The easiest groups, of course, are the ones where everyone comes bubbling over with how they’ve been growing spiritually.
But the reality is that people often come with guards up, struggles getting them down, or just so wrapped up in getting through life that they’ve hardly had a chance to think a spiritual thought the last few days. This makes it risky to ask an open-ended question, semi-serious in nature, and wait for someone to take the bait.
What do you when the crickets contribute more noise than the people in your group? I’ve found these then things to be helpful when leading a discussion of any kind, especially in a small group.
1. Come to your small group prepared to share. Arrive with insights to bounce off the group, questions to ask, or ways to share how you have been impacted or convicted. (This doesn’t mean you share first, though, see #3.)
2. Provide a “break the ice” time. Begin with fifteen minutes of purely social interaction with no agenda. Just let people talk. About anything. If you can’t talk about something as easy as sports, how will you share the gunk in your heart? Also, this will help any non-Christians visiting your group to get acquainted with everyone.
You might think you’re a bad leader if there is a bunch of chitchat at the beginning of the meeting. We’re supposed to be talking about spiritual stuff here! I think the opposite. Bad leaders suck the fun out of a small group like a substitute teacher who demands that the kids get to work right after the bell rings.
3. When you hit an awkward silence moment, wait… It can be tempting for you to fill in when everyone is quiet. Don’t! Slap a smile on your face and spread some eye contact around to each person in your group. Someone will give in and break the awkward silence eventually. It will eventually become too awkward for someone. Just don’t let that someone be you.
4. Follow the ground rules for asking questions in a group discussion. 1) Ask only open-ended questions. 2) Never answer your own question. 3) Never ask a yes or no question… 4) unless you are planning to follow it up immediately with an open-ended question.
5. Deflect questions from the group back to the group. Don’t ever feel like you have to answer everyone’s questions just because you’re the small group leader. When someone asks you, the leader, a question, form the habit of responding with something like, “That’s a great question. What do you guys think?” This keeps the conversation going, and prevents it from becoming a teacher-student group.
6. Ask if people disagree. This is another way of deflecting the conversation back to the entire group. Not that you’re trying to start an argument, but the conversation certainly ramps up when people come from different perspectives. But try not to ignite theological debates with this tactic (see #10).
7. Model vulnerability. Vulnerability is contagious. People desperately want to share what they are struggling with. But they want to know it’s safe. It’s the leader’s job to prove that it’s safe. It’s the only way you will have a chance at authentic accountability.
8. Just once, call on a shy person by name to share what they are thinking. Some people are quieter by nature, and won’t share. That doesn’t mean that they aren’t participating. They’re probably processing what the others are sharing. Just one time, ask them by name what they think about what is being discussed. They are more likely to have a well-thought answer, rather than feeling like they have been put on the spot.
9. Politely ask the talkative people to let others weigh in. If you have a talker, eventually it will come to this. Simply say something like, “Joe, I’m looking forward to hearing what you think about this, but let’s hear from some other people who haven’t yet had as much of an opportunity to share tonight. Jill, what do you think?” Lines like this go a long way to let someone know they are talking too much – without shaming them – and providing a platform for others to share.
10. Encourage discussion on the interpretation of the passage. The key here is to interact over what the Bible says, instead of what they think or believe. Get them to talk about what they see in the passage Bible and take a stab at what that means for its overall interpretation. Request that people use the words of the passage, and that they say what verse that are referring to. (This helps everyone else follow, and ensures that are working off the passage, rather than their own opinion.)
This not only encourages discussion – it’s fun to figure out what a passage means together – it also ingrains good interpretation skills, since you are keeping people focused on what the text actually says. Don’t forget to discuss how your findings should affect they we live.
What about you? Are there any strategic ways you keep the conversation flowing in your small group? Drop your tips in the comments!