Create Connections: How to Facilitate Small Groups (cover)

Author Spotlight–Create Connections: How to Facilitate Small Groups

Authors Rhonda Williams, Sameen DeBard and Joseph D. Wehrman have conducted extensive research on what makes a good group facilitator. A successful group facilitator must be able to engage the members in meaningful activities, balance the behaviors and dynamics of the members, and help with the application of these newly learned skills in real life. Lead author Dr. Rhonda Williams explains the origins and implementation of Create Connections: How to Facilitate Small Groups in this Spotlight Interview.

How did you come up with the initial concept of Create Connections? 

After more than two decades of teaching workshops and classes on group facilitation, we all decided to write down our experiences, knowledge and skills about creating connections through the group process. Many community facilitators, teachers, and counselors misjudge group facilitation as easy to do. Unfortunately, a laissez faire approach does not typically equate to having a powerful group experience. Groups can and should be meaningful learning experiences for participants. Groups are often a microcosm for how participants behave in their everyday life. Group participation helps members practice new interaction skills and more effective coping strategies in a safe and nonjudgmental environment.

This book offers a step-by-step approach to group structure and implementation. With the proper planning for constructive group development, an effective facilitator can open the participants’ perspectives to new ways of learning and being.

Importantly, this book includes several small group activities which can be initiated at any level from elementary age participants to adults. The book activities are a sample of some of the activities provided in our trainings.

Your new book is about teaching trained professionals how to be good group facilitators. What are some of the key messages?

Some of the most important messages in this book are about planning and processing. A facilitator does not want to leave the learning to chance. Activities have little value if there isn’t a progressive method of debriefing the activity. A well thought out experiential group activity can stimulate participants in developing new thought patterns and behaviors. A well planned debrief, led by the facilitator, can help participants reflect on the activity in which they just participated. The most important part of the debrief is actually identifying how this experience applies to their own lives outside the group. It is at this point that new techniques are instilled, and new behaviors are reinforced.

With two other authors working on this book, how did you each decide which parts to contribute?

It seemed a natural fit for each author to contribute based on their strengths. While teaching group process classes for university graduate students, I have done research regarding effective group facilitation, so I contributed the chapters about research. Sameen’s strengths include creating curriculum to address a wide variety of social and emotional needs. Joe’s area of expertise involves looking at the whole picture and making sure the essence of the value of group was addressed fully.

How did you create many of the group activities?

After decades of leading and participating in groups, teaching classes, running workshops and going through professional development ourselves, we learned a great deal about what engages an audience and what does not. With a clear objective and an activity-based framework, as discussed and illustrated in this book, the initiatives are developed to first “hook” the participants. From there, participants are led through an experiential lesson, many of which are original creations, which concludes with a meaningful debrief providing both group and personal insights. Some activities have also been adapted from others’ work, with the addition of intentional debrief questions.

What are some of the challenges in facilitating group sessions for elementary kids? What about for adolescents or adults?

As discussed in this book, facilitators must have a grounded knowledge and understanding of the ages and stages of development of participants. Younger learners are more concrete and tend to enjoy high energy activities while not being as able or willing to sit and process for more than a few minutes. Younger participants can benefit from many aspects of the group process such as positive peer relationships and teamwork. It is important to make sure the debrief questions are well thought out so the facilitator can help elementary students make the invaluable connections to self and behavior changes.

Adolescents and adults, however, often enjoy the debriefing portion of the activity just as much as the activity itself. They are more able to demonstrate vulnerability while also taking the emotional risks necessary to expand their own comfort zones, which leads to more meaningful personal growth.

The group process can be a challenge for adolescents because of their strong desire to fit in, which often leads them toward “group think.” They sometimes demonstrate a reluctance to speak their own mind and lean toward espousing the thoughts of their friends. Small group settings can give them an opportunity to find their voices, but the facilitator must be vigilant that they are speaking from their own heart and not regurgitating their peers’ thoughts and feelings.

Most of the activities in this book apply to leading adult groups as well. The depth of the activities “debrief” and personal insights are powerful within adult groups. While some participants may view these activities as childish or juvenile, the manner in which they are introduced by the facilitator is key to how participants perceive them and buy into the experience. However, Dr. Wehrman, Sameen and I had no one refuse to participate in activities over the multitude of adult group trainings we have led. In fact, we often find that with the right presentation and environment, adults are eager to shed their grown-up masks and engage in fun activities for self-awareness and development.

How did you create a curriculum for the diverse needs of group participants?

Although the type of groups may vary, to a certain degree, individuals within a group will display similar behaviors in their daily interactions. This leads to predictable group dynamics. Although the facilitator may not initially know which participant will demonstrate which behavior, these leaders can at minimum, be equipped to manage and re-direct any behavior that arises during a session. The group process is not designed to necessarily meet every need of every participant, but rather, allow each individual to become more aware of his or her own needs and find an appropriate avenue through which those needs can be met.

For additional information about author Dr. Rhonda Williams, please visit her author page.

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