During the session

Last updated: 4th Nov 2021

Supporting people to engage

Making the group a safe and comfortable place for everyone to engage is essential. Building trust and managing group dynamics helps ensure the group is valued by members and is able to get work done.

Build trust, put people at their ease

The starting point is to find ways to put everyone at their ease and begin to build trust - in you as the facilitator and in the group. As one one person we spoke to said, ‘what people remember is how you made them feel’. If you have let people know what to expect from the session, and what they will be expected to do, you will have made a good start!

Don’t forget to welcome people before you start the business of the meeting! Then allow people to introduce themselves, perhaps sharing some personal information with the group. Use an ‘icebreaker’ activity, to reduce anxiety and begin the process of making connections between the participants. Being aware of possible power dynamics in the room is important, for example if the facilitator or others attending the session are members of staff in the organisation or hold a position of perceived authority. Perhaps discuss this openly with the group from the outset.

Encourage people to speak freely, openly, honestly

Discussing with the group ‘what would help you to feel safe and comfortable’ and creating a group agreement together is an important first step. It will reassure people that the group session is a safe space and that all interactions will be based on mutual respect. As facilitator, you will want to ensure that all voices are heard and valued, that everyone is given the chance to contribute, and that no one feels pressure to do or say anything that they are uncomfortable with. By working on the group agreement together with the participants you can build a shared sense of ownership and commitment to it. If you are meeting face to face, you might want to put the agreement up on a wall as a reminder, and a prompt if things get difficult at any point (see below). You may also want to review the group agreement when new people join or as the group evolves.

Participants may want to be reassured about the confidentiality of the group, otherwise they are unlikely to be open and share their honest opinion. It is important to discuss any concerns they have about negative consequences of speaking freely within the group, for example expressing critical views about a service they have received. It is best to encourage people to share only what they are comfortable with, as it is not possible to guarantee confidentiality, whatever agreement there is in place.

EbE group participants told us that encouragement from the facilitator is important, to help people open up and speak freely. This includes making eye contact, actively listening to what they say and expanding on their comments. People need to know that what they say is relevant, that their opinions have value and that their contribution is appreciated. It’s also important to make it clear that it is their choice, whether to share their opinion on any subject.

Lack of information about the subject being discussed, feeling judged, or being surprised by a sensitive subject, can all prevent people from joining a discussion, according to EbE participants. Some people fear saying something that will offend or hurt others if they do not agree. Another barrier can be past experience of trauma, which can make it difficult for people to feel trust in the group and open up. This feedback makes it clear that good preparation, creating a group agreement, giving time to putting people at their ease, and building trust are all part of supporting people to speak out.

Accommodate and respect difference

Hopefully you have achieved your aim and created a wonderfully diverse and inclusive Expert group! So, you will want to make sure that differences between participants - including language and culture, legal status and current circumstances - are acknowledged, accommodated and respected by the group. Also that people’s needs are recognised and met as far as possible. The facilitator can be a role model and provide leadership on these issues. You may consider running an awareness raising session if problems emerge in the group, or to prevent problems from arising.

Finding ways to help participants make connections and find common ground in their situation as refugees and people seeking asylum in the UK is helpful. At the same time, it is important to give people the opportunity to share aspects of their culture, and their current situation, for others to get to know them better and understand their needs and perspectives. Icebreakers and other group activities can help with this. Also giving time for people to take breaks together, to chat and share their stories informally. 

Language can be a significant barrier to participation in group activities. As the common language of the group is English, you will want to think about how to include those with limited English. You can start by making sure that all written and audio/visual materials, and the information sent in advance of sessions, are in plain English. Support can be offered before a session, such as a phone call, to check if everything has been understood. You can ensure that you and others speak clearly and slowly during sessions and check regularly that everyone is following the discussion. 

During sessions, choose a mix of activities and make sure that they don’t all favour people who are strong verbal communicators. Making information visual and having information written down is also important, as some people find this easier than listening. People can be invited to write down or draw their responses instead of responding verbally if they find this easier, or to share their feedback after the session. Working in small groups also helps, so people don’t have to address the whole group if they don’t feel confident.

If resources allow it, you may consider using interpreters or you may decide to encourage participants to interpret for each other when needed. You may also want to consider translating some documents, including a summary of the main points of the session, into the main languages of the group. 

Handling difficult dynamics

All groups have difficulties from time to time - we know this is completely normal human behaviour. However, it's important to think ahead about what difficulties might arise in groups and find ways to take care of issues as they arise - otherwise people may lose interest or be put off from attending sessions.

Confidence and lack of confidence

In any group of people, some are more confident than others. It helps if facilitators get to know Expert participants so they are aware of those who are particularly confident, and those who are less likely to be confident in the group. No one wants sessions to be dominated by a small number of people, who exclude other voices, or prevent others from speaking up.

Paying attention to gender dynamics, and in particular the dominance of men in discussions, is also important. In our experience, if everyone has the chance to contribute there will be a sense of balance in the group and a richer discussion. It's also worth remembering that for some people, confident people can be a role model and very motivating! 

  • When someone talks more than others in a meeting the facilitator can make a point of referring to less confident people in the room, to let them share their opinion without putting them on the spot if they are uncomfortable with this. 
  • If someone is expressing strong opinions and is very inflexible the facilitator can ask other people in the room to challenge them or present an alternative view. 
  • The facilitator can remind people of the group agreement, particularly where it relates to holding respect for everyone’s views, listening to others, and allowing everyone’s voice to be heard. 

Facilitators can look out for signals that someone is lacking in confidence, in their body language as well as their silence, and try to find ways to encourage them. This could include identifying their strengths and building on these, prompting them by asking questions on topics they know about.

Reassuring people that they are ‘making sense’ and giving careful attention to what they say, perhaps repeating it for others to hear, can also help to build their confidence. If they are uncomfortable speaking in the group at first, you could invite people to give feedback in writing, using the chat function if you are meeting online. You can also use ‘breakout groups’, in person or online, so that people are talking in smaller groups.

Offensive language, controversial views and difference of opinion

Sometimes in sessions people’s emotions get the better of them, for example if they feel passionate about a subject, or have been affected by the issue you are discussing. Before trust has been established in the group, and before good forms of communication become a habit, people may be more reactive to what others say. Or they may be affected by past trauma, which makes it difficult at times to contain anger or other emotions. In these circumstances people may express controversial views or use language that is offensive to others. If someone has said something offensive, a number of different strategies for dealing with this are possible and it is a matter of judgement which you use. For example:

- Diffuse tension in the moment by switching the group’s attention to something different, saying something like ‘we will come back to this issue later’
- Use humour to help the person see they are out of line, if this feels appropriate
- Deal with the issue directly and facilitate a discussion about the views raised and reasons that others disagree - this can lead to greater trust and understanding
- Take the person aside and remind them of the group agreement or ask them to consider if the group session is the right place for their points or concerns to be raised
- Have a conversation with the person after the session to talk things through, so as to avoid increasing tension in the group
- Encourage other members of the group to let the person know how uncomfortable they feel when they behave in this way.

It's important that everyone is listened to, even if their view is not popular, or if you as the facilitator do not agree with them. You can make sure that everyone has understood the points being made by someone expressing a controversial or minority view, and encourage the group to discuss what has been said. Rather going through the facilitator, they can speak directly to the person and perhaps persuade them to see things from another perspective, or correct any misunderstandings, if that is needed. 

You may sometimes need to refer people to facts on an issue - evidence, laws or policy for example - if the discussion has gone off track and people are being misled. Ideally you or others in the group will find a way to bring people back together onto common ground and find points of agreement, so that there can be resolution of difficult issues.  

Sharing personal information

It is likely that there will always be someone going through a difficult personal situation in the group; perhaps all participants will be struggling with some aspect of their life. Sometimes this makes it difficult for people to focus on a general discussion about an issue and they want to bring the conversation back to their own situation.

They may want to share a lot of detail about their personal circumstances and even look to the group or the facilitator to help them resolve their situation. Or they may become too focused on an issue, because it has affected them personally, and find it difficult to move on. All of this is understandable and needs to be handled carefully so that people do not lose trust in the group or feel that others do not care about them. 

The group agreement could include something on this point - a general principle that everyone agrees to and can be reminded of. Ideally the group agrees that EbE sessions are not the place to bring personal issues for discussion, and that people should be mindful about how much information they share about their personal circumstances. This is important since they don’t know what will be the impact of what they say on others in the group. For example, it may trigger difficult emotions for people in a similar situation, or for those who have had similar experiences in the past. 

The group can become frustrated if you fail to deal with the issue. If too much time is spent focused on an individual’s situation, the group is unable to get through their planned activities. You can encourage people to share aspects of their personal situation during sessions in order to explain a more general point they wish to make, or as an example of the issue being discussed. While the group may offer empathy and compassion, people can be asked to take further discussion of their personal situation outside the session if they need support. In this way the group can stay focused on the task in hand.

Ideally, facilitators develop trust with Expert participants and are aware of people’s general personal circumstances. They can then follow up with individuals who are struggling in a session and provide support, for example suggesting where to go for help for the problem they are dealing with. Alternatively, they might realise in advance that someone will struggle with a particular topic because of their circumstances, and discuss it with them before the session.  


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