it gives signs of flagging, it is a good thing to summarize the chief points made up to that moment. The discussion can then be redirected by another question from the leader.
  7. Announce the subject, time, place, and special speaker (if any) of the next meeting in a series. If a subject for the next meeting has not been decided upon, take the last minute or two to secure suggestions from the group. Find out if the group would like to continue discussing some issue that has been raised, but has not been explored thoroughly during the meeting. Or ask for a show of hands on two or three other subjects which may be interesting to the members.

Panel Discussion

TrainA panel consists of a small group of six or eight persons, who carry on a guided and informal discussion before an audience as if the panel were meeting alone. The proceedings of the panel should be the same as those described for informal discussion: volunteering of facts, asking questions, stating opinions-all expressed with geniality, with respect for the contributions of other members, without speech making, and without making invidious personal references. This primary function should occupy approximately two-thirds of the allotted time-say forty minutes of an hour’s meeting. The secondary function of the panel is to answer questions from the audience. This discussion method is suitable for use when a relatively large audience is anticipated. The disadvantage of the method is that it confines most of the discussion to the panel itself. The audience listens and is given a chance to ask questions, but for the most part is passive and receptive.

Panel discussions, if well conducted, are usually more interesting to the audience than is the single-speaker forum. They provide sufficiently varied clash of opinion and presentation of facts to give even the quiet members of the audience a feeling of vicarious participation.

Quality and tasks of leadership in panel discussion are similar to those described for informal discussion. The leader must in addition take special care to select panel members who can think and speak effectively. He must also be sure that they prepare themselves to discuss the subject. During the discussion by the panel the leader has substantially the same duties as in informal discussion except that he should keep himself more in the background as chairman of the panel. He can do so because each member of the panel is in reality an assistant to the leader and is responsible for specific contributions to the proceedings.

When the subject is thrown open to the house, it is the leader’s job to recognize appropriate questions and to reject those not bearing on the subject or involving personalities. Some questions he may answer himself, but usually he should repeat the question and call upon one of the panel to answer it. By preliminary announcement the leader may also tell the audience that they may direct questions at particular members of the panel if they choose. In any case, during the question period the leader needs to maintain strict control. On many occasions this may be the toughest part of his assignment to carry off efficiently and with good humor.

While it is customary to confine audience questions to a specific period, some leaders permit questions from the floor at any time. Unless very carefully limited by the leader, this practice may interfere with effective discussion by the panel.

Arranging the panel properly will lend effectiveness to this form of discussion. The members should face the audience. One possible arrangement is illustrated on page 22. It is important that each panel member adjust his chair so that he can see every other member without effort the chairman will also find that the best places for his readiest speakers are at the extreme ends of the table. He should keep the more reticent members close to, him so that he can readily draw them out with direct questions. If the quieter ones sit on the fringes of the panel, the more voluble members are quite likely to monopolize the discussion.

Single-Speaker Forum

This is a good type of presentation when an individual who is an “expert” and a strong public speaker can be secured for the meeting. If a series of such forums are to be planned, it will be necessary in all probability to call upon a different speaker for each occasion. Sometimes it may be possible to invite such speakers from nearby universities or professional and other local associations. Often competent specialists may be found among the officers and men of the command.

The single-speaker forum has the disadvantage of presenting for consideration only one point of view-that of the speaker. An occasional speaker may try to explain various positions that may be taken on the basis of the known facts which he outlines. It is nevertheless difficult for him, in spite of the most conscientious effort, to avoid stressing his own point of view more than others. If the audience or any sizable fraction of it fails to agree with him, what follows the speech is apt to be a battle of wits. Such a battle may try the skill and good humor of both the speaker and the leader-chairman.

A second disadvantage of the single-speaker forum is that the meeting is based on a lecture. Men hear so many of these that only the best of them get across. This is not to say that the single-speaker forum is a poor method. With the right speaker and under a competent chairman, it can be highly stimulating to the thinking of the audience.

The functions of the leader or moderator of a forum consist of the following:

  1. To prepare himself in advance on the subject.
  2. To inform the audience about forum procedure—how long the speaker will talk, when the audience may ask questions, what kinds of questions will be recognized by the moderator, and how long the question period will last. (An address of twenty to thirty minutes and a question period of about twenty minutes are recommended.)
  3. To introduce the speaker, explaining why he has been invited to speak and stating the question which he will discuss. (It is important to tell the audience what point of view toward the question is represented by the speaker.)
  4. To assure good questioning from the floor. (Three or four individuals may be planted with specific questions in the audience. Or signed, written questions may be solicited in advance. The first suggestion fits naturally into the question period; the second is likely to make the forum cut-and-dried, though it is sometimes useful.)
  5. To recognize questioners in parliamentary fashion and to restate suitable questions for the speaker. (Acceptable questions ask for additional facts, for an elaboration or explanation of some statement already made, or for an expression of opinion.)
  6. To train the audience to stick to the point and to be tolerant of opinions contrary to their own.

Two types of audience members are likely to require special handling by the moderator. The man who tries to make a speech in the guise of a question may be stopped by a request to re-phrase his question briefly. The man who merely paraphrases what the speaker has already said for the sake of hearing him-self talk should be interrupted with a remark that his statement has been covered by the speaker. In general the moderator will have to help the audience understand its part by recognizing relevant questions and praising unusually good ones.

Dialogue

The dialogue is a kind of informal lecture-forum. Its procedure is similar to that of the forum except that the leader or moderator acts as an interlocutor. He prepares as carefully as does the chief speaker. To start the discussion he asks the expert a direct question. When he has received a reply, he may give some interpretation or comment of his own and follow with another question. Thus he guides the speaker from issue to issue until the subject has been as fully presented as the time allows. Audience questioning of either member of the dialogue follows.

Because the moderator has the opportunity of guiding the expert and because he may stress a position that differs from the latter’s, the dialogue need not have the disadvantage of presenting only one point of view. In the hands of a skillful interlocutor it possesses for a large audience advantages similar to those of a panel discussion.

Symposium

This is still another type of forum. By providing two or three speakers, each charged with the duty of presenting a different point of view, the symposium consciously attempts to direct audience attention to various approaches toward the problem under consideration. In this it leaves less to chance than does the informal discussion or the panel discussion. It is to be preferred to the single-speaker forum unless the single expert can make a brilliant presentation. Naturally its success will also depend upon the competence of the symposium members.

A possible disadvantage of the symposium is inherent in dividing the lecture time between two or three individuals. No one of them can give anything but a cursory treatment of his phase of the subject. Thus the symposium may lose in depth while it gains in comprehensiveness. This tendency to lack detailed treatment may be balanced by spreading the symposium over several meetings, all dealing with the same general subject.

Participation by the audience is usually more limited in the symposium than it is in the single-speaker forum or dialogue, but the general technique, i. e., the duties of the moderator, the speakers, and the audience, are the same as in the single-speaker forum.

Debate

Unless debate is used to stimulate a discussion that follows the formal speeches, it will not be a constructive activity for the educational program. Debate, however, is attractive to Americans for two reasons. Most of us have listened to debates and many of us have taken part in them at school or college: so the setting is familiar. The competitive feature of debate appeals to American audiences. But the combative atmosphere of debate denies the basic principles of discussion. These imply an impartial examination of the facts and an attempt to reach a solution acceptable from a number of viewpoints. If debate is used, the only way to meet this dilemma is to throw the subject open for discussion by the audience with the debaters acting as the experts.

There are other disadvantages to the debate form. Debate implies that there are only two sides—affirmative and negative—to the question, while numerous public issues are many-sided. Furthermore, all members of each team must support one side or the other of the proposition regardless of whether they agree fully with it. To this extent debate is forced, artificial, and rigid.

The subject for debate must be so phrased that one side will categorically uphold it (the Affirmative), and the other will oppose it (the Negative). Normally each team will have two or three members. The debate begins with the first speaker for the Affirmative. The main speeches alternate from Affirmative to Negative until the last speaker for the Negative has finished. In preparing their main speeches the team members divide between them the statements of fact and issues which they wish to make. After the main speeches the rebuttal speeches begin. The first of these is made by a speaker for the Negative followed by an Affirmative rebuttal, and so on. In the rebuttal speeches each member tries to disprove or raise objections to points made by the opposing team. For this purpose each side has made notes of arguments or facts advanced by their opponents.

In debating it is customary for specially appointed judges or, the audience to vote either on the merits of the question or on the effectiveness of the presentations. Then everybody goes home, having viewed a purely academic exercise. To make debates useful in the Army educational program a question period by the audience should replace the voting. The questioning should be controlled by the chairman of the debate, using the methods already referred to in this pamphlet.

If the debate is to be at all effective, the debaters must be competent speakers, must be able to think quickly on their feet, and must be acquainted with the formalities of the debate method. They must either be experts in the subject or make themselves such by study. Each team must do a good deal of joint preparation of speeches and study of arguments that may be advanced by their opponents.

In conclusion it may be said that the debate is in general not well adapted to the attainment of the objectives given in Section I. The spirit of discussion in the Army is intended to be one in which the chief purposes are seeking information and exploring a variety of opinions. Since any definite action like the passing of resolutions is not desired on the part of men, partisan advocacy of a given opinion—an integral part of debate—does not easily fit the Army program.

Question Box

The question box may be used as an aid to stimulate an audience which it is feared may not volunteer questions from the floor. It can be used with any of the forms of discussion attended by a question period.

The mechanics of the question box are simple. All that is necessary is a strategically located and well-advertised box. In it interested persons may place questions in advance of the meeting. If the questions are to be written out and collected during a meeting, the audience should be supplied with slips of paper or small cards. Enough pencils should be on hand to help men who do not carry one.

The question box is a device which may assist the leader to control the questioning very rigidly, because he can select for answer in advance only those questions he deems suitable. The disadvantage of this use is that it reduces audience participation almost to nothing, with an attendant drop in interest. It is recommended only for use at large meetings when for some reason it is desirable to limit the range of questions or when it is believed that spontaneous questions may not come from the audience.

Another use for the question box is to collect ideas for future discussions.