Braving the Silence of Small Groups – How to get them talking.

If you’ve been a leader of a ministry in any capacity for more than seven seconds, you know how frustrating, awful, and terrifying a silent small group discussion can be. After all, if there is no talking, it’s not really a discussion, is it? Sharing with and hearing from others creates intimacy, so effective ministry leaders need to navigate out of stiff group atmospheres. Here are some ideas I found helpful in my small groups


1) Call on people individually. I’ve been surprised by how much and how deeply a student was thinking when he was silent. Sometimes they might just need a little push.

2) Let the group own the discussion. I can always print off a few extra discussion pages. Give them out to some of the group and have them lead the questioning. Let them exercise and stretch their conversational leadership, and just be there to help. I’ve seen a leader cut up the questions and have different group members draw them out of a box one at a time and present them to the group.

3) Circle up. The space you’re in and the manner in which the group sets up communicates a whole lot. If every chair in the room is facing only yours exclusively, you become the teacher in front of the class and they the students there only to listen. Instead make sure everyone has equal role in the discussion with a round-table set up.

4) More thought time. Sometimes we’re quiet because we’re still trying to process what we just heard. That’s totally ok. Point out how we just heard a lot of information and they may find it beneficial to silently unpack what they heard before a discussion. Have them all find a corner of the room to journal/think/pray for an additional 2-3 minutes. I’ve used this one only a couple times, but you may want to keep it in your back pocket.

5) Let boys be boys. And men be men, for that matter. Guys bond most when they’re doing something. i’m pretty sure it’s science. Example: I have never (NEVER!) just sat and talked with a guy friend one-on-one. I’ve had plenty of really serious conversations, but they were all while we were throwing a disc, running, building, playing with legos (that was 3 months ago), cooking, hiking, eating, shooting bad guys on Halo 4… you get the point. If your group of guys is mature enough to handle the multitasking, add this discussion tool every once in a while. (note: I know this works well with girls, too. It just goes waaaay farther with fellas.)

6) Be prepared. Everyone should come prepared. Encourage your group to come with questions for each other. You can just tell them it’s a good idea, and you can also lead by coming with additional questions you thought of during the message (or during the week, depending on how your group works). It’s key that they know the questions are for the whole group- not just for you. This should never be a game of “stump the leader”.

7) Remind them that you want community and discussion – not right answers. For some reason, every question in a small group can feel like a theological test of definition. And most of them aren’t. Uncertainty can breed silence. Simply easing any fears that they could be judged can go a long way.

8) Don’t be afraid of silence. I know- it’s like a small group leader’s kryptonite. Silence makes us feel like we’re failing. But like I said in #4, there is a lot of thought happening. The best professors I ever had knew this principle. After asking if there were any other questions, they would always count to ten in their heads before breaking the silence again. Don’t step all over the eight more seconds they might need to decide they do have something to say. Silence gives more opportunity to organize the thought into a shareable sentence.

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