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Teaching & Learning

Facilitation & Facilitating groups






Dealing with difficult people

What's the basic aim whe you're facilitating small groups?

The word facilitate comes from the word “facile” which means “to make easy”.   Active facilitation and group management is the key to success in facilitating small group learning.  Improving the facilitation skills of clinical teachers makes teaching more effective, stimulating, and enjoyable for both tutors and students (and consequently better learning outcomes).

The ultimate goal of a group discussion is to:

  • Change people’s thinking which might then
  • Evoke emotions (or feelings) which might then
  • Change their internal frameworks of reference which might then
  • Change their attitudes, which might then
  • Change the way they work, perform or behave.

It is not about

  • perfecting discussions
  • forcing people to think differently
  • geting through all of the educational material.

The aeroplane analogy

The Good Facilitator…

  • Keeps everyone focused on the objective of the session
  • Tries to remain neutral
  • Ensures everyone participates and all voices are heard
  • Has a range of tools and techniques to get the best out of all participants
  • Manages challenging behaviour and unhelpful team dynamics so you can concentrate on the content of the session

Good facilitators to bring focus and clarity to educational sessions. The make things easy. Another word for easy is facile. They facilitate

Create a safe environment & Group Rules

Members of a group won’t share their inner most thoughts and feelings if they don’t feel that there is a safe space to aire them.   They will fear being knocked down, being made to feel embarassed or being heavily judged.    Trust is perhaps the most vital key to really making your small group a place where genuine community can be formed. Group members need to be able to trust each other that the group is a safe place—a place where they can get real and know that they will not be judged, gossiped about, and so on.

So how do you create this safe environment?

  • Create some group rules.
      • Write them down on a flip chart to make it have percieved value.
      • Things like confidentiality: “what is said here and happens here, stays here.”
      • Review these group rules every single time a new person shows up to group.
      • As the facilitator, be sure to model this safety and confidentiality yourself!
  • Show respect for someone who shares something in the group
      • no matter how much you disagree – do not belittle them
      • value what they have said and thank them for contributing.  Make sure they feel affirmed about their answer in the moment
      • explore the basis of their thinking
      • gently explore other views – let the discussion enfold in a kind and compassionate manner  e.g. “to be honest, i feel a bit differently than Tom.   I do appreciate what Tom says and I can see his side of things.   From my perspectinve, I think….”
      • Continuously check that individual members are ok.   You may want to talk 1-1 after the group discussion has ended.  Check they are ok.
  • Avoid giving immediate answers or unsolicited advice within the group
      • Avoid “Well if I were you, I’d just do this”
      • That is one of the quickest ways to shut someone down from sharing.
      • When you hear other group members start to do this, gently remind them that “this is a safe group, and we’re here to listen, not to give advice.”
  • And finally, do an ice-breaker – to relax people, get rid of preconceived notions and establish trust and rapport.

The participants may have worrying issues that may prevent them from contributing to group discussions. Things like, “Will what I say end up being spread outside the group”, “Will people put me down if I express how I really feel?”.    Ground rules can help reassure them and stop them from being too scared to get involved.  Ground rules are generally best made after introductions or after a warm up.  If used straightaway, they can be frightening and may lead individuals to thing “Oh dear, what’s gonna happen next?”  So, after introductions, ask participants to lay down some ground rules that will prevent the occurrence of problems they have experienced in the past….it is important that they set the ground rules!


  • Listen to others
  • Don’t put other people down
  • Respect Confidentiality & Trust
  • Show Respect
  • Don’t Interrupt others
  • Try to accept others views
  • Mobile phones off? OR talk outside.

But I am scared of facilitating... it's my first time

Most people find facilitating a small group discussion intimidating when they start off.  So don’t worry: what you are feeling is completely normal.     There is some good news though…

  • If you’re worry is about not having enough knowledge to answer all the questions, dont be!!!   Very few of us feel like we’ll have all the right answers, or that we can handle whatever curve balls will be thrown our way (and there will be some!).  Small group facilitation is all about getting the group to find answers for themselves.   They learn better that way.  It’s crucial for the learning process that you don’t provide immediate answers all of the time.   Of course, provioding an immediate answer “now and then” (and when you are sure you have the factual information) is fine, but make sure there is the right balance between answer giving and getting them to find out for themselves.  Remember, we are trying to create self-directed learners here!
  • If you’re worried about the uncertaintly about the direction in which the discussion will go, don’t be!   Again, that’s not what facilitating a group discussion is really about. We don’t have to lead the perfect discussion every time. We don’t even have to get through all of the material in each meeting!   Let the discussion flow naturally, and all you simply have to do is follow it.    A bit like the way a surfer rides the waves smoothly.
  • You have all the skills required for a good small group facilitator.    They simply need building up.   When we’re facilitating in our small group, our main goal is to create discussion. We want to challenge people to think about the topic at hand, and to create a safe environment for people to share their thoughts—to help everyone feel valued about the input they’ve offered.   That is exactly what you do as practising GPs in your 1-1 discussion patients.   You do it in team meetings with your colleagues.  And you do it at home with family members and socially with friends.   You’ve got the skills inside you somewhere.
  • And finally, do an ice-breaker – to relax people.  Trust me, icebreakers make a massive difference on individual member contribution.   After an ice-breaker, people release their preconceptions of others they might have at first glance.

Asking good facilitator questions

One of the most important skills in small-group facilitation is not having all of the right answers, but asking the right questions. Here are a few secrets to good question-asking.

  • Avoid the yes/no, true/false, multiple-choice questions
  • Similarly, avoid very simple questions that require a brief answer than a discussion

Thoughts and feelings are things which

  • encourage others to speak up and voice their thoughts
  • explore different views
  • open up group discussions
  • encourages appreciating other people’s point of view.
  • Many people default to staying pretty surface-level with their answers to your questions, so get in the habit of not letting them off the hook.
  • Ask more questions that follow up on their response.
  • The idea is to get at the core of what people are really trying to say.
  • Here are some examples of good follow-up questions for the short/simple answers that people often give
      • What makes you say that?
      • How do you feel about that?
      • What if…
      • But others would say…    What would you say in response?
  • I like to tell my groups that if we always agree with each other, and with every word that every author we read says, then it makes for a pretty boring group and a somewhat pointless discussion. The point of actually discussing things is to get different perspectives and wrestle with the issues!
  • Here are some examples of questions that can help create discussion by playing a little “devil’s advocate”:
      • Who agrees with that?    Who in the group doesn’t?   
      • What would you say to someone who disagrees with that?
      • Why do you differ?  Who’s right?  Is there a right and wrong
      • Why do we really have to do it like that? Why can’t we just go (some other route) instead?
  • Make sure the rubber hits the road. I often tell my small group that by the end of the night, we need to make sure we apply what we’re discussing to our current lives. Otherwise we just leave group a little smarter, rather than with changed lives.
  • So whatever it is you’re discussing, make sure to end with some application questions.
  • Here are some examples:
      • So what in the world does that have to do with our work (or life)?
      • How does this change your perspective from today regarding that issue?
      • What one thing can you do differently in this next week to start living that out?

Handling challenging individual group members

The hard part of small groups is that they involve people, and dealing with people is always messy. One of my favorite book titles has always been the one I find most true: Everybody’s Normal Until You Get to Know Them. That includes me!  Here are some of the common “challenging people” that you may encounter, and some tips on approaching them with grace:

  • This person always has plenty to say, and loves to be the first person to say it.
  • Remind everyone in the group guidelines that this is an equal participation group. So if you have 10 people in the group, you want each person to contribute their 10 percent to the discussion.
  • You could givethe Dominant Talker a task to do to keep them occupied.  For example, they can be the scribe who writes and captures things onto the flipchart.
  • If the problem continues, talk to the person outside of group. Affirm them in what they do contribute, and tell them you need their help in getting some of the other people in the group to open up and share. Sometimes you can go as far as to ask them to commit to not being the first person to answer a question, or to only answer when you call on them—or to even work out a subtle signal you can give them when they are talking to much.
  • This is the quiet person in the group who never wants to share.
  • If you think that doing so won’t scare them off even more—that they just need a little prompting—try calling on them periodically to share an answer.   Also, be sure to affirm them big-time when they do respond.
  • If that doesn’t work, talk to the person outside of group. Again, affirm them in what they do contribute, and let them know that you want more people to get to hear their perspective. Remind them how valuable all of the different perspectives are to the entire group.
  • The Tangent Starter is the person who loves to get the group way off track by starting random tangents and rabbit trails.
  • First of all, don’t get upset at the tangents, and feel free to go off on them once in a while.  If it seems like it is something important that the group wants to explore then let them.  You may need to check with them that it’s okay to alter the agenda.  If so, let it develop and follow it through.
  • When the time comes, firmly bring the group back on track.  “Can I just gently interrupt the group because I think we’re going a little off track. Can I bring you back to the question we are trying to solve?  The question is..”
  • If the problem becomes excessive, again, talk to the person outside of group. Affirm them in what they do contribute, and let them know about the challenge you have in trying to facilitate a good group and bring across certain points each week, and how the tangents make your job harder. Ask them how they can help you.
  • This individual gives advice, makes fun of answers and people, cuts people off, or does a variety of other things to offend members within the group.
  • This person is dangerous to the health of your group! They can keep it from being a safe group more quickly than anything else.
  • So remind everyone of the group guidelines again.
  • Definitely have the one-on-one conversation outside of group to let the person know how important a safe group is, and what they can do to help make that happen.

Educational theory that matters to small-group teaching

There are two main ways to teach people

  1. in a Child-like way (pedagogy) – where the learner is spoon fed everything by the teacher 
  2. or an Adult-like way (Andragogy) – where learner is not spoon fed, but instead guided in their learning in order promote change.

So, in a pedagogic classroom, the learners just sit there, absorb the information that is being churned out by the teacher and then they leave.   The teacher decides everything – what the content is, how it will be structured, displayed etc.   The learner is passive.

In an androgogic classroom, the teacher becomes a facilitator.   Learners are encouraged to engage in dialogue – to question, to quiz, to explore, to discuss, to work out (problem-solve) etc.   The learner and teacher work together to determine the content, how to engage with the content.  The learner is active as is the teacher.

In medicine, we try to go for the andrologic approach, because we want the learners to learn things for themselves.  We want any change to come from themselves.  Change from within is more likely to be internalised and adopted than change which is forced externally.  It’s interesting that Androgogy is the term used – because children can learn in this way too!  It’s not just for adults.

Also, do NOT see androgogy as the best way to teach and pedagogy as old fashioned and rubbish.   They are both good teaching approaches – which one you choose to do depends on what you are trying to teach.   Teaching a class of 100 trainees in 1 hour about an update in Dermatology – a pedagogic slide show with the lecturer speaking and others listening may well be the best way with the time given.    Andragogy and pedagogy are best seen NOT as separate entities but as two ends of a spectrum: what methods of each you wish to employ depends on your target audience and the educational objectives set.

Knowles: the father of androgoic learning.   He devised some basic principles that will promote adult learning.   If you want to know how to promote adult learning in your teaching, adopt these principles.   They are displayed for you above.

Constructivism is based on the theory that people learn best by actively constructing their own concepts, ideas and understanding usually by fitting new information together with what they already know.   It’s emphasis is on the learner rather than the educator.  For example, if you give a group of adults a novel to read, and then ask them to describe it, they’ll come up with their own different interpretations.  Therefore, one of the most fundamental principles of constructivism is that there are no universal truths and that meaning is socially negotiated* (Duffy & Cunningham, 1996, and Windschitl, 2002).   Constructivism emphasises the social nature of learning and the rich learning the group environment provides us with.   It’s androgogic in nature. 

Vico’s verum factum principle (1710) states that truth is verified through creation or invention and not, as per Descartes’ previously held belief, through mere observation. 

Gibb’s cycle is a neat little tool because it provides you with a structure for tackling any case discussion learners have experienced – especially the emotionally charged ones.   It encourages learners to reflect on what happened so that they can somehow make sense of the experiences. But reflection is not enough: one has to put the new learning and understanding into practise.  

How to Use It

  1. Use the headings below to structure the reflective discussion around any experiential event.
  2. Use it to encourage trainees how to write up learning events for their e-portfolios.
  3. Make sure the learners are not too hard on themselves: the evaluation phase should help you tease what was GOOD and bad about the experience.

Kolb’s learning cycle is another model that you can use in a similar way to Gibb’s.   Go through the four main areas with trainees to help them reflect and learn from their experiences.  Remember Mezirow’s principles: learning cannot happen without reflection.  

This model is based on Hersey and Blanchard’s work into ‘situational leadership’ (in ‘business management’) and translated by Gerald Grow to the educational setting.     Its basic principle is that teaching is situational: the style of teaching needs to be matched to the learner’s ability and motivation at the time (termed “readiness”). 

Grow proposed four learner styles and four matching teacher styles.  You can only move trainees to the next level if you figure out where they currently are and match them first.  The four levels are described in the tableon the right.  Problems occur when dependent learners are mismatched with non-directive teachers and when self-directed learners are mismatched with highly directive teachers. 

Therefore, the purpose of this model is to help you

  • Identify where your current learners are in terms of self-directedness
  • Match your educational activities/session to that level and then
  • Facilitate their progression to the next higher level.




Possible Teacher Pitfalls

Stage 1


‘The Expert’

Coaching with immediate feedback. Drill. Informational lecture. Directive and pedagogical in nature.

Can be too controlling that stifles learner initiative and enhances dependency.

Stage 2



Inspiring lecture plus guided discussion. Goal-setting and learning strategies.

May end up entertaining well but leaving learners with little learning skills and/or motivation.

Stage 3



Discussion facilitated by teacher who participates as equal. Collaborative small group work.  Non directive and truly andragogical.

May end up accepting and valuing anything from anybody; students then show little respect.

Stage 4



Internship, dissertation, individual work or self-directed study-group.  Creativity.  Mentorship.

May withdraw too much and thus lose touch and fail to monitor progress.

Good teaching does two things: a) it matches the student’s stage of self-direction, and b) it empowers the student to progress toward greater self-direction.  Remember, moving the learner onto the next stages requires time; it doesn’t happen overnight!  You need patience.

Whenever I am facilitating a small group, I am always mindful of Tuckman on group dynamics.   If you’re going to be involved in teaching small groups it’s imperative you have some understanding about group dynamics (how groups work).   

Tuckman’s model helps you understand ‘how groups develop’ thus helping you to help a group function more effectively.   

According to the model, groups that are going to be in existence for a while (i.e. not ‘one offs’) go through four stages as they come together and start to function.  But how long they spend at each stage depends on how well they know each other: if there are lots of familiar faces, less time might be spent on the first three stages and the group quickly progresses to the desired performing stage.  But that’s not to belittle the first three stages: it’s important for groups to go through each stage otherwise they might ‘perform’ .   Groups often become dysfunctional (stuck in the storming stage) if the facilitator has not allowed enough time and attention for the forming stage.

By the way, Tuckman’s model can be applied to teams as well as small groups.

A fifth stage, adjourning (or some call mourning) was added in 1975: ten years later.   This is where the group’s life span comes to an end and they split.   There may be some feeling of loss amongst members.  However, it still doesn’t feature in most visual representations of Tuckman’s model because he wanted to focus on how groups develop, not how they end; it’s the former that is going to help us as facilitators.

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