In a healthy small group, people share their thoughts and feel heard. The group moves at a comfortable pace and no one person, not even the leader, dominates the conversation. Laughter fills the room as stories are shared and people open up, and the group grows in friendship and faith.
It sounds great—but it doesn’t ever seem to happen accidentally. Small groups are made up of people with various personalities, senses of humor, levels of spiritual depth, and levels of emotional health. When a group is formed with a variety of people, group discussion rarely just flows naturally. An intentional leader who pays attention to group dynamics, however, can implement basic skills to significantly improve the group’s interactions.
1. Get to Know Your Group
In order to lead your group well, you’ll need to know your group members well. Take advantage of Sunday morning services to greet and have conversations with people in your group. Not only will group members sense that you care about them, but also you can gain insights into their personality by seeing how they interact with people outside of the group. You may find that a quiet group member is very chatty Sunday morning because he’s comfortable. This may mean the group members will open up in group over time. Or you may find that a quiet group member is just as quiet on Sunday morning—meaning it’s more of a personality trait than an issue of comfort.
When possible, try to get coffee or share a meal with group members. These personal interactions will help to establish trust and comfort, which can make it easier for them to share and follow your lead in group. As you learn more about your members’ lives and personalities, you will also have a better idea of when it’s okay to let someone talk a little longer or when someone needs to know it’s okay if they don’t want to talk.
2. Lead the Discussion
Groups want to know that their leader can become a trusted friend. Because of this, many leaders are nervous about facilitating discussion, especially when that means redirecting the conversation. But trust is built when people in the group feel heard, and that only happens when you lead the discussion well, asking good questions and redirecting the conversation at times to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to share.
When leaders let the conversation lead itself, they find that one person in the group will always answer first, many times dominating the discussion. Often these people are uncomfortable with silence and feel like they’re helping the conversation get started. When your group has a few dominators, the discussion may feel like a conversation only between them. When this happens, others feel little need to contribute. It’s also common to have a few group members who rarely speak, or who only respond when asked directly. The challenge of leading group discussion is to moderate the dominators and create opportunities for the quieter people to speak. Here are some tips for leading a more balanced conversation:
Incorporate questions that are meant for everybody to answer.
While icebreakers do help everyone get to know each other a little more, the true benefit of icebreakers is to get people warmed up for conversation. Icebreakers do not have wrong answers, and everyone can answer them.
You can use similar open-ended questions throughout your discussion to encourage participation. In the middle of a study you might say something like, “I’d like to hear from everyone on this next question: Which character in this story do you most identify with?” By saying this, you’ve communicated that you expect everyone to participate. The question isn’t complicated, and it doesn’t ask too much. What’s more, they can’t get it wrong. You can use this same tactic when weaving in application questions by choosing questions that don’t have a right or wrong answer like: “What is your biggest takeaway this week?”
Intentionally redirect toward those who haven’t spoken.
When group members share, affirm their responses, and then redirect to others to get more people involved. It’s important to acknowledge people’s responses. Even dominators should receive affirmative responses such as eye contact and a nod. The following phrases can help the leader verbally redirect questions to quieter members:
- “That’s good. Who else has something to add?”
- “What about those who haven’t shared yet?”
- “I’d like to hear from someone on this side of the room.”
- “Is there anyone who hasn’t answered yet who would like to add anything?”
If you don’t redirect to the quieter members and just re-ask the question the more dominant personalities will often answer again! It’s good to have a variety of phrases that you can pull from to create a more shared conversation within your small group.
Call on people by name.
When you know your group members well, you can discern when it’s okay to call on them by name. If a member struggles with high anxiety or is working through depression, they may not do well if put on the spot. On the other hand, some people are analytical processors, and their quiet demeanor simply means they’re taking everything in—not that they’re disinterested. Calling on them after allowing some time to process could work really well to draw them out.
Another great way to get people involved is to ask them to read the text. As long as the text doesn’t include difficult names, asking quieter people to read Scripture is a great way to include them in the group discussion. My husband and I have found that the shyest members in our groups often become the quickest to volunteer to read Scripture. They feel like they have contributed their part by reading, and they are less anxious as the meeting continues.
Sit next to the most dominant person.
Eye contact seems to be interpreted as calling on people by name. Leaders naturally make the least amount of eye contact with the people sitting directly next to them. So use this dynamic to your advantage. Purposely sitting next to those who dominate, tell a lot of jokes, or go on tangents, will make it much more difficult for them to catch your eye—and that translates into less speaking.
3. Create a Safe Space
Your group members—especially the more reserved ones—need to know that your small group is a safe place to open up and share on a spiritual and personal level. There are many things that can hinder the feel of safety and trust—from a lack of confidentiality to having a jokester who makes light of serious topics. Overcoming these hindrances will require great intentionally and authenticity from the leader.
Start by being real with your group. Model humility and authenticity while emphasizing that things shared in group should be kept confidential. Be intentionally, and appropriately, vulnerable. Intentional vulnerability means that you share for a purpose. The more your group realizes that you are just another redeemed person with flaws and temptations, the more likely they will feel free to share what they think and who they really are. When the leader shares weaknesses, pretenses are shattered, walls come down, and trust is built. Group members see that they are welcome to be authentic and go deep with one another.
It’s important to know what’s appropriate to share with your group. Some things are better left for a conversation with an accountability partner or counselor. While everyone in your group should feel free to be open, your small group should not be dominated by one person’s life crisis week after week. Small groups are not meant to be a therapy session for anyone, especially not the leader!
There are ways, though, that the leader can set the tone for sharing without turning it into a therapy session. For example, leaders should share personal prayer requests—even without sharing the full story behind the request. This time of year is always very hectic for my husband and me, so I often ask for prayer that we will be gracious and patient with each other. I don’t, however, need to share the play-by-play of an argument we had that morning.
In addition to sharing authentic prayer requests, leaders should pray from their heart. While I’m mindful to not ramble in group prayer, I often stumble over my words, or use a silly phrase, or even say something like, “You know what I mean, Lord.” Oftentimes someone will comment on how they like the way I pray—not because it’s so powerful or Spirit-led, but because I’m just being me. I like to think that hearing my simple prayers will give them courage to pray from their heart, too.
Leading a small group will always have its challenges. After all, no small group has perfect people. As you get to know your group members, though, you can strategically lead group discussions, create a safe space for honesty and depth, and learn to navigate various issues with group dynamics. This will allow you to lead a healthy, growing small group.
—Danah Himes is an associate campus minister at Christian Campus House in Charleston, Illinois.