Learning to Lead a Small Group - Lesson 7

Leading Good Discussions

What is the purpose of having a discussion in a small group meeting? What are some principles to follow in leading a discussion that is focused and invites participation from each member of the group? What does, "equalizing participation" mean? Why is it important? What activities and strategies can you use to accomplish it? Why are listening, empathy and confirmation important? How are they related? 

Ron Pyle
Learning to Lead a Small Group
Lesson 7
Watching Now
Leading Good Discussions

EM153-07: Leading Good Discussions

I. The Importance of Good Discussions in Small Groups

A. Encouraging Participation

B. Fostering Spiritual Growth

II. Techniques for Leading Good Discussions

A. Asking Open-Ended Questions

B. Active Listening

C. Managing Group Dynamics

1. Dealing with Dominant Participants

2. Encouraging Quiet Participants

III. Creating an Atmosphere for Good Discussions

A. Building Trust and Rapport

B. Establishing a Safe Environment

C. Maintaining a Spirit of Prayer and Dependence on God

  • What are small groups? Why do we have them? What does a healthy small group look like? What does the Bible have to say about the importance of small groups and what participation should look like?

  • In this lesson, you will learn the importance of small group theology, and it starts with an understanding of God's role in community. Dr. Ron Pyle explains that all of history is essentially a history of God's communal activity with humankind, starting with creation. God is the author and perfector of community, and God establishes its boundaries, identity, and future establishment of a new Jerusalem where God's people will dwell in community with one another and with God.
  • In this lesson, you learn effective small group leadership, fostering spiritual growth and supportive relationships, handling challenges, and developing future leaders.
  • What are small groups? Why do we have them? What does a healthy small group look like? People support what they are part of creating. Plan your first meeting carefully. Different distances invite different types of communication. The behavior you want to sustain, make sure you enact the first time.

  • By studying this lesson, you learn how to effectively create and implement a small group contract to establish clear expectations, improve group dynamics, and foster a supportive and productive environment.
  • Gain insight into effectively leading small groups through the five stages of group life, while learning to adapt your leadership style and navigate changing group dynamics.
  • By promoting honest sharing in small groups, you foster trust, facilitate spiritual growth, and learn effective techniques to create a safe environment, ask open-ended questions, and practice active listening.
  • By leading effective small group discussions, you foster spiritual growth, encourage participation, and create a safe environment for open sharing and deeper connections.
  • You gain insight into power dynamics in relationships, specifically within small groups, and learn to foster healthy power dynamics, ensuring a balanced, inclusive, and constructive group environment.
  • By understanding conflict management in small group leadership, you develop the skills to foster a healthy group dynamic, resolve conflicts, and maintain a positive, collaborative environment.

What relationships are important to you? How do you develop trust? How can you share in a meaningful way with others? When you experience conflict in relationship, how can you manage it in a way that will grow your relationship? What does the Bible say about the importance and purpose of a small group?

Dr. Pyle leads you through the process from planning a small group, creating a contract, the beginning meetings, leading discussions, stages of group life and managing conflict. You will benefit from his training and experience as he gives you insights into the skills you will need and the commitments you can make to lead a group well. He will also give you insight into interpersonal communication dynamics in a group situation that will help you effectively guide and motivate the people in your group to share at a deep level.

Anytime there are people involved there are no guarantees, but there are few activities more rewarding than cultivating authentic relationships in a community of faith. This is class gives you the information and motivation you will need to get a good start and finish well. Don't miss this opportunity!

Dr. Ron Pyle
Learning to Lead a Small Group
Leading Good Discussions 
Lesson Transcript

[00:00:01] Well, so far we've talked about some realities of group leadership and some obstacles to group leadership and how leadership emerges and some tasks. I want now to take up the very pragmatic issue of how you lead a discussion. Your group Health will have something to do with the leaders ability to facilitate an effective discussion. In this session, we're going to talk about some principles of leading discussion. We're going to talk about the very common issue of unequal participation and how you get the talkative people to let others have a word and the quiet people to speak up. I'll give you some practical hints about that. The first issue that you need to address when leading a discussion is to ask the question Why have a discussion in the first place? This sounds simple. It isn't nearly as simple as it sounds. Leaders need to be clear about the answer. Their answer to the question Why have a discussion? Here are three good responses to that question. First, we have a discussion because I want to find out what other people are thinking. Second, I want to have a discussion so that I can increase involvement by the leaders. Here is a truth of group life. People will support what they believe they are part of creating. If you provide opportunities for people to be involved in creating the group life, they will tend to be supportive and committed to it to the extent that they feel like they're not part of creating something, neither will they be committed to it. So one of the reasons that we need discussion is to increase involvement. I want them to participate, not simply to receive. And a third reason that we have discussion is that we want to arrive at a conclusion or a solution.

[00:02:11] I want to arrive at a conclusion or a solution sometimes one that I would not have come up with on my own as the leader. One of the other ways that we can develop relationship in group is through good discussions. One of the reasons to have a discussion is you learn, don't go in assuming you're the leader and you have the answer to everything. You are the self-sufficient one. You need the people in your group. If you're involved in a life group and you somehow came to believe that your function as the leader was to drop spiritual insight on people in the group, so you have something very specific you want to achieve in the Bible study. So you're reading a passage like this one about Jesus appointing the 12 apostles. And what you want to say is you what you want to do is talk about Matthew, the tax collector. You would say that you're a good group leader and you've done all kinds of preparation and you've read the biblical studies books and you what you want to do is talk about Matthew, but you disguised it in a discussion. I know that this I know about this failure because I'm a teacher. Sometimes I do this very badly when I have a specific agenda in mind, and I use what is cloaked as a discussion to somehow let me say it. So it sounds like this. Jesus went up on a mountain. This is Mark three Starting at verse 13, Jesus went up on a mountainside and called to him those he wanted. And they came to him. He appointed 12, designated them apostles that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons.

[00:04:22] These are the 12 he appointed Simon to whom he gave the name Peter James, son of Zebedee, and his brother John. To them he gave the name Bo Energies, which means Sons of Thunder Andrew Philip Bartholomew, Matthew Thomas James, son of Alpheus, Thaddeus Simon, the zealot and Judas Iscariot who betrayed him. There's your text. Now we have something that I'm telling you is a discussion. Hey, let's. Can we just discuss the passage? Now I ask a discussion question. So who was among the group that Jesus appointed? And you say what? You go, Well, the Sons of Thunder. But it's not the magic answer that I was after. So I go, Okay. All right. Now, anybody else? Now, just a second. Did you hear the divergent communication in that? What I've just told you is your perfectly good answer isn't good enough. Because it's not what I had in mind. It's not my agenda. Sometimes what we call discussion teaching is not. It's a giant game of password. You know what I'm talking about. So somebody goes, Well, the Sons of Thunder. Okay. And Simon. Peter. All right. And then somebody goes. And Matthew and he go. Yes, Matthew. Okay, Now let's talk about Matthew, the tax collector. And now what I'm launching into is a lecture. This isn't a discussion. This is me asking some questions so that I can tell you what I wanted to say. Look, if you're going to have a discussion, at least be honest about it. If you're going to have a lecture, at least be honest about that. One of the most common problems in discussion leading is that we ask questions that are loaded, and the reason they're loaded is they have right answers. So be really careful about asking loaded questions, the ones that have a definite right answer and make them the experts.

[00:06:31] So you ask the question, Hey, what would your neighborhood look like if if people actually lived what Jesus talked about in the Sermon on the Mount? And then they tell you and you go, No, I don't think so. This is perhaps the hardest aspect of leading discussion. How do you value the contribution and value the person making the contribution while not letting your group get taken astray by ideas that just aren't right, just theologically, factually are incorrect? Okay, here are a couple of ways you can do it. One way I do it frequently is I throw it back to the group. So I go, okay, so what do you think? What do you think about that? And very often there will be people in the group who go, Wait a minute, I don't know about that, because how is that in line with. So sometimes the group members will do it. Sometimes I'll ask the question. Tell us a little bit about how you got to that conclusion. And then as they talk about how they got there, we can readdress some of what's gone on. I love preaching. I'm a preacher myself. I teach preaching. I adore the function and the unbelievable privilege to preach. Not when I'm a small group leader. It's not your job. In a discussion to preach. Set your agenda aside to the function you're trying to fill is What do they think? I'm trying to access what they think. You being fully present, verbally and non-verbally, means with your body and your face, with your eyes, with the ways you verbally use words to respond to people, to say, I am here for you. Plan your potential questions ahead of time. Just like with sharing questions, discussion, questions the same way.

[00:08:36] Plan them ahead. Don't assume you're going to come up with a brilliant question on the spot. If I'm unsure about the clarity of my question, I might have to back up and ask some clarifying questions to you. But also to paraphrase to see if my question was clear and we're making sense. So suppose I asked a question and I got a lot of quizzical looks. I'll paraphrase the question in a different way. Or I could say, Did that make sense? Or what did you hear just now in that question? And now we can maybe get some clarity as the group leader. You will automatically be the focal point for many of the questions. But your function isn't to be the answer person right now. If your function and leading discussion is to find out what they think, then what I do frequently is I redirect to group members. I have to do this especially because I'm a lot older than my students. And when I lead a Bible study with students at Whitworth, I started by saying, look, I get I'm older and I've walked with Christ longer than you have. I'm not the answer, man. And what I'm going to do is keep asking you to bring God's light to one another. So they'll inevitably ask me the questions and I'll go, I don't know. Or yeah, I do have a thought about that, but. Kathy. But, Kathy, would you. Would you help us with some insight here? Here's a principle. Once you're sure, a question is clear. Be patient with the silence. Do not answer your own question. There's actually been a communication research about this. Groups will almost never, almost never go more than 12 seconds in silence before somebody will say something.

[00:10:38] So there's an important proviso here. If you're sure that the question is clear, don't answer your own question, because when you do, you've just sent a message to the group members. We don't actually have to respond. The leader will answer the question if we just wait. This topic is taken up under the heading of equalizing participation. One of the thorniest issues in leading discussion is how do I get the quiet person to participate and the dominant person to shut up? It's hard for me to overstate the significance of you making a clear covenant contract with your group. One of the issues you should take up when you do that covenant in contracting early in group life is what do we want participation to look like? And if your group will almost always say this, if they don't, you can bring it as the leader. You're a part of this too. You can say what we're striving for is a place that everybody feels free and comfortable to participate. If you've established that with your contract and then you begin to see certain people dominating and certain people not participating, when you do your formative evaluation, which is the one that comes, say, six weeks after you've started, when you do the your formative evaluation, you have something to appeal to to say, okay, here's what we said in our covenant. We're trying for this. How do we do it? And again, this isn't you imposing your agenda. It's you asking, how are we doing with this? And people go, Well, you know, as I think about it, I haven't heard Doug say much at all or, you know, persons X, Y, and Z. And we go, right. So we said what we're trying for is equal participate.

[00:12:29] How can we do that better, do you think? Let the group help you with how to do it better. You can offer the quiet person a special assignment. You know what? I think you're really smart. One of the things that I've been hoping for is that you'd let the class somehow benefit from what I think is your insight. You know what? Next week, I'm going to be the passage of the Bible. We're going to be talking about is this. Would you just think about that and maybe come with something you want to say about it? Listen well and affirm like crazy the contribution of people who are quieter. So I'll find myself very frequently. Saying something like that is a fantastic contribution. And you know what? I know it's not the easiest thing always for you to say what's on your mind. Thank you for taking that risk. Thanks for blessing us that way. You can explore other modes of communication instead of always having people respond orally, verbally on the spot. What if you had them right and you say, Hey, look, would you take just the next 3 minutes to write some kind of response to that? What will almost always happen is when it's done individually, silently, the reticent people will write. Now there's something objectively on paper that you could invite them to disclose when you come back, and they've already said it. Got it. Another thing that can happen is you can have them discussed with partners instead of having to come up with it on their own. You can use seeding to help direct the flow of communication. And here's how you do it. If Jeff is the dominant person and I have some freedom about where I sit as the leader, this is where I sit.

[00:14:27] Okay. Now, do you know why? Because the natural line of eye contact is across the table. It's not so comfortable usually to do this because the eye contact is over here. Michael is invited to participate like crazy Jeff less. Now, listen to this. There is no formula for success that cannot serve equally well as a recipe for disaster. That is to say, people are making their own choices. The fact that you sit next to the dominant person does not automatically make them shut up. You invite other people to participate more. But I need you to know there's not a this isn't a magic incantation. And you might still have to deal with the dominant person. But being close, you can kick them. You could do that. Okay. When I've got a dominant person. I will sometimes pull them aside. And I always preface it this way. Thank you so much for your contributions. Because I want them to hear the affirmation. Thank you so much for your contributions. And you know what? I'd love for you to help me with something. I don't know if you've noticed it, but I have that in our group. Kathy often doesn't say so much. Would you help me next week? Just think about ways to help her be part of it, too. You can gently confront the talkative person in private. You don't do this in front of the group. When you send a message like this and you do the affirmation piece. I love the contribution you've made. Don't let your next word be. But because when that happens, they simply disregard the part that came before the button. What they'll hear is the rest of it. Use the word and instead, I love the contribution you've made.

[00:16:24] I want it to continue. And we need to include others too. So I want you to hear this clearly. Please don't clam up. I want your insight and I need to hear from other people in the group to. You can use your formative evaluation to initiate the conversation. So you go back to the covenant through the formative evaluation. Listening is the most Christlike communication event that human beings experience. I believe this real listening, not the fake kind of stuff that we do so much. Real listening is a manifestation of the humility we just talked about. Real listening requires that you set aside your agenda enough to be engaged and present with the person to whom you're listening. Listening is not the same thing as waiting your turn to talk. When my wife comes home from a hard day at the clinic where she works, my wife's a nurse and she's frustrated. So she says, Wow, I had so many patients just back to back. I didn't feel like a good nurse today. It's not listening for me to say, Oh, yes, you are. That's me waiting my turn to give my opinion about her nursing. If she comes home and says, Wow, this new schedule we've got is so packed, I don't feel like I can give people good care. It's not listening for me to say, Yeah, they shouldn't do that. That's me giving my opinion about her office. In order for there to be listening, I have to do something to demonstrate. I get you. I get it. And that something is going to take place by how I focus what I do with voice, body, face. That's establishing them as the center of attention. It has to do with how I encourage her.

[00:18:38] Encouraging is to invite the other person to say more about what's going on with them so I can ask some good open ended questions. I can simply ask her to keep talking about that. There are lots of ways you can encourage people to say more and to demonstrate that I connect, that I get the meaning of what you're after. A well done paraphrase can do this. So she she comes back and says, Man, I had back to back patients that didn't feel like I gave anybody very good care for me to reflect back. The meaning of what I've just heard is to say something like, Sounds like there's frustration in your ability to connect with patients the way that you'd like. Was that it? You have to do something to demonstrate you get it. Empathy is perhaps the most indispensable factor in effective communication. Empathy is your ability to think about what it's like to live in the other. You would you would hope a Ph.D. in communication would get this. But I confess, I'm a slow learner. A lot of the times I dealt way too many years as a college professor believing that the class sessions were really for me. Because what happened was I had this fantastic body of content that I want somehow to communicate. And I feel this moral compulsion to tell everybody in my class everything I know. But what happened was the class session really is about me getting something off my chest. It wasn't about them. Had I had the capacity for empathy more, it would be about them. Because the point. Listen to this. The point of communication is to get a message heard, not to get the message spoken. The point is to get a message heard, not simply to get a message spoken.

[00:20:43] And the difference between those two is gigantic to get it heard. Empathy helps. There are some people I hope you have some in your life. There are some people who, when you're with them, you feel dignified. You feel significant and important and valuable. You know people like that, right? You come away from a relational encounter with them, and there's something about being with them that makes you feel just like you matter. Jesus had a marvelous way of doing that with all kinds of people who he met, who society would marginalize and and denigrate. Jesus had a way of coming along and people walking away with this sense, Oh, I'm valuable. Confirmation is the name for one of the ways you do that. It has these dimensions. Confirmation starts with a recognition of the other's existence. It's a recognition that they exist. Here's something I've noticed as a parent. My kids, when they were growing up, would rather be punished than be dis confirmed. They would rather be punished knowing they're going to incur some kind of punishment than be treated as if they're invisible. So one of the things we learned as parents is when my kids were acting out, the first thing you do is hug them, say, Come on, come on over here. Just hold them on your lap and embrace them. Let them know I get your presence. You matter. When you're not sure about mattering, a lot of people will do things to make sure you get you notice them, even if they're destructive things. So it starts with a simple confirmation of existence, but it doesn't end there. It also acknowledges a relationship with them. There is a connection between us. Now I have a theology of relational connection that goes like this.

[00:22:53] I believe this begins with creation. Do you remember the creation narrative and how God fashioned Eve and then presented Eve to Adam? And you remember what Adam said? You remember what Adam said. Now this. Listen to this language. Now this is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh. Now, Adam wasn't stupid enough to think that Adam and Eve were exactly identical. He got that. Eve was other a wonderfully created, beautifully other. And what you hear him say is, this is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh. What he was saying was, there's something that holds us together inextricably. Holds us together. We are all of the same stuff. Now, just like that, it's true in all of our relationships as well. We are of the same stuff made in God's image, all of us. And I'm here to tell you, listen to this. It's so important. I'm here to tell you that if you actually believed that, that we are relationally connected with one another, it wouldn't be nearly so easy for us to dismiss certain people because of their politics or because of their theology or because of their sexuality or because of anything else. It wouldn't be nearly so easy to dismiss people as less after you've demonstrated an awareness of some kind of relational connection. There's an awareness of the significance and worth of the other. You do that by taking people seriously when they've got something to say. To actually pay attention to them. Whether or not you agree with it, to at least give them the dignity of that kind of confirmation, their worth and value isn't dependent on what they believe or how they act. That's a given. This final piece of confirmation is to accept and I use the word endorse.

[00:25:02] That's like to validate, you know, how you endorse a check. And when you endorse a check, you make it currency in a way it wasn't before. Endorsing the self experience of the other is to say what you've experienced is real, at least to you. Here's the truth. Sometimes with my wife and my kids, even though I'm supposed to know better, I teach this stuff for a living, for goodness sakes. Sometimes I just don't do the confirmation very well. One day our daughter was out in the front yard. She was quite young. She came in with a rock that had glitters in it, had silver specks in it. And she came in proclaiming that she had discovered gold and silver right out in our driveway. So she went, Dad, Dad, you won't believe it. Look, look, I found it. Look, there's gold and silver. And the crazy thing is, our whole front yard is full of it. It's all over the place, Dad. We're going to be rich, okay? Now, of the hundreds and hundreds of ways that I could have confirmed her. What she got from her dad was this, Wow, your hands are really dirty. You better wash up before dinner. All right. Ha! You don't have to embrace their self experience. You don't have to say, yes, you did find God, but you do. If you want to confirm, you do have to do something that says, I get that your experience is important to you. If somebody feels alienated from church. Confirming isn't you saying no. But church is a great place to be. I don't know what your problem is or lots of other people are here because they seem to be enriched by it. I don't know, you know, what's going on with you, even if you don't agree with their self experience, they're telling you they felt judged or condemned by somebody in church and now they don't want to go back.

[00:27:26] You endorsing their self experience is recognizing that that's real for them, whether you believe it with them or not.