Facilitating Lively Discussions

Learn from these often-overlooked keys to making the most of your small-group lesson.

As a small-group leader, how you respond to group members' inquiries is important to the life of any discussion. What you say and do when they pose a question either enhances or stifles further group interaction. But responding to their questions is just one of a number of discussion-leading skills you'll need to cultivate. Other competencies have to do with your reaction to their answers to questions.

This article examines a taken-for-granted aspect of discussion-leading. Below, you'll find several important things to keep in mind when responding to group members' participation.

Exhibit enthusiasm

When you lead quality Bible discussions, people will find fresh, "I've never thought of that before" insights. In response to a study question, participants may notice a truth for the very first time, especially if they're recent converts. Then they verbalize their discovery for others to hear. As a leader, this is the time to reward their participation with positive reinforcement. Express excitement over their discoveries as if each one is new to you.

What you say right after someone contributes is crucial. If her point is elementary to you or something you've known for years, your instinct may be to gloss over it with polite acknowledgement. But your verbal reaction should express fascination with the participant's discovery! I'm not advocating mushy, superficial remarks or positive reinforcement of an incorrect response. But I am encouraging you to speak a few sentences that dignify legitimate answers. Give verbal applause that recognizes a person's textual investigation. Public congratulations will encourage people to keep delving into Scripture and participating in the discussion. Help them build confidence in their study skills and convince them that God's Spirit can unveil biblical truth to them.

Show sincerity

Here's the flipside of the positive reinforcement coin: Temper your enthusiasm in relation to the quality of a group member's answer. Indiscriminate praise without regard to the quality of their answers backfires because your commendations come across as insincere. Group members hesitate to give serious thought to a question if you treat every answer the same. So reserve the highest praise for the best answers, or for feedback that reveals critical thinking on the issue you're discussing. Also, be sure to praise participants for thought-provoking questions they raise and for input that shows an honest effort to wrestle with the text.

One way to show sincerity is to make your positive reinforcement as specific as possible. Which part of a group member's response hit the bull's eye? Notice how the following reinforcements shine the spotlight on distinctive aspects of learner contributions:

  • "Excellent answer, Valerie. I like the way you referred to Jesus' words to support your    conclusions."
  • "Way to go, Bryan! You did a good job of putting Paul's remark in context."

By pointing out particular elements within learners' remarks, you motivate them to keep participating. You prove that you listened carefully to what was said.

Win with waiting

Brad takes pains to pepper his Bible study with thought-provoking questions. That's why the absence of stimulating discussion in his group puzzles him. The answers he receives are terse; seldom does anyone piggyback on the first response.

"Why aren't they more responsive?" Brad wonders aloud during a breakfast appointment with David—Brad's best friend and a member of the group. David decides to shoot straight with him.

"I don't think you're aware of how little time you give us to think after you pose a question," he says. "No more than a couple of seconds pass before you answer it yourself. Brad, you've already thought about your questions during the week. But the rest of us haven't."

When you pose a question, how long do you wait before answering it yourself or rephrasing it? How many seconds elapse before you feel obligated to get things moving? Do you view silence as a threat to effective discussion? Discussion leaders tend to answer questions themselves if no one responds within three to five seconds. But it often takes learners longer than that to examine a Bible passage and form a response.

One way to lower the amount of "wait time" that's needed is to have learners read verses on which a question is based before you ask it.

Notice the nonverbal

While leading a women's Bible study, Betty posed a question about secrets to contentment. The second she finished the probe, Betty shifted her eyes away from the group members to the notes in her lap. Elaine started to say something, but her interest evaporated when she noticed Betty's preoccupation with her notes. After a few seconds of silence, Betty looked up and answered the question herself, referring to a specific verse for support. Elaine had seen the same point in the text, and she had planned to illustrate it from her own experience.

Betty's poor eye contact hindered interaction. Whether you're engaged in a casual conversation or leading a Bible study, your communication comes across through three modes: actual words, tone of voice, and nonverbal cues. To maximize effectiveness, package your message in a way that utilizes all three avenues of expression.

During discussion time, when is your nonverbal communication most potent? When others are talking! As participants answer or ask questions, what message is your body language sending? Do you come across as tense or relaxed? Interested or impatient? What you say without speaking can either fan the flames of group participation or throw icy water on them. Take special note of these two nonverbal cues:

  • Body movement and posture: If you're sitting in a circle, lean forward or inch closer to the edge of your chair whenever others contribute. They'll feel that you're listening with your heart, not just your ears.
  • Facial Expressions and Eye Contact: In the Bible, one's "face" often represents the whole person, whether human or divine. When God's face shined upon Israel, he was blessing them. When he turned his face away, he was withdrawing his favor. Why did the Holy Spirit use "face" as a metaphor for the sentiments of the heart? Perhaps it was because without the aid of words, one's face usually expresses his inner convictions or condition.

When your group members participate in a discussion, does your face convey boredom or enthusiasm? Do you nod to let them know you're following their line of thought? Do you rivet your eyes to the person who's talking or shift them back and forth between the participant and your notes? You may hear everything a group member says without looking at him, but listening requires eye contact.

Follow-up their feedback

Not all answers to your Bible-study questions are fully developed. Often a group member is onto something, but his comment needs clarification. Or what she says is fine as far as it goes, but needs elaboration. Follow responses of this sort with probing questions. Your follow-up probes should spur a group member to modify or expand his initial answer, beef up its support, illustrate it, or think more critically about it.

Probing for extensions of original answers is challenging. You need on-the-spot sensitivity because you can't prepare follow-up questions or comments in advance. Yet just being aware that follow-up questions can be helpful is a start toward using them.

Increase involvement

Some discussions are nothing more than a question-and-answer dialog between the leader and one other participant. Only one volunteer responds to a question before the leader kicks in with either commentary or the next question. Or a group member poses a question, and no one but the designated leader addresses it.

A discerning discussion leader broadens the base of involvement, especially when a question has several possible answers or during a brainstorming session on application ideas. She often encourages multiple responses to a question before adding her own research or going to the next question. When a participant asks a question, a good leader often taps the wisdom of others by redirecting the question to the rest of the group. The more mature and biblically literate your group, the more you should strive to expand participation.

Terry Powell is director of the Family and Church Education Program at Columbia International University in Columbia, South Carolina.

Interested in learning more about facilitating discussions within your small group? Check out these training downloads from BuildingSmallGroups.com:

  • Leading a Great Small Group Bible Study: This tool will help you learn how to create a climate of growth and community within your Bible-study group, including ways to use the group to reach seekers.

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