A small group leader asks: “My discussion group is quiet, and I seem to be doing most of the talking. The group members complete a workbook at home, but they’re not sharing their answers much. Do you have any ideas about how to encourage more discussion?”
This is a question I’ve spent a lot of time praying about over the years! Here are twelve tips that have helped me draw quiet people out more so that everyone feels enriched by the discussion and group members help each other grow.
Before the Group
Pray for the discussion
Before the meeting, I pray that the group members will learn from God’s word, share openly and honestly, feel safe, and help each other grow. I also pray for the Holy Spirit’s presence, wisdom, and guidance.
During the Meeting
Ask quietest people to read
I mark Scripture passages and quotations in my study guide that I want read during the meeting. I ask the quietest people to read them. Often hearing their own voice is enough to prime the pump and get the words flowing. Even if not, it helps them feel like they’re participating.
Replace summaries with leading questions
When a lesson covers a Bible passage too long to read, I don’t summarize it myself. Instead, I ask the group to summarize the passage. If no one volunteers immediately, I ask leading questions until I’ve drawn out all pertinent facts. “This lesson had us read the story of Moses sending the explorers into the Promised Land; who would like to summarize what happened? … What did Moses ask them to do? … When they returned, what did Joshua and Caleb say? … How did that differ from what the other ten spies said?”
Make silence your friend
Quiet people wait for silence before talking, so you need to provide silent pauses. I ask a question and then smile as I look around the group expectantly. I let the silence encourage talking. If I see hesitation in someone’s face, I nod encouragingly. If the silence continues, I ask, “Who has thoughts on this?”—which suggests partial answers are fine and usually draws responses.
If, however, there’s more silence, I rephrase the question, perhaps breaking it into simpler parts. The original question may have been too hard or may have been worded unclearly, so if needed, I’ll ask leading questions until the group understands the question and comes to answers that satisfy them.
Say when a discussion question has no wrong answers
Opinion and personal questions usually have no wrong answers. Saying, “There are no wrong answers on this question, so what are your thoughts?” gives people the freedom to express their opinion without fear of judgment and encourages those who hold strong opinions to keep their tone soft. This builds acceptance of differences in non-essentials, makes the group members feel sharing is safe, and encourages more talk.
Give everyone who wants to a chance to share
On questions with multiple answers, I make sure everyone who wants to share has a chance by looking back and forth between those who haven’t answered yet and asking, “Does anyone have more to add?” Making sure everyone participates who wants to lets group members know their input is valuable and encourages more sharing.
Thanking people as they share and especially affirming open, insightful answers encourages more sharing. If I hear several thoughtful answers in a row, I’ll tell the group: “You’re giving great answers! Who else has something to share?” That helps everyone feel sharing is safe.
During the meeting, when I get to a question that was hard to answer, I say something like, “I had to come back to this question and really think.” This models what I hope they will do at home and encourages group members to spend time reflecting on answers so they’ll have more to share.
I seldom correct mistakes; correct answers usually come out as the discussion continues. If someone obviously misinterprets a question, I might say, “You know, I understood the question a little differently. Did anyone interpret this question another way?” (Since that’s the same thing I say if a question has multiple interpretations, no one feels corrected.)
Ask group members to share one answer each on list questions
For questions that ask for a list of answers, I ask people to share one answer each until everyone has shared.
Don’t answer non-personal questions yourself, or answer last
On fact questions or discussion questions that aren’t personal, I try to draw out all the answers from the group. If I have anything to add, I answer last.
Answer first on personal discussion questions
For personal questions I answer first to set the example of openness and brevity. I’m honest and open about my shortcomings and struggles, and this helps others to feel safe enough to do likewise. Small group members are seldom more transparent than the group leader, so this encourages open sharing.
(If I have a talkative, transparent group, though, I’ll answer first at the beginning of the discussion to set the example of how long to talk, then I switch to answering last.)
After the Group Meeting
People often second-guess sharing intimately and worry that their openness will lead to others thinking poorly of them. I call or email those who show vulnerability, expressing thanks for their transparency and assuring them that their openness will help the other group members grow and feel safe enough to share openly too.
Ask the reason for quietness during discussion
If someone talked little, I’ll privately ask, “I noticed you didn’t share much. Was there something going on?” Here are common replies and how I usually respond:
“I had a fight with my husband and was in a funk.”
People distracted by worry are always grateful for a listening ear and heartfelt prayer. And they’re so glad you asked what was happening. They’ll feel loved and accepted, essential to open sharing.
“I didn’t get my homework done.”
I assure people who didn’t finish their lessons that I’m glad they came anyway, and to always feel free on the personal questions to listen to the other answers to get their gist and then jump in with their thoughts.
“I’m new to the Bible and don’t want to look stupid.”
I tell them I’m glad they’re there and assure them everyone has felt that way at some point and can relate. In future meetings, I include some simple fact questions and look to them to answer first (without being obvious) so their confidence builds. I call a couple days before future meetings and ask if they have any questions about the homework.
If you’re a small group leader, what are ways you’ve successfully encouraged more talk in quiet groups?
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