Groupwork Institute Blog

Side conversations: The gift they give facilitators

Classroom with 4 12-year-old students. A girl is whispering into the ear of another girl while two boys in the background are chatting with each other

Side conversations can trigger old patterns of schoolroom behaviour if you're not aware of your response to them

Facilitators and leaders: How do you address the vexing problem of side conversations in groups without potentially shaming those involved?

I thought it worth sharing a little something that came up from a facilitation log I was reading, where one of our Adv Dip of Group Facilitation participants was faced with this challenge.

So … the first thing to reflect on is why is there a potential for shame? Almost always it’s because the intervention you’re planning comes from a place of wanting that behaviour to stop. Because you think it’s disruptive or inappropriate, just like your old primary school teacher did.

Beware of your power!

There’s a high risk in these situations that whatever comes out of your mouth will have all the flavours of shaming as a result. As the facilitator or leader of the group, you’re automatically awarded rank, which adds to the humiliation effect.

And usually, people who feel shamed don’t perform at their best.

But what if you remembered that you’re the facilitator of the group? … That you’re just helping them to do good work together and they’re actually doing good work – and that side conversation is just an expression of all that?!

When people are having side conversations (whether they are on-topic or not), you can see it as a gift. It’s an opportunity for you to notice a need to re-engage them (and probably other members of the group).

They’re less likely to feel shamed if you see it as:

  1. A sign that you may need to change things up [eg change the pace/take a break/split into smaller groups/review the focus] 
  2. A behaviour for you to learn from, not an irritation.

In these situations, name it outright as something that is giving you important information; that it may be helpful in changing what the group does next. You could say:

“Sam and Kim, I notice you’ve got your own conversation going on there – and it makes me wonder if that’s something that would be good to check out with the rest of you.

Would it help to just pause for a moment, everyone, and check in with the person beside you before we continue?

We’re moving through a lot of material [moving quickly/dealing with new issues/whatever], so it makes sense to pause and reflect.”   

Co-designers v Naughty rebels

What you do in these situations can make the group members see that they’re co-designers of the session, instead of people who are ‘doing something wrong’.

That’s a mental shift that YOU have to make first as a facilitator. Only then can you help group members to move out of that idea of themselves as passive recipients (with you there responsible for making it all happen, including making decisions for them!).

As facilitator or leader, you’re dealing with the ghosts of meetings and gatherings past

Including right back to the classroom, where being a disempowered passive recipient of data was how it all unfolded.

Think of the unconscious role this sets up in people whenever they’re in a group! So our role involves a lot of UNdoing every moment we’re facilitating.  It’s about the WE – not the ‘you and me’. A group is made up of many individual roles, all of which are valid and all of which can add to the unknown thing you’re creating together.

When people see the facilitator as being at the service of the group and relying on other members for support and insight, they can unhook from their passive selves and start to take more responsibility for the outcomes of the group.

To learn more, check out our Facilitation Skills short course and our Advanced Diploma of Group Facilitation.

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