Discussion Problems?

Try a snag-free Socratic small group session

One characteristic of a small group that is struggling is that there is little or no discussion. Sometimes this occurs when a group is very small, or is comprised of people who have varied knowledge levels and/or methods of learning. I have witnessed small group leaders try to remedy this situation by developing questions for the group to answer in order to foster discussion. I have observed this working to only further limit discussions as one of two responses normally occur. First, small group participants begin to feel they are being "quizzed" and don't respond for fear of answering a question incorrectly. Or second, one person begins to dominate all discussion as they "know the answers" and the remaining participants become completely quiet. The small group I am a part of has experienced these struggles, and has come up with a method that fosters good discussion even with the quietest and newest of small group members. This method is called by English scholars as the Socratic Seminar.

Socratic Discussion: Named for Socrates (ca. 470-399 B. C.), the early Greek philosopher/teacher, a Socratic approach to teaching is based on the practice of disciplined, rigorously thoughtful dialogue. The instructor professes ignorance of the topic under discussion in order to elicit engaged dialogue with students.

A Socratic Seminar is a method that can be used for discussing the Bible or a devotional book. This method promotes participation of all members of the group and eliminates academic-only groups in which the leader teaches and questions group members. This method also keeps the attention span of all participating group members, works with auditory and kinesthetic learners and works well on a large groups as well as small groups. I have personally experienced it working on a group as large as twenty-three people and as small as eight people.

There are two types of people in a Socratic Seminar. There is the group leader (facilitator) and the group participants and everyone participates in each of the steps. The steps include:

  • studying the text in advance,

  • coming up with open-ended questions based on the reading,

  • listening during the discussion,

  • sharing ideas,

  • asking questions in response to the ideas and questions of others, and

  • searching for evidence in the Bible or devotional text to support ideas that are raised.

Depending on the seriousness of the group some of these steps may be shortened. The key is in the initial questions prepared in advance that each person raises as part of their participation in the group.

After reading the text prior to the group, each member of the group should bring at least one discussion question for the group. There is a certain way to make a Socratic Seminar question. It is not your average yes or no question, as that breeds no discussion. Socratic questions do not have to have one right answer—they are good questions as long as they reflect the text or the ideas or the issues and/or values of the person asking the question. These questions then lead to answers and more questions from other group members, which don't have to be pre-prepared. When pre-preparing your Seminar questions however, it is suggested to think of thought provoking and insightful, stimulating questions.Let your questions allow for people's opinions by quoting from the book. Taking notes as you read helps with this step. Seminar questions should relate to the passage of scripture or text of the book, should have evidence in Scripture or the text to back them up, should go into the depth of the text, and should not have an obvious answer. Some individual's questions may be more in depth than another's and this is okay—the point is to stimulate discussion and make everyone feel prepared to participate by bringing questions they have prepared ahead of time.

One method I recommend to study the text prior to a study, which is the first step, comes from a book by worship pastor David Crowder entitled Praise Habit. David Crowder suggests studying the word through a process called Lectio Divina, which has existed since the 12th century.This process, now adapted, was first practiced by the Carmelite Hermits and Monks who found that this practice helps the Word of God penetrate the hearts and minds of believers giving them a desire for a more passionate relationship with the Lord. A Carthusian monk named Guigo tells the practice of Lectio Divina, which is Latin for a divine reading, to us. All of the steps tie into each other starting with the first one, which is lectio or reading. In this step we are to slowly read the Word and reflect on it to see what God would have us learn from it. Next, we are to respond to the passage we read through prayer. This can be done by reading a passage like a Psalm to the Lord or making up a prayer of our own. Finally we are to contemplate over the text, thinking how we can apply it to our lives and how we can become more like Jesus.

An example of how Socratic seminar questions differ from traditional questions follows. These questions are based on the 23rd Psalm:

Traditional question: How does God help us walk through the valley of the shadow of death?

Socratic Seminar question: Psalm 23 verse four states, "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me." What are some ways we can remember that Jesus is walking right with us when we are "walking through the shadow of death"?

Learning to develop these types of questions to bring to the small group session promotes individual Bible study, promotes discussion, and allows the facilitator the ability to cross reference to other passages of Scripture if the group members are too unfamiliar with the Bible to do so on their own. Most importantly, this type of questions puts no one on the spot as there is not one right or wrong answer to the question.

I wish you well as you prepare for your next group meeting. I hope using some of these types of questions will spur your group into great discussions on God's Word which will lead to spiritual growth.

Free Newsletter

Sign up for our Weekly newsletter: Regular access to innovative training resources, Bible-based curriculum, and practical articles.


How Can I Lead Great Small-Group Discussions?

How Can I Lead Great Small-Group Discussions?

Four easy things any leader can do to facilitate growth-focused discussions
The Four-Step Discussion Method that Works for Any Study

The Four-Step Discussion Method that Works for Any Study

This simple small-group format teaches disciples to obey God.
Four Keys to Transformational Discussions

Four Keys to Transformational Discussions

Create an environment for life change with these simple tips.
3 Essentials for Disciple-Making Group Discussions

3 Essentials for Disciple-Making Group Discussions

Expert tips for leading your group members to spiritual growth
Create Safe Places for Questioning

Create Safe Places for Questioning

How your small group can become a welcoming place for people on a journey back to God.
The Basics of Facilitating

The Basics of Facilitating

What every small-group leader needs to know