This article is from NACAC’s Starting and Nurturing Adoptive Parent Groups: A Guide for Leaders. Download the guide

All leaders want to run successful, productive group meetings. Yet there isn’t a leader who hasn’t wondered: What’s wrong with our meetings lately? How can I move the discussion along? How can I help quiet members speak up? How can we get back on track? Successful meetings don’t just happen. Meetings that are productive are usually led by someone who has good facilitation skills.

Facilitation is the act of making something easier. In the case of parent group meetings, facilitation is the art of guiding the group’s discussions and protecting the structure of the meetings to help the group be as effective, efficient, and productive as possible. Well-facilitated groups usually communicate better, maintain their vital energy, and achieve their goals.

There are three main elements to being a good facilitator:

  • understanding group process
  • guiding discussion
  • structuring the meeting

One or more members of the group may have skills as a facilitator. It is important to use the experience and talent of these members and have them model the facilitation process to others in the group. As members begin to better understand the role of the facilitator, the responsibility can be rotated from one member to another on a regular basis.

Quick reminders for the facilitator
  • be positive
  • set ground rules
  • engage everyone in the first 5–10 minutes
  • have a beginning, middle, and end to each meeting
  • be aware of yourself and others
  • know that 10% of our communication is verbal and 90% is nonverbal
  • accept that conflict is normal; work through it
  • remain committed to the group process

Understanding Group Process

How Groups Make Decisions

Many who have studied group decision-making have found that group interaction is not linear. Crowell and Scheidel, prominent scholars in the area of group decision making, observed that as groups begin to discuss an issue, the discussion usually spirals out and away from the original point, but eventually circles back to a specific comment or anchor point that is related to the original point of discussion. The discussion usually continues to spiral out and circle back. Over time, the discussion reveals more anchor points, the flow of the discussion moves along, and the group makes progress in their collective thinking. In Small Group Decision Making, Aubrey Fischer notes that decisions are not just made but rather emerge from interaction among group members. This suggests that the spiraling quality of discussions is important because it allows various key ideas to emerge as the group talks.

The facilitator allows the group’s discussion to flow, but then helps keep the discussion focused. An effective facilitator judges when the spiraling is on point and when members need to be reminded of the central topic. Good facilitators limit their talking time and are not dominant speakers. Below are some ways to envision the role of the facilitator.

Group Members’ Roles

Group members take on roles during meetings that can help the group work as collective decision-makers. In Discussion in Small Groups: A Guide to Effective Practice, Potter and Anderson state that even in newly formed groups, members either consciously or subconsciously negotiate for some combination of the following roles:

Task-oriented roles help the group complete its tasks:

  • goal setter: defines or proposes goals
  • information seeker and information giver
  • opinion seeker and opinion giver
  • elaborator: clarifies ideas
  • evaluator: measures group progress against standards
  • synthesizer: summarizes, suggests compromises

Group-oriented roles help to build group unity, cohesion, morale, and dedication:

  • encourager: praises, builds the status of others
  • mediator: harmonizes, focuses attention on issues
  • tension reliever: provides humor, clowns, jokes
  • follower: serves as audience for others
  • group observer: focuses on group process/progress
  • cathartic agent: gives expression to group feelings
  • reality tester: compares actual results to desired outcomes/goals

Self-oriented roles focus on the individual rather than the group and can be harmful to a group:

  • aggressor: builds own and minimizes others’ status
  • obstructor: blocks progress
  • recognition seeker: seeks personal attention
  • withdrawer: avoids meaningful participation
  • competitor: tries to outdo others
  • play person: avoids all serious activity

Identifying these roles, and noticing their presence or absence, can help the facilitator understand why communication is or is not working well. It is also important to value each of the task- and group-oriented roles listed above. A group that functions well will probably have representation from each of the task- and group-oriented lists. At any given time any one of them might be the role that leads the group to a solution. It is the interplay among the roles that is important to the group’s ability to function.

Human Dynamics

A group takes on the characteristics of its individual members to form its own unique identity. Any time you facilitate a group, you should be aware of the effects of human interaction. People bring their past (good and bad), personality, and style to the group. Outlined below are some human dynamics that can both enhance and inhibit group interaction. This list has been adapted from The Zen of Groups, by Hunter, Bailey, and Taylor.

Individual uniqueness—Each member has his or her own view of the world, which is expressed through thoughts, actions, beliefs, and cultural identity. The uniqueness of each individual makes the group rich but also often necessitates a deeper level of discussion to reach decisions.

Baggage—Individuals also bring biases, hopes, fears, and opinions based on their past, and this baggage can cause people to react to other group members. Baggage can also affect a person’s ability to be open to others and be willing to see new possibilities.

Power—Always present, power is best when shared. People can possess different kinds of power: personal—based on personality or charisma; assigned—given by others; positional—based on a position of authority; knowledge—based on a specific expertise base; and factional—rising from a smaller group within a group.

Feelings—Feelings are important; they should be acknowledged. According to Hunter, Bailey, and Taylor, group members “should learn to have feelings, rather than be had by them.”

Trust and identity—Trust and identity are established and developed over time as group members share and work together. Groups that work in healthy ways to deal with feelings, leadership, and power will deepen their trust and develop a strong group identity.

Group purpose—Strong groups that have established some structure and good methods of communication seem better able to stay focused on their goals and maintain a clear purpose. Without a clear purpose, groups tend to fizzle out.

Withholding—If you are in a group meeting and something important comes to your mind, but you don’t say it, you are withholding. People usually withhold out of fear, but when they conquer that fear and bring up the unspoken topic, it often deepens the trust in the group.

Conflict—Although conflict is normal, it does need attention and should be resolved. Conflict that is pushed aside and never dealt with will come back to haunt the group.

A successful parent group facilitator:
  • upholds structure and order at meetings
  • honors the group process above his/her own personal needs or agenda
  • values the contributions of all members as equal participants
  • helps to identify key points of discussion as they emerge
  • helps the group work through conflict
  • is adaptable
  • seeks balance in discussions
  • draws out quiet members and manages members who tend to dominate the discussion
  • redirects discussions that get off track
  • asks the group to reassess its goals when the group is not making progress toward its stated goals
  • is self-aware and self-accepting
  • sees all interactions as relevant to the group process: what people say, what people do—including body language and side comments—and everything else that happens during the meeting

Guiding Discussion

As a result of the mixed dynamics, agendas, and interests involved in human interaction, facilitating a discussion requires careful thought about who is speaking how often and what topics the group most needs to address. Two occupations demonstrate the skills and artistry needed for facilitation:

Traffic cop—The facilitator intervenes during discussion by:

  • prohibiting conversational traffic jams—too many people speaking at once
  • giving the green light for one person to talk and the red light for others to stop and listen
  • redirecting conversation when roadblocks appear

Orchestra conductor—Just as a conductor builds on the resources and talents of the individual orchestra members, so does the facilitator by:

  • soliciting expertise from individuals (solos) or a cluster of members (trios, quartets)
  • asking for more volume from quiet members and less volume from dominant members
  • leading the group to seek harmony and stay in tune as they work collectively toward goals
  • tracking the group rhythm and intervening to speed things up, slow things down, or change the beat
  • stopping and redirecting the group when members are playing their own song

Monitoring Who Speaks

Facilitators are supposed to encourage the participation of all group members and keep the conversation vital. Sometimes they have to direct not only who talks, but when that person talks. The following suggestions have been adapted from Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making, by Kaner, Lind, Toldi, Fisk, and Berger.

Forming the line-up—At the beginning of the meeting, ask group members who have pressing issues to raise their hands. Assign each person a number, and call on them in order. This does not mean that others cannot speak, but it is a way to make sure the group gives time to those who have something important to discuss with the group. It is also a good way to keep one member from dominating the meeting.

Encouraging—When you are often hearing from the same people, you can ask, “Is there someone else who has something to add?”

Balancing perspective—When you want more than one side of an issue, you can ask the group, “Does anyone have another way of looking at this?”

Making space—Learn how to recognize facial expressions, body language, and other clues to help you know when to help individuals who haven’t spoken yet, but look like they have something important to contribute. You can say,

“Ron, you look like you have a reaction to that comment. What would you like to say?”

Choosing Topics

As groups become involved in discussion, the conversation can veer off in many different directions. The facilitator then helps the group see how and when it got off track and asks the group to make a conscious decision regarding which direction it wishes to pursue. Below are strategies for how to redirect the group.

Sequencing—When the group discusses several issues at the same time, the facilitator identifies the various topics and suggests an order in which to discuss them. For example:

“You are talking about planning the cultural fair, selling tickets, and publicity. Let’s plan the event first, then discuss publicity. If we have enough time at the end of this meeting, we’ll talk about selling tickets.”

Tracking—Sometimes the facilitator needs to identify the different issues being discussed and write them down for the group. Once the group sees what the issues are, members can prioritize them, look for how they might relate to each other, and either group them together or discuss one issue at a time.

Deliberate refocusing—Sometimes issues are discussed to death and the group needs to move on. A facilitator can say,

“We have spent 20 minutes discussing family problems during the holidays. At the beginning of the meeting we set aside time to generate a list of ways the county could offer better post-adoption services. Should we move on to this topic?”

Tips for Groups That Get Stuck

Groups sometimes get locked or frozen in a topic or issue and seem unable to move through it. Unresolved personality conflicts, issues of control and power, and emotionally charged situations can cause groups to get stuck. Parent groups with members who are experiencing trauma, such as an

allegation or a disruption, can sometimes get mired in those situations. It is extremely painful for a family to live through an allegation or a disruption, and sometimes the family’s pain engulfs the group for several meetings.

Three Steps toward Resolution

  • Vent—Allow the individual(s) to take time to vent at the first meeting after the initial crisis.
  • Problem solve—Take time during the second meeting to work through the issues involved. The group can offer solutions to the situation.
  • Seek outside help—By the third meeting, pull the individuals aside who are unable to move through the crisis and suggest that they find some outside assistance to help them manage the situation.

The group is there to help individuals, but also has a larger purpose and should be allowed to move forward toward its broader goals.

Structuring the Meeting

In addition to understanding the dynamics of groups and guiding discussion, a facilitator must provide structure to the group’s interaction. Every meeting should have a definite beginning, middle, and end. The group decides on the structure for its meetings, and the facilitator upholds that structure. Each meeting should have an agenda to follow. The group needs to decide who sets the agenda. Is it the president, a facilitator, the leadership circle, or the whole group? If one person is in charge of the agenda, can anyone add to it? What is the process for adding an item to the agenda?

Before the meeting begins, establish how much time individuals might need to discuss pressing issues. Make a list of who wants to talk, for how long, and in what order. Prioritize the time allotted to individuals and topics so that the meetings are productive, serve the members, and end on time.

Identify the facilitator at the beginning of each meeting. Designate a second person as the timekeeper, and a third to take notes during the meeting. The timekeeper monitors time spent discussing topics and works with the facilitator to help stop lengthy discussions and keep to the agenda.


At the beginning of a meeting, group members experience a phase of social unease and awkwardness called primary tension. Often group members are unsure of how they will be treated by others, and the result is stilted and uncomfortable communication, which can take the form of:

  • extreme politeness
  • apparent boredom
  • sighing and yawning
  • soft and tentative speaking
  • long pauses

The group will not be able to do its work until it breaks through this phase. Effective ways to break through tension are introductions, icebreaker activities, social time, and food.

Actively engaging all group members in the first 5 to 10 minutes of the meeting is important to breaking primary tension. Icebreakers can be a creative way to make introductions. For example, each member could name a book that describes their week, or tell a funny or touching anecdote about their kids. Many icebreaker ideas are listed in books on facilitation and on the Internet. Try new ideas for doing introductions; the energy of the group is stimulated when you vary the way you begin each meeting.


The group focuses on business in the middle of the meeting, such as discussing a current family issue or a chosen topic, listening to an outside speaker, planning an event, or completing a project.

As facilitator, you will want to convey the message that the group is a safe place to talk about personal concerns. One way to do this is to establish ground rules for your meetings, such as:

  • confidentiality—what is said in the group is not discussed outside the group
  • punctuality—group members arrive and leave on time and agendas are followed
  • willingness to learn—each member agrees to be coachable and not to stay purposely stuck in a problem
  • respect—members will use words and actions that convey mutual respect
  • mandatory reporter guidelines—define these guidelines and remind the group that some members may be mandated reporters. Any incident that falls under the requirements for a mandated reporter will need to be reported.

Ground rules allow all members to know what they can expect from the group, which helps to build trust. When the group writes ground rules, they become invested in them. Ground rules should be reviewed and displayed at each meeting, especially when the group has new members.


Providing closure for your meetings helps establish boundaries and keep the group’s purpose clear. One idea for closing a meeting is to have members take turns selecting a poem to read. You can create a ritual with music, a drum beat, or gong to end the meeting. A closing that includes an evaluation of the group process for that meeting can also be helpful. Whatever you choose be sure to officially end the meeting. Members can still choose to stay after the meeting and talk.

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