In our line of work, it is common to discuss tech-related topics such as programming styles, new technologies, and which approach is most apt for the current use case. However, it’s not as common to discuss soft skills. So, to help remedy this at AO, several coworkers and I started a regular informal discussion group around the soft skills related to software consulting. To help get this off the ground, I volunteered to spearhead the group by scheduling and facilitating the discussion.
Before we even got started, we had several goals:
- Bring together people from different project, with differing levels of experience.
- Create engaging discussion that meaningfully fills the time (we wanted to avoid long silences and dead discussions).
- Avoid lecturing by promoting grouppwide engagement with questions and solutions.
To achieve this, I wanted to make sure that I did everything in my power to help facilitate these discussions. Here are four tips I used to create engaging, meaningful discussions without the need to lecture.
Come with several prompts.
Come with ideas ready to go. If you are facilitating the discussion, you likely know the topic. For us, it was soft skills in software consulting, but this can apply to any discussion. To nail this, I set aside time before our first session to brainstorm all the different topics that might be interesting. I went as rapid-fire as possible, writing down anything that I thought would be interesting. A key to success: don’t worry about the solutions yet. That’s kind of the point of the discussion. If, while you are writing, solutions come to you, feel free to jot them down. You can always circle back to them later in the discussion.
This can also be a great opportunity to get participation from the other group members. A word of caution: Don’t rely on this input for a full topic list, and don’t wait until the discussion to ask. Though you may get some great participation, having a full list to start will help prompt other interesting ideas.
Cast as wide a net in this stage as possible. You never know what prompts will resonate on the day of the discussion. The goal is to provide options. The best discussions we’ve had evolved from a prompt that resonated with a current project pain point. If we’d already planned the session, there is a real chance we never would’ve gotten their great perspective.
Propose concrete problems.
When you are proposing ideas, it’s important to connect to a real-world problem. This can be crucial, as it helps to provide actionable ideas. Though it may be occasionally fun and interesting to pose purely theoretical prompts, connecting those prompts with concrete problems will help to ground the discussion in reality and provide a more relatable, actionable solution.
Similar to the suggestion to come with several prompts, this is an opportunity to ask for people’s experiences. If you are lucky, you will get a great mix of successful and unsuccessful experiences. From here, a great discussion is just waiting to happen. Additionally, if you have a mix of projects and experiences, there is a real chance that, even if a prompt doesn’t directly connect, it may spider into related discussions more related to ongoing pain points.
Call on people.
Now, you should have a list of great prompts and some real-world problems to ground them. From here, how do you get great participation? Well, hopefully, this should be easy. If this group is like ours, everyone is interested and finds value. However, even in this situation, some people are naturally quieter. My best solution to this is to call on them. Do it as nicely as you can, but still ask for their perspective and participation.
I don’t do this simply to get them involved: there are at least two great reasons to call on people.
- Get their relevant experience. Take the opportunity to see how this relates to their current or past project. Even if their feedback reinforces others’ previous points, this iteration will give further credence to previous replies.
- If the discussion doesn’t relate to them, have them provide some clarifying questions to better define where this advice would be useful. No one will ever have experienced everything, but getting helpful framing questions can connect the threads of discussion.
Connect the threads.
Speaking of connecting threads, I think one of the hardest (and subsequently most important) parts of facilitating a discussion is connecting the threads. Pay attention to through-lines. As you notice them, point them out. It does not need to be momentous, but you should take the time to connect the points and discuss the parallels. Sometimes, it turns out the discussions were largely the same, just from a different perspective. Other times, finding the nuanced reason two situations differ illuminates a new discussion of why.
This is not only required of the facilitator. When participants intentionally watch for connected ideas, it helps elevate the discussions. Once there is a through-line, you (and everyone in the discussion) will get a better understanding of the patterns we see throughout our careers.
I think that the goal of connecting the threads of discussion provides the longest-lasting value. That’s because it articulates the nuanced patterns that make up all of our projects.
Final thoughts: Preparation is key to facilitating the discussion.
Here, I have outlined some of my tips for facilitating engaging discussion. Oddly enough, from the advice I’ve given, half of the job is in properly preparing for it. You can achieve this by bringing as many prompts as you can and grounding them in reality. At this point, you need to start asking questions and calling on specific team members. People will bring their perspectives and generate more discussion. Lastly, once you have kicked off the discussion, pay attention. Take the opportunity to watch for patterns in the problems you are trying to solve and point them out. Having discussions and solving problems is the initial benefit, but helping to identify patterns will foster long-term understanding.