Just Say “Yes” to Small Groups


I heard some birds chirping outside my window while I was meditating the other morning. I am supposed to just notice the chirping and then go back to my breath. But instead I took a moment to really enjoy those sounds.

Unfortunately, I digressed even further because it reminded me of my childhood. I used to listen to the birds and wonder what they were saying. If I listened carefully enough I got a really good sense of their mood and what they might be talking about. Small group work in facilitation is a little bit like listening to the bird sounds. There are so many great reasons to have your larger group get into smaller groups. However, there is an art and a science to this tried and true technique.

Scenario 1

You are facilitating a pretty small group of 5-8 people. You only have 30 minutes for your meeting. You are thinking, “There is no time for small groups and they are already a small group.” I would disagree for the following reasons:

  • Some people do not feel safe enough to “air” their rough thinking with more than one or two people. A dyad or triad will allow them to “test” their thinking in a safer environment of one or two people chatting informally. In this case I would give them the instruction, “Turn to your two neighbors to share your rough thinking on this situation. Take about two minutes and make sure that everybody speaks.”
  • Some people in your small group may have a behavior pattern where they dominate the conversation. So the group always gets to hear these same people at every meeting. Very little new thinking is offered. You are in fact giving a few people time to think out loud with everyone in the room. Wouldn’t it be better to take two minutes for everyone to think out loud with a smaller group? I might give them the additional instruction that they are to come back to the large group with 1-2 recommendations that they feel the whole group would benefit from hearing about. In this instance I might give them a little more time, 5-7 minutes.


Scenario 2

You are facilitating a larger group of 20-30 people: the room space is fairly small and your agenda is packed. You are thinking, “If we break into small groups it will be far too noisy and it will take too long to hear a report back from the small groups.” I would offer the following:

  • People do not learn well if they are simply “presented to”.  Most of us need to process information in several ways – auditorily, visually and kinesthetically. They will think better about information presented to them if you first give them time to think of clarifying questions they may have related to the information. Allow them to jot down their questions and share these with one other person or with the people at their table group. Encourage them to come up with their own answers. Their assignment is to have one question that they would like to pose or one piece of relevant information they would add to the agenda item just discussed. The total time to do this small group exercise can be as little as 3-5 minutes. The result however is that people understand the agenda item much more clearly and will be ready to move on to making some decisions.

Scenario 3

You are leading the group in a brainstorming session and you only have 15-30 minutes to hear and clarify everyone’s ideas. You may be thinking, “It will go more quickly if I just get every person to share one idea”, as you write these down on a whiteboard. Definitely not a good idea! Let me explain:

  • First of all, people’s individual thinking is rarely as rich as when they have a chance to build on each others ideas. In a brainstorming session you do want to give people time to think on their own. Then you want to give people time in small groups to share and clarify their own ideas. Then you can ask the group to put forward their best three different ideas. When you do this the group has the benefit of submitting more useful ideas and vetting their initial thinking in a small group setting. Once again, you have wasted much less time and you get a better product.

Watch the Excuses

The reason I offered these scenarios is to debunk the myth that we don’t have time in meetings to let people connect with each other and test their thinking and ideas with one another. I’m so tired of hearing about meetings where only one or two people get to talk. All those brilliant minds in the room – wasted! 🙁 In your next meeting, watch the excuses coming up for not doing small group work and push yourself to just do it!

Barbara MacKay

Barbara loves “everything facilitation”. She thinks BIG! She loves working with other facilitators around the globe to create transformational results for client groups. She loves teaching others how to do that. She loves presenting at global facilitator conferences. She loves certifying new professional facilitators. If you also love what process facilitation can do for the world, connect with her – virtually or in person. She believes facilitation processes, used well, will provide the roadmap to a more just and sustainable world.

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