In a healthy small group, people share their thoughts and feel heard. The group moves at a comfortable pace and no one person, not even the leader, dominates the conversation. Laughter fills the room as stories are shared and people open up, and the group grows in friendship and faith.
It sounds great—but it doesn’t ever seem to happen accidentally. Small groups are made up of people with various personalities, senses of humor, levels of spiritual depth, and levels of emotional health. When a group is formed with a variety of people, group discussion rarely just flows naturally. An intentional leader who pays attention to group dynamics, however, can implement basic skills to significantly improve the group’s interactions.
1. Get to Know Your Group
In order to lead your group well, you’ll need to know your group members well. Take advantage of Sunday morning services to greet and have conversations with people in your group. Not only will group members sense that you care about them, but also you can gain insights into their personality by seeing how they interact with people outside of the group. You may find that a quiet group member is very chatty Sunday morning because he’s comfortable. This may mean the group members will open up in group over time. Or you may find that a quiet group member is just as quiet on Sunday morning—meaning it’s more of a personality trait than an issue of comfort.
When possible, try to get coffee or share a meal with group members. These personal interactions will help to establish trust and comfort, which can make it easier for them to share and follow your lead in group. As you learn more about your members’ lives and personalities, you will also have a better idea of when it’s okay to let someone talk a little longer or when someone needs to know it’s okay if they don’t want to talk.
2. Lead the Discussion
Groups want to know that their leader can become a trusted friend. Because of this, many leaders are nervous about facilitating discussion, especially when that means redirecting the conversation. But trust is built when people in the group feel heard, and that only happens when you lead the discussion well, asking good questions and redirecting the conversation at times to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to share.
When leaders let the conversation lead itself, they find that one person in the group will always answer first, many times dominating the discussion. Often these people are uncomfortable with silence and feel like they’re helping the conversation get started. When your group has a few dominators, the discussion may feel like a conversation only between them. When this happens, others feel little need to contribute. It’s also common to have a few group members who rarely speak, or who only respond when asked directly. The challenge of leading group discussion is to moderate the dominators and create opportunities for the quieter people to speak. Here are some tips for leading a more balanced conversation:
Incorporate questions that are meant for everybody to answer.
While icebreakers do help everyone get to know each other a little more, the true benefit of icebreakers is to get people warmed up for conversation. Icebreakers do not have wrong answers, and everyone can answer them.
You can use similar open-ended questions throughout your discussion to encourage participation. In the middle of a study you might say something like, “I’d like to hear from everyone on this next question: Which character in this story do you most identify with?” By saying this, you’ve communicated that you expect everyone to participate. The question isn’t complicated, and it doesn’t ask too much. What’s more, they can’t get it wrong. You can use this same tactic when weaving in application questions by choosing questions that don’t have a right or wrong answer like: “What is your biggest takeaway this week?”