Facilitating … when participants resist small group discussions

What do you do as a facilitator when a workshop or meeting group says “NO” to small group discussions?

Recently, I facilitated two sessions in which participants strongly voiced their preference to discuss all topics in one large (plenary) group and not breakout into small groups. Each session involved different organizations; one was a half-day input meeting, and the other a three-day strategic planning retreat. In each, I thought using small breakout groups would significantly enhance each group’s decisions, for reasons including:

  • Opportunity for greater participation by each person (More air time)
  • Some individuals would find comfort conversing with two or three other participants without having to speak in front of the entire group
  • The potential for the generation of numerous ideas
  • An opportunity to bounce around and refine ideas with other people
  • Reduced power dynamics where a formal or perceived leader may consciously or unconsciously inhibit others from speaking in a plenary group
  • A change of pace, space, and energy

With the participants’ preference for a large plenary group, how did I integrate two strong beliefs; first, my belief in the wisdom of the participants, and second, my belief in the value of small group discussion? How did I facilitate these sessions?

What do you do as a facilitator when a workshop or meeting group says “NO” to small group discussions?

In one workshop, we remained in a plenary group for most of the session. At times, with the group’s permission, I used short mini-discussion methods such as Think-Pair-Share and Stand and Talk in a Trio. These mini-groups rejuvenated participants by providing an opportunity to move around and hold quick conversations. After three minutes in these short conversations, we returned to the plenary group for a longer discussion and generation of a decision. As well, I used individual reflection time and idea generation methods such as VisualsSpeak images, giving participants ways to look at topics from different perspectives; yet honouring their preference for a plenary group.


When opportunities arose, I encouraged participants to go outside their comfort zone and try small group discussions. Several times, participants agreed and we held short, 10-minute, small group discussions; other times, they preferred to remain in the large group. As a facilitator, and according to my beliefs, I respected their wishes. To encourage productive conversations in the plenary group, I used my foundational approaches to conversations, the ToP Focussed Conversation and the Mutual Learning Cycle by Roger Schwarz in his work, The Skilled Facilitator.

What do you do as a facilitator when a workshop or meeting group says “NO” to small group discussions? In the other session, I believed that participants would benefit from using the Model Merging small group technique. I explained the reasons for using a small group method at that specific time and they agreed with me. We met in small groups for 15 minutes and then returned to plenary.

By respecting and listening to the participants and designing the discussion methods with them, I fulfilled my role as a facilitator and helped them achieve their outcomes.

My facilitation blog question for today is: How do you and participants work through resistance to certain discussion methods?

Facilitating … when participants resist small group discussions

2 thoughts on “Facilitating … when participants resist small group discussions

  • March 22, 2018 at 6:27 pm

    Quite a helpful blog Barbara. This has happened to me as well. I did encourage one group to break into two smaller groups and then share out the results and once we got through the process – we did get to better results. I like the ideas and techniques that you used to do small on the spot convos.


  • March 22, 2018 at 7:51 pm

    Great blog Barb! A big high five for finding ways to respect the wishes of the group to keep the plenary sessions AND weaving in ways for smaller and more meaningful conversations. I appreciate you being specific with the tools and methods you used and I put $ on those that resisted now seeing the benefits of the small group discussions.
    In answering your question, I will speak to the purpose and objectives set out and then speak to how having small group discussions will achieve this (for all the reasons you have listed). If there is real push-back from the client, I know to probe, as it likely reveals something important to know about the group, and therefore how to be better prepared as a facilitator.

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