the shape of leadership

Five Ways to Get Your Small Group Talking

Encourage participation in your meetings

Kayla Pierce on April 9, 2019

Everyone loves a lively small group, especially small group leaders. When conversations flow smoothly, our job as the facilitator is easier. But the reality is that small group conversations can feel jilted and uncomfortable. Sometimes getting people to talk can be like pulling teeth, especially if people in your group are still getting to know one another.

Nonbelievers and new believers can be particularly hesitant to open up, and it is our job to make them comfortable, engage them, and ensure they do not feel like bystanders. Here are a few things we can do to facilitate smooth conversations:

1. Play Music

It is impossible for awkward silence to exist against the backdrop of music. If your small group meets in a public place, like a coffee shop, music will likely be playing, but don’t underestimate the power of music in a house. Even if you turn off the music during discussion, ensure it is playing before people arrive. Think about the atmosphere you want to create and be strategic. Playing Bethel Worship will set a different tone than Hillsong Young and Free.

Not only does music set the tone, it also wakes people up. For the last six years, I’ve worked on college campuses, and for a while, my job required that I visit undergraduate classes. In the 8 a.m. classes, college students were usually drowsy. Their eyes were swollen from having just woken up. In the moments leading to the lecture, several students usually had their heads on their desks.

This was the pattern until I visited a professor who played music as students entered the classroom. The difference in the atmosphere was striking. In her class, students were always chatting, laughing and alert. They were ready to engage when class started, even at 8 in the morning.

Since then, I have played music when people enter my small group. It puts people at ease and can even serve as a topic of conversation.

2. Break the Ice

Don’t dive into the Bible study until everyone has a chance to warm up mentally and vocally. Have everyone respond to a short prompt before you begin your formal discussion.

One of my favorite prompts is, “What was the highlight of your week?” Go around the circle and ask everyone to respond. It is also fun to play a flash round of “Would You Rather.” An easy web search will give you great prompts like, “Would you rather explore space or the ocean?” or “Would you rather be too hot or too cold?” One prompt is plenty, and I recommend keeping it lighthearted.

Although this strategy takes a few minutes from your Bible study, it is worth the time investment. If people talk early in the conversation, they are more likely to join in later. By having everyone answer a question, you prime people to participate. It also sets a social norm of everyone engaging. And a bonus is that these prompts help people get to know one another.

By having everyone answer a question, you prime people to participate.

3. Write

For important discussion questions, give people a few minutes to write down their thoughts. This strategy is especially helpful for introverts. Some people have no problem jumping into the conversation and thinking out loud, but others may feel flustered before they share and lose their train of thought. If this happens, they will only observe the conversation instead of engaging in it.

Having a written response gives people more confidence. It also prevents passive engagement because writing requires deep thinking.

Another benefit of this method is that it helps people see how their contribution differs from others in the room, which reassures them that they have something meaningful to say.

4. Share in Pairs

If your group is larger than eight, pair people into groups of two (or three if you have an uneven number). As your group grows, it becomes easier for two or three people to dominate the conversation. When that happens, it is tempting for small group leaders to use these outspoken people as a conversational crutch. But when soft-spoken people stop talking, the entire group misses out on what they have to say.

You can easily prevent their disengagement. Ask a discussion question, then let people talk through their response with a partner. Then, open the same question up for group discussion.

Speaking out in a group of eight or more can be intimidating, but sharing one’s thoughts with one other person builds confidence. People are much more likely to share with the larger group if they have had the chance to share their response with one other person. You will discover that this method encourages more timid people to share with the whole group. I find that this pair-share method produces a much richer group discussion.

5. Redirect

Resist the urge to talk frequently. As leaders, we are quick to talk through the silence. But ultimately, this can stifle conversation and reduce engagement.

When I lead small groups, I find that people direct their questions toward me. If I respond to all of them, I will do most of the talking. Once I realized this was happening, I started redirecting the question to the entire group.

Decades of research in social psychology show that as a group leader, it will be easier for you to interrupt, and if someone else starts to talk at the same time as you, that person will almost always defer to you. Welcome interruptions and insist that people finish their thoughts. Also watch for failed interruption attempts by quieter people. If you see them trying to jump in, be sure they get the floor.

The Early Church modeled exceptional small groups in Acts 2. According to verse 44, “All the believers were together and had everything in common.” Not only were they devoted to Christ, they were also deeply embedded in one another’s lives.

As leaders, we can be strategic, cultivate conversations, help people connect in a meaningful way, and bring life to small groups.

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