One of the elements of leading a small group that can seem most scary is managing interpersonal dynamics. People are flawed, after all, and it's not hard to spark trouble when we get together on a regular basis.
The following tips will help you manage group dynamics in a positive way and avoid many common problems.
Watch for Reactions Instead of Responses
It is a good thing when a person responds to another with words of empathy and appropriate counsel. It is a different matter when they react to what the other person is saying because it does not harmonize with their own understanding, or because it strikes an uncomfortable chord within them—especially when that reaction includes giving advice.
A group member who is quick to give advice or admonish someone usually does so because of discomfort in what the other person is saying. It causes a reaction. As a group leader, you can use these reactions as opportunities to carefully inquire or minister to the person who reacted. In other words, if you observe someone reacting to what another group members has to say, facilitate the discussion in a way that highlights that reaction. Doing so will keep the discussion running smoothly; it will also offer insight into the inner lives of your group participants.
Do Not Tolerate Pettiness or Bickering Over Trivial Issues
Majoring on the minors is a habit for some, but it is a group leader's job to stop such practices. Don't allow abstract theological arguments to erupt over technical points of doctrine or trivial matters. This doesn't help build a healthy small-group dynamic, and it's a turn-off to those just getting started in their relationship with God.
Unless your group specifically has a focus on examining and discussing more complex theological issues, ask those who tend to enjoy doing so to debate outside of your regular group time. Intellectualism is a good thing and can enrich the group. However, unless it is coupled with "why" and "how" application questions, it is not beneficial in a mixed group dynamic. Err toward discussion over debate. Promote safety. Maintain the highest level of awareness toward those with the lowest level of biblical literacy.
Beware the "Introversion and Argumentation Correlation"
Petty conflict frequently signals that your group has turned in on itself. For example, you can be sure your small group has gotten off track if they are more concerned with the signs and times at the end of the world then bringing in the harvest before Jesus returns.
At times you will need to dredge the bottom of your small group's stream so it can flow again by turning the focus of people away from themselves. The best way to do this is to engage in outreach together.
Watch the Louder Voice of Actions …
… And do so while listening to the weaker voice of words. Listen for the tone of a speaker's voice, look at their countenance, and observe their movements and posture—all can be indicators of what they're really feeling and thinking.
For example, if somebody is tightly crossing their arms and angling their legs and body away from other participants, they might be uncomfortable with sharing or what's being said. In this instance, respect a person's distant state. If the relationship has been sufficiently developed, you might come back around later during the group's prayer time and, without singling anyone out, touch on how what was discussed earlier might have been uncomfortable for some. More often, it's good to make a mental note of this and talk or pray with the person one-on-one after group.
Allow Your Discussions to Have Application
If your small-group participants walk away from the small group without a way to translate what has been discussed to their real life situations, they might feel as though they're going in circles. They're probably right!
One way to keep your small group focused is to challenge participants to apply in their own lives what was discussed. Ask people what difference the meeting's discussion will make to their lives over the next week, or what changes they will make in response to what has been discussed.
Encourage "I" Statements vs. "You" Statements
When re-stating what a person is saying, or when handling conflict, it's best to begin with, "What I hear you saying is …" or "What I sense when you say …." Then ask them if your interpretation is accurate. This encourages understanding instead of frustration, which can result when someone uses "You" statements (e.g. "You said …" or "You always make me feel …").
"I" statements communicate your perception of what has been spoken, not necessarily what has been said (or what the person intended to say). This will help the person who is speaking to know whether they've been understood or misunderstood, while at the same time fostering a sense of acceptance. Re-stating the speaker's comments with "I" statements shows that you are genuinely trying to understand what the person is saying without judgment or accusation. It also allows you to express more personal feelings about what the original speaker shared.
—Reid Smith is the Community Life Pastor of Christ Fellowship Church in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, and the founder of the 2orMore small-group leadership training and resource ministry.