Guiding group discussion is more of a dance than a military march. You’re not commanding attention and straining toward a precise outcome. A life-giving kingdom-conversation will nudge you gently to both participate and learn from others. The nutrients for spiritual growth are found more in the group synergy than the group study.
But how do you get there? Most people can visualize the power of healthy dialogue among a circle of engaged Christ-followers, but it can be much harder to experience that reality on a consistent basis unless you know how to manage the mood.
Prepping for a small group like a teacher prepares for a sermon does not ensure success. Arming yourself with knowledge, information, pages of notes, and rehearsed lines yields small returns in the relational setting of a small group. Rather, bringing a group discussion to life requires a subtle framework, the right pace, smooth guidance, and an interested host.
1. Scratch the surface before you go deeper.
One of the aims of group discussion should be to get beneath the surface of peoples’ lives. The problem is, you have to be disciplined not to go there too early. People need time to warm up. Their mind and heart are shifting gears from their day and their week to what the Lord wants to speak to them during your time together. They’re not always ready at the outset to start mining the tectonic plates of their soul. This is why an effective small-group outline has a progressive sequence of open-ended questions that gradually lead a group to open up and be transparent.
A simple progression I follow in discussions is:
- Connection Questions—Intro and Icebreakers
- Dissection Questions—Observation and interpretation questions about the Scripture passage
- Reflection Questions—Questions that relate to our experiences and help us apply Scripture to our daily lives
- Inspection Questions—Application questions that focus on self-awareness and personal transformation
I never begin a group meeting without an icebreaker question. In theory, it may seem gimmicky, but it makes it easy for people to begin sharing. I recently had a new apprentice lead our group. Even though I went over the importance of icebreakers, he made a rookie mistake and jumped right into the study. The conversation never really took off. Icebreakers help prevent this by getting everyone involved right from the beginning.
I also make sure that by the end of the study there are some questions that push people out of their comfort zone and invite them to be vulnerable. You can’t hope for people to be real in your group if you don’t ask any penetrating questions. When leaders first hear this tip, they often get excited—until I tell them they have to model transparency by answering these tough questions as well. This is the best way, though, to get the rest of the group members to open up.
2. Stop speeding.
Inexperienced group hosts often get anxious after asking a question. Quiet pauses feel like a vacuum that must be filled. In reality, those pauses are essential for quality interaction.
I remember one evening when a new group host I was apprenticing couldn’t seem to wait more than two seconds after asking a question before he would give his own answer. When he moved onto the next questions, he did it again. No one was given the chance to think through a response—let alone share it.
New facilitators need to slow down. There’s nothing wrong with throwing a question out to the group and pausing silently to let people think about it. Many times, I’ll ask a question and literally say, “Take 15–20 seconds to think about that before you answer.” Then, I will stare at my toe so that my body language communicates that I am perfectly comfortable waiting for them to share their thoughts.
Beyond allowing silence in your meetings, you’ll also need to learn to listen well in order to slow down the discussion. A popular small-group maxim is the 70/30 Rule, which states that an effective group leader talks only 30 percent of the time and listens the other 70 percent of the time. This ensures full group participation. Relax, take a deep breath, give people time to think, and focus your attention on them when they do share to show you’re listening.
3. Value group members’ insights.
I’ve witnessed many small-group discussions where a person shares and the leader moves on to the next person or question with little to no acknowledgement of what was just said. After you’ve listened to what they have to say, let them know you heard them. Engage with each member’s contribution, and affirm what they’ve shared. Here are some ways to do that:
- “Thanks for sharing that!”
- “That’s really good!”
- “What I hear you saying is . . .”
- “Can you tell me more about that?”
- “Thank you for your honesty.”
This is a small way that you can reward the people in your group for their participation. It makes them feel heard, valued, safe, and encouraged to share again.
My only caution is to not over-praise any one group member. You can unintentionally alienate the others by making one person feel like they won The Answer of the Night trophy. You want everybody to feel equally appreciated and valued.
4. Gently guide the discussion.
Discussions have a tendency to go off the rails. As the facilitator, you must take responsibility and ownership for guiding the conversation. You don’t want to be too rigid, but you can’t hesitate to speak up and provide direction, bringing the group back to the topic at hand.
Discussions can easily wander off topic for a number of reasons:
- Long answers
- Disagreement between two people
- Bad theology
- Unrelated tangents
Group leaders who are trying their best to be sensitive listeners can quickly get overwhelmed thinking, How did we get here? Here are some quick transition statements when you find you’ve wandered off topic:
- Let’s hold on that for the moment, but I want to hear more about that from you after our meeting.
- I’d love to hear more about that when we’re done, but I want to make sure we have time for others to share on this topic right now.
- Thanks for sharing! Many people feel the same way. On the other hand, many Scriptures point to . . .
- Thanks for sharing! Many people have the same question. There are many scholars who interpret that Scripture to mean . . .
- Thanks for sharing! I have a few more thoughts I’d like to share with you about that after we’re done tonight. In the meantime, does anyone else want to chime in?
- I appreciate both perspectives. One of the values of group discussion is that it allows us to grow by processing our thoughts out loud, and I appreciate the rest of group being great listeners. I hope when the night is over, everyone feels heard.
You might have noticed a method I use quite often: saying something like “Let’s talk more about that after group.” That’s code to the rest of the group that you’re going to guide the group back to the topic at hand, but you’ll follow up with the person or issue later. In other words, you’re valuing what they have to say while effectively facilitating the discussion.
While this may take some courage the first few times you do it, it can become instinctive over time. What you’ll see is that your group will grow in confidence toward you and will greatly appreciate the fact that no person or issue can hold the discussion hostage and completely take over.
As you can see, guiding a group discussion can be messy. This is why we need to approach it like a dance and not a march. People are unpredictable and need a safe place where they can make mistakes and learn. These four tips will help you provide that, and you’ll find that your group members will want to come back week after week.
—Andrew S. Mason is the Small Groups Pastor of Real Life Church, a family of churches in Northern California, and the founder of SmallGroupChurches.com.