the shape of leadership

Questions That Hit the Mark

Leading meaningful small group discussions

Courtney Wong Davis on June 13, 2022

Have you ever looked around in the middle of a small group meeting and wondered where the discussion went off the rails?

Maybe no one was participating in a meaningful way. Perhaps one person was dominating the conversation, keeping everyone else from contributing. Or maybe you just had a vague sense that the exchange was not as interesting, relevant, or productive as it should be.

It happens more often than we’d like to admit. But excellent conversations are worth pursuing.

My co-authors and I conducted a survey for our book, Leading Small Groups That Thrive. Interviews with 100 pastors, 150 small group leaders, and 800 of their small group members revealed that high-quality group discussions have a positive effect on members’ spiritual health.

In the healthiest groups, members contributed equally to discussion and talked among themselves, rather than speaking solely to the leader.

Discussion quality also predicts the long-term success of groups. Our research showed groups tend to facilitate spiritual growth early in their life cycles and plateau over time. However, high-quality discussions can help prevent that stagnation.

Here are three ways to improve the quality of your group discussions:


Ask Better Questions

Questions can make or break small group conversations.

Great leaders ask questions that facilitate discussion rather than fishing for a specific answer. There are few things less engaging than responding to questions that have one “right” answer.

When members recognize there is only one answer to a question, they are less likely to participate. This is in part because people yield to one another.

No one wants to be the know-it-all who squelches further discussion by piping up with the correct answer. Furthermore, no one wants the embarrassment of blurting out the wrong answer. Group members will hold back if they are afraid of looking arrogant or foolish.

Similarly, groups die a slow death when leaders ask questions that have too many response options, leading to long-winded stories or irrelevant contributions. Over time, group members will disengage, participation and attendance will dwindle, and the autopsy report will determine the cause of death as poor discussion facilitation.

If you want to keep your discussions lively, ask open-ended questions — but not too open-ended. Questions requiring only a “yes,” “no,” or similarly short answer limit opportunities for discussion.

On the other hand, questions that are too open-ended lead to uncertainty about where the conversation is heading and what kinds of contributions are pertinent. The result is often awkward silence or unproductive responses.

Consider which of the following questions would be best for starting a discussion in a group setting:

  • Did you have a good week?
  • What was your week like?
  • What has been the best part of your week so far?

If you chose the third option, you’re right. This question appropriately directs group members to focus their responses without limiting the possibilities to one-word, impersonal answers.

The first question will likely yield disengaged head nods, while the second could bog down your gathering with long, boring stories. The third will probably generate brief, interesting, and personal highlights group members can acknowledge and celebrate.

Effective leaders meet group members where they are and lead them through a learning and growing process.

As you develop questions for your discussions, remember this principle: What you ask and how you ask will communicate what you know and how much you care.

When you anticipate the kinds of responses your questions may provoke, you’ll choose better questions that lead to more fruitful discussions. The result will be a discussion that is more conducive to spiritual growth.


Move Discussions Strategically

The order in which leaders ask questions is also important.

Imagine starting a group discussion by asking, “When in your life have you felt most distant from God?”

Such a question can be challenging no matter when you ask it, but beginning a meeting this way requires group members to go too deep, too quickly.

On the other hand, staying on the surface for two hours is also problematic.

What’s the solution? Many educators use Bloom’s taxonomy: remember, understand, apply, analyze, evaluate and create. The idea is to move from simple concepts to more complex interaction with the material.

Simply put, group members can’t understand or apply what they don’t recall. Start by reviewing a passage. Then move to understanding and applying the text.

Application for daily living is vital, but don’t stop there. The Bible is ultimately the story of God and His plan of salvation. With that in mind, great group leaders ask questions and facilitate theological discussions that inspire members to grow as disciples of Jesus and reach their world for Christ.

Leaders can help members learn to analyze texts, compare them to other passages of Scripture, place them on a timeline of salvation history, and respond to them in gospel-centered ways.

Effective leaders meet group members where they are and lead them through a learning and growing process. They ask questions and explore topics in a strategic manner — first laying, and then building on, a foundation of Bible knowledge.


Watch Nonverbal Cues

Almost as important as the questions you ask and the order in which you present them are the contexts in which you pose them.

Did you know where people sit can limit their contributions to group discussions?

One way leaders signal turn-taking is through eye contact. Whether you realize it or not, you probably acknowledge a group member’s readiness to speak by looking directly at him or her. Consequently, seating arrangements influence which members most often receive these nonverbal cues.

This can create inequities in group conversations — or deepen existing ones. You might inadvertently encourage your most talkative members to keep chiming in simply because of their positions in the room. Conversely, quieter members who are not sitting front and center may seldom receive those cues to participate.

Consider sitting next to talkative members rather than across from them, making it more difficult for them to make eye contact with you and secure permission to speak. Sit across from quieter members, recognizing that when you look across the room for responses, you’re more likely to lock eyes with them and nonverbally invite them to contribute to the discussion.

While there are many ways to facilitate better group discussions, always keep the group’s purpose in view. Like the apostle Peter, we want people to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18). That goal should drive every discussion and meeting.

As you lead robust, purpose-driven discussions, you’ll play a meaningful role in helping group members experience Christian community and grow in spiritual maturity.


Adapted from Leading Small Groups That Thrive: Five Shifts to Take Your Group to the Next Level by Ryan T. Hartwig, Courtney W. Davis, and Jason A. Sniff. Used with permission.

This article appears in the Spring 2022 edition of Influence magazine.

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