Group Facilitation Skills for Student Leaders

Jeff E. Brooks-Harris & Kevin G. Shollenberger

University of Hawai`i at Manoa

Why do Student Leaders Need to Learn Group Facilitation Skills?

Leadership is the process of assisting a group to realize its common goals, visions, and dreams. Effective leaders capitalize on the talents and diverse ideas of the group members to formulate and achieve these goals. Leadership involves encouraging a group to develop and grow by creating opportunities for group members to learn from one another through common experiences. In order to accomplish all of this, a leader needs to possess strong group facilitation skills. Group facilitation skills are the things that a leader says or does to promote experiential learning within a group. These skills will enable a leader to guide a group through the complex stages of group development, creating a cohesive team that learns from experience.

What Kinds of Student Leaders Use Group Facilitation Skills?

As a university student leader, you will be called on to use your facilitation skills in a variety of settings such as a resident advisor conducting a hall meeting, an orientation leader guiding a campus tour, a peer educator presenting a health education workshop, or an officer of a student organization planning an event. Whatever your role as a student leader, strong facilitation skills will enable you to foster positive group interaction and individual learning. The examples of facilitation skills described later will draw upon the experience of five types of student leaders:

Where do Student Leaders Use Group Facilitation Skills?

The facilitation skills outlined here can be applied to a variety of settings in which university student leaders interact with groups. For example, student leaders frequently facilitate groups in the following four settings:

Experiential Learning

David Kolb (1984) described a model of experiential learning that provides a useful way to think about leadership and group facilitation. Kolb described four ways that people learn which he referred to as concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization, and active experimentation. He arranged these four learning modes in a circle and suggested that effective learning involves completing this experiential learning cycle. We encourage you to think of promoting experiential learning as an essential aspect of your role as a student leader.

Individual Learning Styles

Kolb also used these learning modes as anchors on two perpendicular axes to identify four individual learning styles. McCarthy (1990) applied this model to education and referred to these leaning styles as imaginative, analytic, common sense and dynamic learners. As a student leader, it is important to realize that different group members will have different learning styles which will impact the way they behave in a group. To be an effective group leader, you should be aware of these four learning styles and learn to use skills that will meet the needs of all group members.

Imaginative Learners are oriented toward concrete experience and reflective observation. They have strengths in imaginative ability and awareness of meaning and values. Imaginative learners learn best when they are given the opportunity for personal involvement and interpersonal interaction.

Analytic Learners are oriented toward abstract conceptualization and reflective observation. They have strengths in inductive reasoning and creating theoretical models. Analytic learners like to learn about theories, facts, concepts, and data and often excel in traditional educational settings.

Common Sense Learners are oriented toward abstract conceptualization and active experimentation. They have strengths in problem solving and decision making. They want to put learning to immediate practical use. Common Sense learners want to be involved in hands-on learning that involves experimenting with new knowledge.

Dynamic Learners are oriented toward concrete experience and active experimentation. They have strengths related to carrying out plans, taking action, and getting involved with new experiences. Dynamic learners may be anxious to know how to apply new learning and will want to put ideas into action.

Facilitation Skills

Brooks-Harris and Stock-Ward (in press) used Kolb's model of experiential learning and individual learning styles to identify four types of facilitation skills. They are referred to here as engaging, informing, involving, and planning skills. Engaging skills correspond to imaginative learning, informing skills promote analytic learning, involving skills match common sense learning, and planning skills correspond to dynamic learning. We have adapted Brooks-Harris and Stock-Ward's model specifically to student leadership in order to identify 20 facilitation skills for you to learn, practice, and use in your groups. An effective group leader should develop all four types of facilitation skills.

What are Attending Skills?

Attending skills are communication skills that form a foundation for group facilitation. Attending involves active listening skills that can help you make contact with another person and hear how they understand the world (Ivey, Gluckstern, & Ivey, 1993). These skills were originally identified to train individual counselors but they also are essential to group facilitation. As a student leader, it is important to develop strong attending skills to communicate with both individuals and groups. These skills are used to support all four types of group learning: engaging, informing, involving, and planning. Ivey, Gluckstern, and Ivey (1993) identified five types of basic attending skills:

Active Listening with Attending Behaviors - Active listening involves verbal and nonverbal behaviors that demonstrate you are listening and encourages another person to talk more freely. Attending behaviors include appropriate eye contact, attentive body language, and using a vocal style that indicates interest.

Open Invitation to Talk - By asking open questions, you can encourage someone to talk more freely. An open question is one that allows the other person to elaborate on information of their choice. In contrast, a closed question emphasizes content and can often be answered in a few words or with a yes or no. Open questions are preferred because they allow you to follow the lead of the person to whom you are listening. For example, “Can you tell me more about the conflict with your roommate?”

Encouraging and Paraphrasing - You can clarify what someone is saying by using a verbal minimal encourage such as “Uh-huh,” “Really?,” or “Tell me more.” You can also clarify by paraphrasing what someone says in order to let them know that they have been heard. For example, “Mandy, you're disappointed because we didn't get to finish the discussion, is that right?”

Reflecting Feelings - It is often helpful to identify emotions that are expressed indirectly. This involves focusing more on the feeling than the content. For example, “It seems like you're really angry that this program was canceled.” Key emotions include happiness, sadness, anger, and fear.

Summarization - The purpose of summarization is to help another individual integrate behavior, thoughts, and feelings. For example, “After you turned in the petition and it was rejected, you thought you were treated unfairly and you're afraid that you won't get another chance. Is that what you said?”

How Do Group Facilitation Skills Differ from Attending Skills?

Group facilitation skills go one step further than attending skills. Attending skills are used to ensure a good connection between a listener and a speaker. Group facilitation skills are designed to create a sense of connection within an entire group and between group members as well as with the leader. You will use attending skills in all four types of group facilitation but you will be taking an extra step to focus on the whole group and not just the individuals within the group.


Brooks-Harris, J. E., & Stock-Ward, S. R. (in press). Workshops: Designing and facilitating experiential learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Ivey, A. E., Gluckstern, N. B., & Ivey, M. B. (1993). Basic Attending Skills (3rd ed.). North Amherst, MA: Microtraining Associates.

Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

McCarthy, B. (1990, October). Using the 4MAT system to bring learning styles to school. Educational Leadership, 31-37.


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