Discussion skills

In a discussion, you should aim to interact and respond to what other people are saying. Talk with confidence and let others speak. Remember that listening is as important as speaking.

You can show you are listening by:

  • making eye contact with the speaker and responding to what they say
  • using body language to show co-operation and understanding, for example shrugs and nods
  • building on what other people say
  • challenging points made by others

A good discussion has a flow to it with people agreeing and disagreeing, giving explanations for their viewpoints. Each person needs to be allowed time to speak and to share their opinion before the next person adds their point.

Things to avoid in a group discussion include:

  • interruption – except maybe to show agreement, eg “Yes, I see”
  • cutting people off mid-sentence
  • talking over other people
  • breaking off into mini-discussions within a big group

If you find taking part in discussions difficult, try planning your ideas in advance so you know you have something to share. If you don’t feel strongly about a topic, build on someone else’s point or ask a question to another member of the group.

A useful technique is to use open questions. These are questions that cannot be answered with a single word such as 'yes' or 'no'. Instead the answerer must give more detail. They can lead to a friendly and useful discussion. ‘What do you think about the character?’ is a more open question than ‘Did you like him?’ Closed questions like this can be useful sometimes – when summarising a discussion and making sure everyone has had their say, for example. They can also make people commit to an opinion one way or another. But on the whole discussions require open questions – and when you are asked one, you should try to give a full answer.

Make sure everyone has a chance to speak by inviting opinions. Use formal language and stay calm, especially when a topic is important to you.

Preparing to discuss

The topic you discuss will always have different viewpoints. Think about as many points of view on your topic as you can, then aim to cover the most likely in your discussion. Try to cover only the key issues in detail. If you have time, try to do some research beforehand. Facts, statistics and examples can be powerful convincers in a discussion.

When taking part in a group discussion try to use spoken Standard English. Think about your voice, eye-contact and body language. You can agree and disagree without turning your discussion into a confrontation. Show that you’re listening, and keep the discussion flowing by asking thoughtful questions.

Aim to be:

  • polite – respect other people's right to their opinions
  • positive – help the conversation develop by being co-operative
  • balanced – listen to both sides of the discussion and respond to each