Roberta was ready. She had imagined a dozen worst-case scenarios for her small group discussion and had a practical, thoughtful response for each. Roberta was a gifted teacher who was not only passionate about the day’s topic, but excited to give group members a chance to go deeper and apply what they learned.
But What About…?
Roberta had thought through nearly everything, but nothing prepared her for Manny.
Manny was full of life, passionate, fun, and had enough excess energy for the entire group. Except on this day, he didn’t arrive with the usual bounce in his step. He walked with his head down, didn’t return Roberta’s greeting, and was argumentative as soon as the group began. Roberta tried everything, but Manny’s mood dominated the group. Before she had completed half of the lesson, time was up. Roberta thought the night was a disaster. She questioned her ability and wondered if someone else should lead in the future.
Ever Felt Like This?
If you’ve ever led a discussion or taught a class, you’ve likely had a “Manny moment.” There is no perfect way to lead a group discussion, which means there will always be challenges. But if you want to hone your skills, here are answers to five questions to help you lead a fantastic group discussion.
#1: What do you do when a group member’s answer is wrong?
Look for ways to affirm the member’s response.
- “Hey, I love your insight.”
- “You know, I’ve never considered that before.”
And then, as graciously as possible, redirect or move the conversation.
- “Let’s see what the rest of the group thinks.”
If it’s clear some in your group are struggling with the incorrect answer, address it head-on, but in a gracious and loving tone and manner.
- “Thanks for sharing. But let’s play that out. If that is true….” And then show the potential outcomes of their reply.
Never intentionally belittle or embarrass the person, and always seek to identify something in their reply that you can affirm.
#2: What do you do when a group member’s response goes on and on and on and on and on and…?
If this is not consistent with how the person typically replies, jump in, and interrupt. You can do this while still honoring the person by either summarizing what they said or moving the conversation forward.
- Summarize: “Sorry to interrupt, but here’s what [name of group member] is saying…. Who else wants to share?”
- Move forward: “This is great stuff you’re sharing, but we’ve got to move on.” Or, “This is great stuff you’re sharing, but I want to hear from others.”
If this is a consistent pattern, be proactive. Review group expectations before each session, particularly the first few weeks. These should include expectations like, “Every person gets a chance to participate, so limit lengthy replies.”
Let the group know when they get long-winded, you will interrupt them.
But you will also need to speak directly with the individual outside of group time. Remind the person of their value in the group and cast vision for the importance of healthy group life. Ask them to help you give everyone a chance to share (this is where you can reference the group expectations). If helpful, come up with a signal you can use when it’s time for the person to wrap things up, so you don’t have to interrupt them.
#3: What do you do when some members are not participating?
Sometimes group members talk too much, and sometimes they don’t talk at all. Context is everything. If you have a healthy relationship with your group, call on individuals. “Becky, we haven’t heard from you yet. What do you think?” “Juan, I know this topic is important to you. Tell us what you’re thinking.”
Ask the quiet person to review the questions before your group and to let you know which ones they would like to address.
If you have new group members or you have not yet connected relationally with them, contact a few during the week. Let them know you’re thrilled they’re in the group, but you and others want to learn from them. Ask for their permission to call on them at your next meeting. OR ask the quiet person to review the questions before your next meeting and to let you know which ones they would like to discuss.
#4: What do you do when no one is answering the question?
WAIT for someone to respond. And then wait some more. Try waiting ten seconds–it will feel like an eternity. If you still do not get a reply, try the following:
- Reword the question. “Hmmm…let me ask that a different way.”
- Ask a section of the group. “How about someone in this section? What do you guys think?”
- Ask someone directly. “Charlie, break the ice for us. Get us going.”
The key is to WAIT. Do not answer your question or you will teach your group they can wait you out.
#5: What do you do if you don’t have time to get through all the questions?
Don’t worry about asking every question. Depending on your personality type, that may seem absurd, but you can do it. Just be sure to skip questions strategically. As part of your preparation, identify the KEY questions you want to ask. Then, if time becomes a factor, skip the pre-determined “non-essential” ones.
Leading a fantastic group discussion is possible, but it’s hard work. Don’t try to be perfect, but do your best to get everyone talking, keep things moving towards the lesson goals, and be sure to leave time for people to discuss how to apply what they are learning.
QUESTION (leave a comment below)
What’s another question you have about leading a group discussion?