4 Facilitation skills to practice when you’re hosting a multicultural conversation

Strong facilitation skills create meaningful conversations.

For the last few years, I’ve had the privilege to host conversation groups with people from around the world. Since I began having these meetings online, we have welcomed participants from more than 50 countries on 5 continents.

During that time, we have discussed controversial topics including politics, religion, criminal justice and so much more. The diversity of the participants creates incredible learning opportunities for everyone.

Managing difficult topics and inviting different viewpoints has taught me a lot about facilitation. My job is to create the space for different opinions to be shared in a respectful way.

Now, I’m sharing some of the skills I’ve learned and developed during my time as host. These skills can be used to create your own groups to practice a language or talk about a book.

I also invite you to bring these facilitation skills into other areas of your life. If you are a manager, consider these tips in your next team meeting. Think about how you can use facilitation skills in your next dinner conversation.

Everything you read here can help you create deeper conversation in many situations.

1. Start with strong questions

The best way to start a good conversation is with a good question. In order to design a powerful question, you must first recognize your own prejudices and acknowledge that not everyone will share them. Start with a broad question even if you think the answer is obvious.

For example, let’s say that I support immigration. It would be easy to start the conversation with a question such as, “What are the benefits of immigration for a country?”

However, this automatically pushes the conversation in one direction. Your job is to stay neutral and this means beginning with open questions that do not imply one answer is better than another. 

For this reason, I usually start with a broader question such as, “What do you think of when you hear the word ‘immigration?’”

This allows the participants to set the direction and avoids imposing bias on the group. It also allows you to listen (more on this next) to the conversation and use what the participants are saying to facilitate more engagement.

A strong question should also be open-ended. Avoid using questions that start with, “do you think…” or, “Is it common…”

Instead, frame your questions to begin with “what” or “why” and can be open to interpretation.

Finally, think about what kind of answers a question will produce when you are planning them. Personally, I look for questions that will encourage people to share a story or personal experience. 

For this reason I like to include questions that begin with, “Have you ever experienced…” or “can you think of a time…”

Strong questions are the foundation of a powerful conversation and having them prepared will set a good tone for your group or meeting. 


2. Use active listening to adjust as you go

When I first started the group conversations they were very different from how they are now. I had a list of questions, and people would almost take turns answering each question.

It was a chance to speak, but it was not a conversation. 

Now, when someone answers a question, others respond to the first person…not to the original question. The result is a powerful and supportive exchange of ideas. 

To transform a group discussion from the first place to that free-flowing exchange of ideas requires active listening skills. 

The more participants who practice active listening, the more powerful a discussion will be. As the facilitator, your job is to set an example and encourage everyone to listen. 

For starters, at the beginning of every group I invite people to listen to each other and think about how they can support each other. I find this encourages people to pay more attention to their peers. 

In conversation, you can look for opportunities to reflect what you hear back to the group, and create new questions.

For example, if we are talking about advertisements in a group and someone comments, “I think advertisements are dangerous for children to see all the time.” This gives you the opportunity to offer a new question to the group. You could say, “what is it about advertisements that makes them dangerous?” or perhaps, “what can companies or regulators do to make them less dangerous?”

By reflecting your participants’ answers when you speak, you show that you are listening and encourage others to listen as well. 

This creates more engagement and leads to more powerful discussions.

3. Use silence to create space

In any group, some people will be more reluctant to engage than others. Your job as the facilitator is to create space for everyone to participate. 

The best way to do this is to know when to be quiet. 

When you ask a question and no one responds, our first instinct is to say something else. We often panic and think, “oh maybe my question wasn’t clear,” or “that was a silly question.”

But if no one responds immediately, it can also mean that people are thinking about what they want to say, or gathering the courage to speak up. By continuing to speak, you are taking away that space from someone else. 

Sometimes I’ll ask a question and 30 to 60 seconds will pass before someone answers! By practicing patience and staying silent, I am allowing others to speak who may be feeling shy.

When facilitating a conversation, you also may have the urge to jump in after someone responds to your question. In fact, this is another time where it is helpful to practice silence. This way, another participant will respond and start to create a smooth conversation.

For me, the best conversations are the ones where I speak the least.

The facilitator will have their chance to speak, but often their responsibility is to create the space and get out of the way!

One of our wonderful conversation groups!

4. Let go of judgement

We all make judgments about people and cultures that are different to ours. It’s a natural part of being a human being.

We control how we let our prejudices affect our behavior. We choose to recognize and react to our beliefs and ideas that challenge those beliefs.

As a facilitator in a multicultural group, your beliefs are going to be challenged and you are going to hear things that you do not agree with. 

Frankly, it’s one of the most valuable things about participating in a multicultural group.

Your job as facilitator is not to avoid judgement, it’s to create a space where people feel safe expressing their opinions. This means taking your own beliefs out of the equation and respecting everyone’s right to have and share their own opinion.

Over the years of hosting groups, I’ve heard many opinions that I don’t agree with. This includes ideas that may go against my core values. But a facilitator’s job is not to change anyone’s mind, only to create the space for diverse ideas to flourish.

One important tip for fostering this space is acknowledgment. A simple, “thank you for sharing” or “I’m happy you feel safe sharing that with us,” can go a long way.

Another habit I practice is avoiding the word “but.” The word “but” can imply that you do not believe someone’s opinion was valid and can close a discussion when your job is to keep it open.

Instead, try using the word, “and” or directing the question back to the group by saying, “would anyone else like to comment on that?”

You might hear opinions that are shocking to you or, at work, ideas that you believe will not work. However, if you practice putting aside your judgement and opening the space for other ideas, you will find deeper, more powerful discussions. 

As with all of these reminders, these are skills that we practice each time we step into the role of facilitator. A facilitator is not there to teach or pass on knowledge. A facilitator creates the space for others to support each other and exchange ideas.