Published: February 20, 2017   Updated: February 20, 2017

“Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do.”- Goethe

While the content of our sessions, the WHAT we teach, is important, I believe that HOW we teach may be equally, if not more, critical to participant learning and retention.

Whether one is teaching about stress management, world history, effective communication, career skills, or economics, these facilitation tools can help create the container to deepen learning as well as infuse issues of diversity and inclusion.

1. Design activities so participants interact with and learn from a wide variety of people.

When facilitators let participants form their own discussion groups without any direction, most people seem to choose to work with those they already know and with whom they feel comfortable – usually, people who are much like themselves. Encouraging or requiring participants to interact with people different from themselves provides the opportunity to broaden their perspectives as well as increase their comfort working across differences. Below are a few ways to form more diverse working groups:

  • Use activities that require interaction with new people: concentric circles or a BINGO activity provides a structure that has participants easily talk with a variety of new people.
  • Form groups randomly by counting off, pre-assign group numbers that are listed on their handouts or name tags, or use a quick icebreaker: find a new partner who….(is wearing the same color as you; is in a different type of job than you; who grew up in a different state or country than you…)
  • State: “I believe we learn more when we interact with the widest range of people as possible. So as I move you into different groups in this session/course, please work to meet new people and have conversations with those you don’t know very well.”
  • State: “Many people tend to work with and socialize with those that are more like themselves. So in this session/course, I’d like you to intentionally seek out people who are different from you in some way so we can broaden our connections and learn from as many people as possible. So as you form pairs or a small group, pay attention to making them as diverse as possible by group memberships, such as years of experience, age, job function, race, ethnicity, gender, etc.”

2. Invite verbal participation from a full range of participants across group memberships.

It may be useful to increase your awareness of who, by group membership, is participating during large group discussions. I often need to intentionally pay attention and track who shares in the room and see any patterns by age, level in the organization, sex, gender, race, etc. More often people with multiple memberships in insider/dominant groups tend to speak up more frequently and talk for longer periods of time. The major exception to this pattern has occurred during discussions related directly to issues of inclusion and diversity when members of multiple dominant groups tend to be far quieter during the conversation. Regardless of the particular pattern, if facilitators notice an imbalance of participation, they can use a variety of tools to encourage a broader range of voices, including:

  • “I’d like to hear from some new voices…. from people we haven’t heard from lately….”
  • “I’m appreciating this conversation, and I’d like to broaden the number of voices. Who else has something to add?”
  • “I’m noticing that a few people are sharing their perspectives, but we haven’t heard from a number of folks yet….I’d like to open up the space for people who haven’t yet shared….”
  • “I believe the learning is far deeper when we explore a wide variety of perspectives. Who else has something to add that may be different from what has already been said?”
  • “I’m noticing that most of the folks who have shared recently are managers; I’m curious what some of the rest of the staff think about this topic?”
  • “I’m appreciating the comments so far, and most seem to be from people who are newer in the organization. I’m curious what people who have over 15 years experience think?”

Facilitators can also use various learning methods to increase verbal participation, including:

  • Buzz pairs: Partner participants with someone they don’t know well and give them 2 minutes to talk about whatever is NOT being talked about (i.e., ideas, reactions, solutions, feelings, etc.). Then ask for short report outs from each dyad or move back into a large group discussion.
  • Buzz then brainstorm: After the 2-minute buzz session, have participants brainstorm what they discussed and chart their ideas. Then start the large group discussion based on what was charted.
  • Stations activity: Identify 4-6 topics you want ideas or input on. Put one topic at the top of each piece of chart paper. Divide participants into small groups and assign each group 1 chart. Give them 3+ minutes to brainstorm and list ideas; then move each group to another station and ask them to review what’s already written, and brainstorm other ideas. You can also ask them to put a checkmark by ideas they like. Pull the group back together and have a large group discussion.
  • Individual reflection time: Give each participant a 3×5 card and ask them to individually write an idea/solution. Collect them anonymously and read the ideas to the group. You can chart them all, have people read them into the group or post them on the wall and ask people to go around and read them.
    • You can also use this activity to gather feelings and/or reactions. Ask participants to individually write how they’re currently feeling, gather the responses anonymously, and have people read them into group. Then lead a discussion of how people relate to the feelings/reactions they heard.
  • Explore the pros/cons of an idea in more depth: Give participants time to think about at least 1 pro and 1 con for the idea. Then go around the room and have each person share 1 positive outcome of this idea and a possible pitfall or drawback.
    • Variation: Form dyads or triads and ask them to generate 3 pros and 3 possible drawbacks without discussing them. Then have groups report these into the room.
    • Perspective taking: Form small groups and assign each 1 perspective to represent. Give them 10 minutes to discuss and be ready to share:
      • What issues might someone with this perspective have?
      • What concerns?
      • What ideas for moving forward?
    • Pick-a-question activity: Ask each person to write a question or issue on a 3×5 card that they want discussed by the group. Collect these and put into a basket. Ask for a volunteer to pick one out (without looking at it) and respond/answer in the large group. Then invite others to comment.
    • Use a Standing Continuum to take the temperature of the group: Ask participants to stand on a continuum from 0-10 that reflects their feelings, attitudes, perceived skill level, perceived knowledge level, readiness level, etc. Then have them notice any patterns about where people are standing; and have then turn to a partner to discuss why they stood where they did; then discuss as a large group.

3. Acknowledge and engage the input and contributions across the range of group memberships.

I have been in too many sessions where the facilitator seemed far more enthusiastic about some people’s comments than others; and upon reflection, I often noticed a pattern by group membership of whose comments were acknowledged and engaged, and who’s seemed to “plop” and go unaddressed. Unfortunately, I notice this same unconscious pattern in myself at times!

Research of teachers has shown the tendency to call on and positively reinforce the comments of boys more than girls ~ even after the teachers were made aware of their unconscious behaviors! And research has also shown that counselors tend to treat young, attractive clients more positively than those that do not fall into these group memberships. In my experience, I have observed participants who have multiple insider/dominant group memberships often get more time and attention than those who have multiple outsider/subordinated group memberships. For example, in most types of sessions (not stand alone diversity and inclusion workshops) I see the comments of leaders get more attention than those from students or lower level employees, the comments of whites get more serious consideration than those of people of color, the input of men get assumed to be accurate while the comments from women are more often questioned, and the comments from older, more experienced participants given more credibility than those from younger, newer participants.

I have to be very intentional to offset any unconscious bias I have, and instead, consistently respond equitably to all participants as I work to find a way to use their comments to further learning goals. It is critical that facilitators pay close attention to how they acknowledge and respond to participants across identity groups, and to become increasingly aware of any unconscious biases or tendencies to favor some groups over others. Making sure that we give everyone, regardless of group memberships, the same degree of attention and respect models a key principle of diversity and inclusion and increases the chances for a more productive and engaging learning environment.

4. Pay attention to the content of what is discussed and notice which issues of diversity are discussed and which, if any, are not; and invite participants to broaden the conversation.

    • “As you think about the last 10 minutes or so of conversation, what topics of diversity have we been discussing? As we continue I’d like us to also broaden the conversation to also include other issues of difference.”
    • “What are you noticing about the types of topics we are discussing? Any thoughts about why this might be? Who can bring in another topic of difference to add to our conversation?”

As we infuse issues of diversity into the content of courses and workshops, it is important to pay attention to which topics of inclusion get addressed and which, if any, tend to not get on the table for discussion. I believe it is usually helpful to use a broad range of examples and situations that depict a full breadth of differences so that participants can continue to deepen their cultural competencies to serve the increasingly diverse client/customer/student populations.

I find it helpful when facilitating to track the conversation regularly and notice the issues being discussed. If I notice that only a few topics of diversity are being addressed, I might ask the group to reflect on its process:

Another common dynamic I track is that some groups tend to avoid or move away from certain topics whenever they come up or not engage them as readily. In these situations I might respond in an attempt to raise awareness of this pattern as well as re-center a broader range of issues in the conversation:

    • “I’m noticing that the only time we talk about issues of gender or sexism is when a woman brings it up. Anyone else track this? Why might this be happening in our group?”
    • “It seems that whenever we start talking about issues of race, someone changes the topic back to age or sexual orientation. Has anyone else noticed this? What do you think might be under this dynamic?”

5. Track group dynamics for common unproductive behaviors that undermine the learning goals; and respond in ways that re-establish a productive learning environment.

Another way that facilitators can infuse attention to diversity and inclusion in their courses and workshops is to consistently create and maintain a learning environment where all participants are treated with respect. It is important for facilitators to track the more subtle participant behaviors that feel disrespectful and disruptive to other participants, and to respond in ways to re-establish a sense of safety, connectedness, and respect.

Review the following list of unproductive participant behaviors as you consider these questions:

    1. How often do you notice participants engaging in the following behaviors?
    2. How, if at all, do these behaviors impact others and undermine learning outcomes?
    3. Are there any patterns, by group membership, of who behaves in these ways?
  • Interrupt and talk over others
  • Ignore the ideas and input from other participants
  • Talk more frequently and for longer periods of time than other participants
  • Often are the first to speak
  • Pay far more attention and give more credibility to the ideas and input from members of insider/dominant groups (people who are top leaders and managers, more experienced, older, men, white, heterosexual, Christian, gender-conforming, attractive, or light-skinned, etc.)
  • Minimize or dismissed the feelings, perspectives, and experiences of others
  • Get defensive and argue without first seeking to understand the other’s perspective
  • Belittle, make fun of, or judge the comments of others
  • Put down others or make snide or sarcastic comments
  • Engage in side conversations when others are talking
  • Talk down to others in patronizing ways
  • Raise their voice or use an aggressive style to try intimidate or silence others
  • State that their view and perspective is the only right way, the best way

While people can do these behaviors out of their outsider/subordinated group memberships, there is often an additional negative impact when participants act out these behaviors from their insider/dominant group memberships towards members of outsider/subordinated groups. It is important that we increase our ability to track these unproductive dynamics and consistently intervene to ensure that all participants feel respected, heard, valued, and included in our sessions.

Regardless of the topic of the course or workshop, educators can model and teach about issues of diversity through the ways they facilitate and respond to participant comments and behaviors. It has been said that participants may not remember what they learned, but they will remember how they felt in your session. Facilitating in ways that create learning environments where people feel respected and valued, regardless of their group memberships, models the types of inclusive environments we are working to create in our organizations. We can teach about diversity and inclusion through the process of how we facilitate.

**Editors’ Note: This is the 3rd part of a 4- part series written by Dr. Kathy Obear.**

Check out Part 1 to learn about:

  • Laying the foundation for infusing diversity into everything you do.
  • Considering organizational, personal and participant-level roles and responsibilities for encouraging diversity and inclusion.

Check out Part 2 to learn about:

  • Using examples and images that shift the traditional ways of depicting people.
  • Design activities to minimize any negative differential impact on members of different social identity groups.

Check out Part 4 to learn about:

  • Integrating diverse content into your training materials.
  • Specific examples of social justice case studies for different types of trainings including: decision making, customer service, conflict management, and effective feedback.

Dr. Kathy Obear is a social justice educator and organizational change facilitator. She is grateful for all the lessons and insights from over 30 years of designing and facilitating trainings on equity, inclusion, and social justice. Kathy loves training trainers, especially to increase their capacity to respond during triggering situations and use them as powerful, teachable moments. Read more and get connected Kathy on our team page


Written by FacilitatingXYZ Team

This is the account that the FacilitatingXYZ team uses. FacXYZ is co-facilitated by Meg and Sam, and brings in expertise, knowledge, and lived experience from facilitators far and wide. Read more about us here.

All Posts by Author