Preventing Small Group Confusion

Seven tips to help participants stay focused, have thoughtful discussions, and produce meaningful results.

Approximate reading time: 9-10 minutes.

I don’t know what we’re supposed to do. 

Do you know what we’re supposed to do?  Does anyone?

How many times has this been your experience in an online breakout room or an in-person small group?

What is supposed to be a more engaging conversation or learning format can easily become a frustrating time block that falls short of producing valuable insights.

Here are seven tips I find helpful to prevent this from occurring. I draw on them whether designing a think-pair-share, a table activity for 8-10 participants, or a breakout conversation potentially having dozens of people.

Note: The term small group is used throughout this essay.  The guidance provided is intended for your consideration whenever you move people from one large group into smaller configurations, be it online or in-person. How you apply the tips will vary based on the composition of your groups, overall number of participants and groups, and time involved.

1. Clearly articulate the why, the purpose of breakout or activity.

Often this is not provided or glossed over which makes me wonder if the presenter or facilitator made the choice strategically or out of format fetish.

Clearly articulate the purpose of a small group activity or conversation to help:

  • link what participants are about to do with the meeting or workshop objective;

  • connect this next effort to what has already transpired; and,

  • at least temporarily win the support of participants who otherwise might question what you’re asking them to do.

Occasionally, the insight or learning we want participants to discover requires them not knowing too much about what is about to happen.  In that case, simply edit down a “full reveal” of the assignment into the minimum amount of information people need to engage without confusion.

2. Provide detailed instructions both verbally and in writing.

Even if you provide the best verbal instructions imaginable, some people won’t completely recall what they’ve been asked to do.  Everyone benefits—but visual learners in particular appreciate— from having written instructions available as a reference, either as a handout at a table, a slide on a screen, text in a chat window, or a shared document they can access online.

One of the most important instructions is what people should do first. You may need to have people introduce themselves and specify what info their introduction should contain.

To ensure more introverted participants are engaged from the onset, I often instruct groups to have individuals reflect on their own and note a few response to a specified question before beginning any discussions. Sharing one of those responses as part of an introduction often is effective.

In rare cases when an assignment is fairly simple, but I want to add an element of mystery or surprise, I will not offer verbal instructions.  Instead I provide them in writing in a sealed envelope at each table (or in a linked document online). It is always rewarding to see someone grab the envelope and people at the table lean forward, eager to hear what they are about to do.

3. Include a facilitator when desirable.

I find groups benefit from having someone serve as facilitator if any of the following are true:

  1. they will work together for at least 20 minutes;

  2. they have to make a group decision; and/or

  3. their assignment involves an activity and some subsequent debriefing. 

I also default to using facilitators in virtual breakout rooms if the quality and content of those conversations is critical to achieving the overall objectives for a gathering.

Regardless of how substantive the desired facilitator involvement, I provide them with their own written instructions or even gather them briefly to discuss their role.

You may find it useful to suggest groups assign or obtain volunteers for other roles.  Two common ones are recorder (someone taking notes) and reporter (someone who will report back from the group).  While often combined, they really are two different functions, and individuals might prefer doing one but not the other.

4. For complex conversations or activities, do a trial run with everyone and/or schedule an early check-in with groups.

We can’t always anticipate what might confuse groups or cause them to become lost.  Trial runs and early check-ins help us manage the unexpected.

In a trial run, keep all participants together and have them engage in a quick conversation or activity comparable to their main assignment. Answer any questions that surface before moving them into the actual activity or discussions.

Announcing an early check-in prior to groups beginning their discussions is another way to ensure everyone is engaged and on task without you having to fight for their attention to do so.  I tend to use this tactic if people will be in small groups for longer time blocks (30 minutes or more) or when their assignment has multiple steps.

“Five minutes in, you’ll hear a whistle blow.  At that moment, please pause momentarily, so I can answer any questions or provide any clarification on the assignment.”

5. Create easy ways for groups to ask for more guidance or time to finish.

Make it easy for people to get your attention and specify how to do so.  Even if what you say seems obvious, I find some people still want to hear it from the presenter or facilitator.

For virtual sessions, I usually tell people to message me privately if I am wanted in their breakout.

For in-person sessions, hand-raising is useful, but sometimes the person doing so disengages from the conversation while trying to flag me over.  Comparable to sending up a flare if lost at sea, I sometimes have groups insert a paper flag into a table stanton if they wish for me to drop by.

When I have lots of groups working in a space, it can be hard to know who is finished and who may need more time. My typical approach is to assign groups a number (on their instruction handout or in the table stanton). I have a flipchart page posted with all the numbers. Group reps X out the number of their group when they are finished, providing me (and everyone else) with a clear progress indicator.

6. Will groups report out? Provide a notetaking sheet to help them prepare and a visual sample of what a successful group report contains.

Reporting out can sometimes devolve into what feels like a perfunctory rehash of everything a group talked about or a sharing of vaguely articulated points that others outside the group may struggle to comprehend.

I almost always provide some written guidance for reporting out and frequently including a notetaking worksheet with suggested categories for the thoughts to capture. I strongly recommend you do so whenever the content to be shared is critical to individual or group learning.

Whether reporting includes flipcharting takeaways and/or sharing verbal highlights, I provide a few written samples (not this, but this) to help groups understand the level of specificity for their reporting. 

Before any verbal reporting occurs, I also ask reporters to adhere to a time limit I provide so that we can hear from each group. Modeling an ideal group verbal report—both in content and length— can be useful, particularly when you have more than a few groups sharing.

7. Float among groups throughout activity.

While tempting to use this as time to catch your breath or take a short break, we need to remain engaged with participants as long as possible.  That said, once groups are deep into their work, I may take a few minutes to quickly attend to other matters.

Bottom line?

Facilitation is about making things easier.  Meeting and workshop design needs to include all the support—both big picture and analytical detail—that small groups may require in order to have more successful experiences with activities, exercises, and self-managed breakout conversations.


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