Creating a Safe Environment
Trust is perhaps the most vital key to really making your small group a place where genuine community can be formed. Group members need to be able to trust each other that the group is a safe place—a place where they can get real and know that they will not be judged, gossiped about, and so on.
So how do you create this safe environment? There are some important steps you can take. First, make sure to cover the privacy and safety issue in your group guidelines, or covenant. Put it on paper that "what is said here and happens here, stays here." Feel free to review these same group guidelines every single time a new person shows up to group. And as the leader, be sure to model this safety and confidentiality yourself!
When someone shares in the group—no matter how much you may disagree, or how theologically incorrect they may be—make sure they feel affirmed about their answer in the moment. Later, you can (and often should) talk to them about their comments outside of group, but it should be done one-on-one.
Also, avoid giving unrequested advice within the group—"Well if I were you, I'd just do this … ." That is one of the quickest ways to shut someone down from sharing. When you hear other group members start to do this, gently remind them that "this is a safe group, and we're here to listen, not to give advice."
Handling the Challenging People
The hard part of small groups is that they involve people, and dealing with people is always messy. One of my favorite book titles has always been the one I find most true: Everybody's Normal Until You Get to Know Them. That includes me!
Here are some of the common "challenging people" that you may encounter, and some tips on approaching them with grace:
- The over-talker. This person always has plenty to say, and loves to be the first person to say it. Remind everyone in the group guidelines that this is an equal participation group. So if you have 10 people in the group, you want each person to contribute their 10 percent to the discussion.
If the problem continues, talk to the person outside of group. Affirm them in what they do contribute, and tell them you need their help in getting some of the other people in the group to open up and share. Sometimes you can go as far as to ask them to commit to not being the first person to answer a question, or to only answer when you call on them—or to even work out a subtle signal you can give them when they are talking to much.
- The non-talker. This is the quiet person in the group who never wants to share. If you think that doing so won't scare them off even more—that they just need a little prompting—try calling on them periodically to share an answer. Also, be sure to affirm them big-time when they do respond.
If that doesn't work, talk to the person outside of group. Again, affirm them in what they do contribute, and let them know that you want more people to get to hear their perspective. Remind them how valuable all of the different perspectives are to the entire group.
- The tangent-starter. This person loves to get the group way off track by starting random tangents and rabbit trails. First of all, don't get upset at the tangents, and feel free to go off on them once in awhile. When the time comes, firmly bring the group back on track.
If the problem becomes excessive, again, talk to the person outside of group. Affirm them in what they do contribute, and let them know about the challenge you have in trying to facilitate a good group and bring across certain points each week, and how the tangents make your job harder. Ask them how they can help you.