Small group discussion don’t always run smoothly. Leaders often struggle with the unexpected because they don’t anticipate difficult situations and are unsure how to respond when they arise. Here are 10 of the most common surprises and how you can prepare for them.
1. Dead Silence
- Relax. People need time to think. If the question seemed to miss the point, rephrase it.
- Feel free to contribute, but keep your own answers to a minimum and work on asking good questions.
- Remember to use open questions (see the article “Asking Good Questions.”)
- Encourage the group with nonverbal communication. Maintain good eye contact. Smile. Be relaxed.
- Acknowledge and affirm each speaker with a non-judgmental response such as, “Thanks for sharing.”
2. A Wrong Answer
- Use discernment. Determine if it’s a wrong answer or just a perspective different from yours.
- Be gracious and gentle. Don’t get flustered.
- Redirect the question to the rest of the group. Ask, “Does anyone else have a different perspective or anything to add?”
- Refer the group back to the passage and ask questions.
- Ask, “How did you come to that conclusion?”
- At times it may be necessary to briefly give the correct answer if the group is unable: “I can understand why you might think that, but ... ”
3. Disastrous Distractions
- Ask everyone to silence their phones before you begin.
- Whatever the interruption, don’t lose your patience. If you get exasperated or angry, you’ll cause uneasiness in your group and only make it worse.
- If all else fails, meet somewhere that’s less distracting or reevaluate the meeting time. (Only do this is multiple people have recurring conflicts.)
4. The Difficult Questions
- If someone asks a question you don’t know how to answer, admit you don’t know, but say you’ll look into it. Ask someone, like your pastor or another experienced group leader, for a good answer or the resources to find an answer yourself.
- It could be a great question for that group member to research and bring back to the group. Point that person to some trustworthy resources to get started.
5. Can’t Finish the Lesson
- If the basic problem is that your group members like to talk and share too much at the beginning of the group:
- Set some guidelines from the start. Let them know there will be times to just get together to share, play and get to know each other but that the central purpose of this weekly time together is to spend time learning from God and the Bible.
- Keep icebreakers moving and don’t let them eat up a lot of time.
- If the basic problem is spending too long on each question:
- Allot a specific amount of time to spend on each section. Say, “This is all good, but we need to move on.”
- Prioritize questions of greater importance and spend more time on those.
- If the discussion is profitable and you don’t want to move on, be flexible. Choose an appropriate place and end the lesson on time. You can pick up where you left off at the next meeting.
6. The Non-Stop Talker
- Direct your questions to other members in the group: “Let’s hear from some of you who haven’t had a chance to say anything yet.”
- Sit next to the person and minimize eye contact.
- If it’s still a problem, ask for the talker’s help in drawing out quiet members, or privately ask the talker to answer less often.
7. The Silent Member
- Ask direct but low-risk questions a shy person could answer comfortably. For example, “Tracy, what are your thoughts on what we’ve been talking about?”
- Encourage responsiveness by giving positive feedback when the shy person does respond.
8. Going Off On Tangents
- Be patient.
- Use a good, specific question to put the discussion back on the right track.
- Say something like, “That’s an interesting topic, but today we’re focusing on _________. Let’s talk about that.”
9. Disagreements and Conflict
- Don’t let disagreements rattle you. Say something like, “This is good. It means both of you are thinking. Let’s look at what the Bible says.” Caution: Only do this with topics that will help your study of God’s Word.
- If a disagreement is a matter of differing opinions, say something like, “People have many different opinions on this issue,” and continue the lesson.
- If two group members regularly bicker, you might need to talk about it with each of them.
- It’s best to avoid controversial discussions in the group because they will distract from the subject. Say something like, “We don’t have time to get into that topic now, but I’ve got some information I can get to you.” Then meet with that person individually.
10. Leader Answering All the Questions
Here are some ways you can respond when group members ask you questions you want them to answer themselves:
- Reverse the question back on the person who asked it.
- Relay the question back to the whole group, “That’s a good question. What do you all think?”
You can eliminate most small group discussion crashes by planning and preparing well. Learn to trust the Lord with your efforts. A good sense of humor will also help.
If you have a problem not listed here or you don’t know what to do, pray. Ask God to give you wisdom. You can also talk to someone with more experience leading small groups about what to do. Whatever happens, don’t get too stressed. Even great groups have their share of discussion disasters.
Learn More About Leading Small Groups:
Adapted from Rick Hove, “The Ultimate Roadtrip: A Guide to Leading Small Groups” (Orlando: CruPress, 2010). Order at Crupress.com