Why Your Small Group Discussions Stink & What To Do About It

Summary:  Especially at the beginning, groups are bad at having healthy, participatory Spirit-led discussions.  They need training and practice guided by someone skilled at facilitating.  There are lots of techniques that can be used to help with this training.  As time goes on, they can mature and the “training wheels” can start to come off.

People are bad at discussion

One of the biggest challenges (of many) for people in our day and age when they become part of a small group or a close-knit New Testament-style organic Kingdom community (the amplified version of what “church” is supposed to mean) is that they’re not used to functioning together in a fully participatory environment.  While it’s in each Christian’s spiritual DNA to fully participate and contribute to the life of their church, most believers have been conditioned by the worldly models we’re all familiar with to be passive spectators; having their church participation essentially boil down to being consumers of religious entertainment.

So when they make the break and enter into a new (really ancient, but new to them) way of meeting together, it’s unrealistic that they’ll just start interacting together like the church was meant to all along.  We can talk all we want about how everyone is free to participate, how everyone’s voice is equal and valuable, and how involving everyone allows us to hear how the Head is directing the body with high levels of accuracy.  And it’s great to talk about these things.

But many people’s experience has been that when they get groups of people together in a room with an expectation of lively participatory discussions, they end up with lots of clunkers.  The reality is people are bad at listening, lack confidence in sharing, talk too much, don’t talk at all, go on random bunny trails, don’t know how to ask good questions, are afraid of judgment, etc.  We end up with meetings that don’t really reflect what we’ve been hoping for; leading to disappointment, boredom, and many times a quick end to groups that started with passion and excitement.

What’s lacking

What these groups lack is the training and facilitation that reprograms them in how to function together by the life of the Lord that lives inside of them in practical ways.  When it comes to the meetings of the church, practical techniques are needed that allow people to learn and practice how a healthy church community is supposed to interact together.  Every group is different, but for most of them, you can’t just get together and have free-for-all discussions and expect the group to have the maturity to be ordered by the Holy Spirit (I Cor. 14:40).  This is where you want to end up, but it’s a process that requires skillful training by someone like a Paul who who called himself “a skillful master builder.” (I Cor. 3:10).

As groups are led into maturity and practice the practical skills necessary, functioning together as a participatory community can become more natural over time.  As this happens, they can start to function on their own (without facilitation) and realize experientially in meetings what we’ve always given so much lip service to.  Namely, that…

“all of you together are Christ’s body, and each of you is a part of it.” (I Corinthians 12:27)

Let’s be organic, but not messy

Now we’re not taking the organic nature out of the church by providing some order to our meetings.  Instead, we’re making our organic processes less messy.  Like Joseph Myers pointed out in his book Organic Community

It is the difference between an infant’s response to her body’s need to release waste and her father’s need to do the same.  If her father were to respond to this need in a strictly organic way, he too would need diapers.  Thankfully, he has developed an order for an organic process.

When groups start, it’s messy and they need diapers.

Unfortunately, we tend to fall off one side of the horse or the other.  Either we silence people so there isn’t chaos, or we make it a free-for-all without training people how to function together.  Both ways can be quite painful for different reasons.  It’s just really hard to find people that are skilled at training and facilitating groups to function with organic order without making it about themselves on the one hand, or letting the group fall into chaos on the other.

But this is why I’m writing – to motivate you to change this. 🙂

Ways to have Spirit-led discussions with order

What I’m going to give you in this post are some practical ideas that facilitators can use to train groups in how to have ordered discussions while allowing the Holy Spirit to speak through the whole body.  I pulled these directly from a great book full of ideas to use in participatory meetings called The Discussion Book: 50 Great Ways to Get People Talking.  If you train or facilitate a group of any kind (or hope to one day), you should dive deeper into this book.

I’m not going to post all 50 because this post is long enough already.  I’m just going to post some of my favorites.  They consist of appropriate reasons you may want to use a structured discussion technique and some corresponding examples of exercises you can do to promote good interaction.  Many of the examples listed can apply to more than one type of situation and help groups work on more than just one participation skill at a time.

If the group has trouble hearing everyone’s views

Circle of Voices

  • A question, issue or problem is posed to the group.
  • Everyone thinks quietly for a couple minutes and jots down notes about their responses.
  • Each person shares their thoughts in 1 minute or less.  There are to be no interruptions.
  • Open conversation ensues about what was shared.  The ground rule during this time is that people are only allowed to talk about what another person said during the individual sharing.  This can be asking questions, commenting on something that resonated, disagreeing, etc.
  • Summarize what was learned or what new questions were raised during the exercise.

This gives everyone the chance to speak (but not babble), and focuses each member more on what others are saying than their own contributions.  This outward other-focused dialogue should make for richer discussions.

The Three-Person Rule

  • The facilitator proposes a ground rule at the beginning of the discussion time – once someone has contributed something to the discussion, he or she should not contribute again until at least three other people have spoken.
  • One exception is if someone asks the speaker to clarify, explain or expand on the contribution they made.

Sit in silence if you have to.  This keeps the dominant personalities from hogging the sharing time, giving you a richer perspective on what the group truly thinks and feels collectively.

If the group has trouble listening to each other respectfully

Circular Response

  • The facilitator poses a question
  • Anyone may respond to start, but ideally it would be an introvert.  The first person to share has up to 1 minute to do so.
  • The person to the left of the original sharer then must build upon the preceding person’s comments, using them as a springboard for what they share.
  • The process continues around the circle.  It’s a good idea for people to take notes of things that stick out to them during this round.
  • Once everyone has spoken, the group moves into open conversation with no ground rules.  The notes come in handy here as it reminds group members of things to discuss.

The social pressure put on each individual from knowing they will have to speak about what others have said and build upon it creates extra motivation for listening carefully, resulting in richer discussions as focus on the topic is deeper.

If you want to take stock of where a group is on a particular issue

Chalk Talk

  • Write a question in the center of a whiteboard.
  • People in the group write their questions and responses on the whiteboard during a time of silent thinking, drawing lines between thoughts that connect.
  • The facilitator and group talk about the graphic that has been produced, identifying common responses, questions raised, etc.

This is great for starting a meeting; especially if an expert on the topic is present.  The expert can then personalize their contribution to the group, addressing the biggest questions and main thoughts to be most valuable for everyone.

If members of the group may not all feel equally valued, or the morale of the group is low

Giving Appreciation

  • After normal discussion rounds are over, take some time for comments from participants that acknowledge how something someone else said has contributed positively to the discussion or to their learning
  • Summarize what was learned about what people found most helpful, informative, or inspiring from others

When people feel valued and respected by others in the group, it creates a stronger cohesion.  It also paints a clearer picture of what’s helpful to people, where they agree/disagree, etc.

If the group has trouble equalizing participation

Snowballing

  • A question or issue is posed
  • First, individuals take a little time to collect their thoughts and write any notes
  • Then, pairs are formed.  These pairs share their thoughts with each other.
  • Then, small groups are formed and they share their thoughts with each other.
  • Finally, the whole group comes together to share thoughts.

This allows individuals to interact with each other on a personal level and not just a group level.  It also allows thoughts and questions to build organically over time as people gather their thoughts from each round; revealing more diversity of perspective than a free-for-all round.  It all results in a richer whole group discussion at the end.

If the group has trouble staying engaged in the conversation

What Are You Hearing?

  • Before discussion begins, the facilitator announces that periodically they will ask “What are you hearing?” to random members of the group
  • Whoever is asked then paraphrases what others have said so far
  • At the end of the discussion, the group reviews recurring themes that were pointed out in response to the question

It teaches the group to value listening as a part of participation.  The better you listen, the better you can contribute to the goal of the meeting.  It also provides moments for the group to re-calibrate where the discussion is at to make sure everyone is on the same page.

If the group should think about a new question posed

Structured Silence

  • After a thought-provoking question or comment has been posed, the facilitator asks the group to pause for a few minutes
  • During this time, group members silently jot notes about their thoughts
  • Once the time is up, the group moves into the next round of sharing based on what they came up with during the silent period

Pausing helps to keep the conversation focused on the topic at hand as group members get time to think about what’s been talked about so far and what they might want to add.  It helps to have times when no one is talking so participants get a chance to stop listening and consider what they’ve heard so far.  If people are constantly talking, then the group is constantly listening; which means they’re not reflecting.

To get usually silent participants used to contributing to the discussion

Non-Speakers Only

  • After there’s been a good amount of discussion, the facilitator states “let’s hear only from people who haven’t had a chance to speak yet.”

This is another way to democratize the conversation.  It works especially well when you know it’s a subject about which everyone should have something to contribute, such as a decision-making discussion or a topic where personal experience is valuable.

To persuade group members to come prepared to discuss a previously-given assignment

Quotes to Affirm and Challenge

  • Participants are given preassigned reading material for the discussion
  • The facilitator instructs the participants to come with one quote they agree with and one they’d like to challenge or need clarification on
  • Use the quotes as content as you implement other discussion techniques in the meeting

This is great for making sure group members come prepared.  Knowing that they’ll have to share something from the assignment gives extra motivation to complete it.  When participants come prepared, the discussion is likely to be more valuable.

Remember the end goal

Of course, you don’t necessarily have to have these techniques planned out for discussions ahead of time.  The point of them is that you’d learn how to implement order organically in discussions as it’s needed.  As you gain experience with these types of techniques, you’ll be able to recognize moments in discussions on the fly and implement appropriate ones at appropriate times.  Remember, the end goal is for the group to allow the Holy Spirit to control the discussions after the diapers have been taken off.  But it takes patient endurance.

You probably thought to yourself “we could really mix and match these throughout our meetings” and you’d be right.  For example, you could start a meeting with Chalk Talk to see what people believe about a specific issue before diving into a more structured workshop-type discussion.  Then, you could incorporate Circle of Voices to get everyone’s ideas about how what they learned should be applied moving forward.  Finally, you could end with Giving Appreciation to get a sense of what specific comments or questions resonated throughout the group as a whole.  (Side note: This could be a really great clue as to what the Lord is saying, teaching, revealing, etc. to the group).

Incorporate as needed

Although there are a lot of by-products of participatory meetings (everyone feels valued, multiple perspectives are heard, and more); ultimately the end goal is that the voice of Jesus Christ would be heard clearly through all His members and He would be expressed (as opposed to any human).  In my experience, providing the kind of structured sharing that balances open participation with healthy boundaries gives a group the best chance to not only accomplish this, but to obtain a richer experience of the by-products as well.

While the goal of these exercises is to train our groups to function in a healthy manner without the ground rules the structured exercises put on them, it’s highly likely that even mature groups will have to incorporate these practices at least periodically.  As new people join, mature groups may want to use these types of exercises to model good, healthy group participation.  Even if there aren’t many new people, we all need to be reminded of how to be good communal participators from time to time.  Plus, they can be just plain fun!

If your group is trained appropriately and truly works hard on functioning in a healthy manner together, there’s no doubt it will help it make progress toward the ultimate goal of the group to “grow up into Him who is the Head.” (Ephesians 4:15)

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