Cover Image
close this bookNonformal Education Manual (Peace Corps, 1989)
close this folderChapter 4: Helping people identify their needs
close this folderInformal discussion and interviewing
close this folderGroup discussions
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentProblem tree
View the documentThe balloon exercise
View the documentBrainstorming/prioritizing
View the documentHints for facilitating a group discussion


Now that you have used the various techniques of observation and interviewing to learn more about the community and the people you work with, you are more prepared to lead a group discussion that will help people determine what kind of action they want to take. But in order for the group to get involved you will need to facilitate the meeting in ways that will foster discussion, creativity and meaningful action.

First you must avoid imposing your ideas on the group in either overt or unconscious ways. Needless to say, this is not easy, especially since by now you have a pretty good idea of what you think the problems are and probably have formed an opinion about what needs to be done. The following two techniques, the problem tree and the balloon exercise, will help put discussion and decision-making in the hands of the group. Use one or the other (not both) if your aim is getting people to examine the chain of cause and effect and propose innovative solutions to their perceived needs.

Problem tree

Suppose you are working with a group of mothers who are agreed that a major health problem for their children is malnutrition. Start by writing the problem at the top of the blackboard or sheet of paper: "Children Are Malnourished." (If members of the group are not literate, you can decide on a symbol together that stands for malnutrition - a stick figure with a sad face, for example). Tell the group that a problem is like a tree and that the causes of the problem are like roots reaching into the ground.

Next, ask the group why they think that children don't have enough to eat. After some discussion, the women may decide that there is simply not enough food in the village, or that the right kinds of food are not available, or that mothers don't give their children breast milk long enough. Write these responses (or use appropriate symbols) as roots branching off the original problem "tree."

Now, take each of the causes in turn and ask the group why they think it is happening. The group may decide that there is not enough food in the village because people don't have enough money to buy it, or because the soil in the fields is poor. Write these responses as other roots branching off the first reasons as in the diagram. Be sure to give participants sufficient time to discuss these problems, using your diagram only to remind them of what they have discovered rather than as an end in itself.


Finally, when the group has discovered the complexity of the problem (and, not incidentally, how much they already know about it), ask them to suggest possible solutions and write them - symbolically or in words, at the bottom of the problem tree. Be sure to stress that these solutions are only possibilities for action, not necessarily final decisions; this will encourage more creativity and less disagreement about what is feasible.

The balloon exercise

This exercise also starts with the group identifying a problem, this time it should be written in the left hand corner of the paper or board. Then, instead of asking the causes of the problem, participants should reflect on one or more consequences resulting from it. For each of the consequences they should draw a balloon and link it to the first. They continue looking for consequences of each of the consequences they have written, and link these with a chain of balloons. Finally, they should reflect on where the chain of negative consequences can be broken, and indicate these as in the diagram on the next page.

This exercise can be done by the large group together with the facilitator writing down what participants say, or it can be done in small groups of three or four participants, with each group coming up with their own analysis of the problem and their own proposed solutions. After they have spent some time on this exercise, the small groups can reconvene and share their balloon chains with each other.

Now that many solutions to the problem have been proposed by the group, the facilitator can list them all so the group can decide on the feasibility of each one and propose a course of action.

For non-literate groups, you might use balloons cut out of paper beforehand and masking tape to stick them on the wall as the consequences of the problem are discovered by the group. Ask participants to draw a symbol that stands for each consequence on the balloons as they are mounted on the wall. A group artist will likely emerge, amid much laughter. As the diagram on the wall gets more complex, be sure the participants remember the symbols they have chosen so that they can "read" the diagram after it is finished and find appropriate places to break the chain of negative effects.

Adapted from Lyra Srinivasan's Practical Ways of Involving People


These familiar techniques can be used in many kinds of group discussions when you want to encourage creativity and contributions from all members. Remind your group of the rules of brainstorming:

* ideas should be called out at random, freely, from any participant

* no idea is silly or unimportant

* no discussion or comments on the ideas are allowed during the brainstorming phase except for purposes of clarification

If your group is unfamiliar with brainstorming and seems to be cautious about expressing creative or unusual ideas, try the Brick Exercise as a warm-up beforehand.

Brainstorming is usually done by listing the ideas that come up on the board or flip chart paper. For non-literate groups these memory jogs are largely unnecessary. Where people must rely on their memories for all their daily activities this facility is often highly developed. Keep written notes for yourself if you need to.

Prioritizing of ideas can be done in many different ways:

* In small groups: Each group decides on several of the ideas that have the most merit. Groups then report their opinions to the large group, giving the reasons why they have chosen the ideas they have. The large group then votes on the idea or ideas they want to pursue.

* By voting as a large group: First, the group eliminates the duplicate and less important ideas, then the group votes on each idea in turn. (You can read the ideas from your notes to non-literate groups here). The most favored ideas can then be discussed at length before a final vote is taken.

* By discussion and consensus: In cultures where group consensus is extremely important, groups are already well-versed in this process. Consensus taking is lengthy but can be fascinating to outsiders who are more familiar with quick "majority rule" voting. Volunteers who find themselves facilitating this kind of discussion might do best to stand back and observe quietly as leaders emerge and give their arguments and participants are finally persuaded to agree on a given course of action.

* By ritualized public show and later private action: Astute observers have pointed out that in some cultures, public decision making that appears to be dominated by a particular individual or group is more participatory than one might think.

In a Senegalese village, for example, women who were supposed to be determining their own needs for income-generating activities would wait to be called on by the male chief, who would then repeat their short and seemingly overly-agreeable responses to the training team. Women who spoke up spontaneously and appeared to be participating the most actively turned out to be low caste individuals who served almost as jesters on such occasions. The women finally reached consensus by nodding and by their "enthused silence," for in this society, not to speak indicates a position of honor. After the meeting was over, the women met privately to make actual decisions and creatively analyze options, risks and rewards.

These examples of decision making structures in other cultures suggest that Volunteers should take great care to observe what is really happening before too hastily imposing modern NFE techniques and strategies for participation where traditional methods do just as well - or better.

Hints for facilitating a group discussion

Being sensitive to cultural norms does not mean you need to give up being American. These typically (but far from exclusively) American techniques will often charm a cross-cultural audience.

* Be positive. Smile.

* Communicate your enthusiasm for the meeting, the topic, and the people involved.

* Communicate your genuine interest in each individual's contribution to the discussion.

* Get to the point and stick to it.

* Write legibly and quickly.

* Speak loud enough for everyone to hear easily and articulate your words, especially if you - or the participants - are struggling with a second language.

* Encourage discussion between group members instead of between members and yourself. You can do this by redirecting questions ("What do you think about that, Mr. Gomez?") or by nodding and expressing interest rather than giving your own opinion.

* Let participants know when you have learned something new from them.

* Come prepared. Bring paper and markers or roll-up blackboards and chalk.

* Practice the techniques you will use beforehand so you don't get too nervous or lose your train of thought.

* Keep the meeting from degenerating into lengthy argument or discussion that is off the topic. It takes some practice to balance facilitator control with group participation. Use your tone of voice, your energy or "presence" and your interested silence to keep the group focused.

Helping people determine their needs is not easy. You will most likely have to develop skills that take a lifetime to master - skills in group facilitation, in patience and control of your emotions, in listening, in being acutely aware of your effect on others. But if you spend time working on these skills and use them to discover how people see their real needs, the next steps will not only be easier, they will be heading you in the right direction.