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Facilitation Skills and Recommendations for Students

Learn tips and strategies for facilitating interfaith discussions.

Effective facilitation skills are key to interfaith leadership. At its core, interfaith cooperation is about engaging one another around many of our most important values. As a facilitator of interfaith conversations, you will be facilitating dialogues before or after service projects, within a student leadership training, or in a meeting of your Better Together group, among other situations. Having some effective facilitation tips in mind can make a difference. Interfaith dialogue is about engaging beyond surface-level interactions, and the role of the facilitator is to direct the conversation without controlling it.

The list below is based off of the work IFYC and our university partners have been doing for over 10 years. It is not exhaustive but the list can be a great starting point for you to build your skill-set. Here are some general guidelines for effective facilitation.

Set the Space:
Be intentional up front about the purpose of the discussion and set Safe Space guidelines for participation. A principal responsibility of a facilitator is to maintain the Safe Space and keep the conversation respectful (some common Safe Space guidelines include: the use of “I” statements when discussing your personal views, practicing active listening, and creating a level of shared respect). Establish yourself as the facilitator of the conversation—as opposed to the leader—and let folks know what role you will play. Choose the physical space for your discussion carefully. Make sure it’s quiet enough for people to hear each other and private enough for people to feel safe to share. Set up chairs or sit on the floor/ ground in a circle if possible, with gaps for people to exit and enter.

Choose a Topic:
Basing your discussion around a shared value or central topic can help focus the conversation, as well as develop trust in the group. A discussion around shared values provides a foundation to the conversation while also allowing each participant to offer their own unique perspective on the topic. Sending out the topic beforehand can help participants prepare for the discussion.

Encourage Genuine Exchange:
Participants in a dialogue should bring their full breadth of beliefs and identities to the table; as a facilitator it’s your job to make sure participants all feel able to really engage with one another. Thank participants for sharing and honor all the voices in the room. (“Glad you asked that… Thank you for your honesty”) Avoid phrases like “I love this point, I don’t agree with your comments,” etc. Instead, focus on encouraging an exchange of ideas and thoughts from all participants.

Further the Conversation:
Direct participants to interact with each other, not just with you. Monitor participation to make sure all are heard (“Who hasn’t had a chance to share yet? What’s your opinion about that, John?”). Defer questions directed at you to the group (“Reactions? What do you all think?”). Have fresh questions in your back pocket to keep things going and connect what people are saying. Here are some helpful transitional phrases:

  • “Say more about that ...”
  • “Other thoughts?”
  • “Does anyone see it differently? How might other people see it?”
  • “What might be the impact if we do ... what might be the impact if don’t ...”

Allow for Tension:
One of the signs of a less effective discussion is when it’s too ‘nice’ and stays on the surface of the topic at hand. Disagreement should happen—interfaith work is challenging and interesting because you are intentionally working with people with different beliefs than your own. When tensions arise, stay calm. Name the tension if it comes up and address it:

  • Jump in (“It sounds like we have a couple of different viewpoints in the room ...”)
  • Demonstrate a calming presence—keep your voice down, use open body language, stay friendly
  • Remind people of your Safe Space guidelines
  • If things escalate and you feel like you’re losing the group, stop the conversation (“I’m going to ask you all to pause here ...”)

Be Patient:
Trust the group and trust yourself. Remember that facilitation is only learned through practice and developing confidence takes time. You do not have to have all of the answers.

Follow Up:
End dialogues as intentionally as you began them (“What do you take away from this discussion?”) Give folks an action step to take after the discussion like an invite to the next discussion or event. Have one-on-one conversations after the fact with people as needed and offer resources to participants in a follow up email.