The Danger of Dialogue

If you’ve ever led a small group, you know that there is a certain danger in opening the room for dialogue. You know, that moment when you pose an open-ended question and one of two things happens.

First. You get the uncomfortable silence. People look away. Start to blush. Fidget in their seats. You can nearly feel everyone’s skin crawling. It’s audibly quiet, but simultaneously the tension is loud. We have all been a part of this moment.

Second. You have that one person (or sometimes several) that blurt out something totally weird. As they’re talking you’re silently thinking “crap, how do I bring it back from this”. It’s like their comment is so far off topic, or so wrong theologically that you know you’ve got to follow up.

Even if you’re new to leading in groups, you have probably been in a group and experienced one or both of these moments.

They’re horrible. And we all know when they happen.

That’s why I say, there is a danger in dialogue.

I want to share a couple of incredibly practical tips for both of these moments.

The Silent Killer

For our first option, it’s the silent killer because it can make us, as leaders, feel so uncomfortable, but it can also feel like it sucks the energy out of the room. So, the tendency for so many of us is to ask a question, but at the first moment of silence, we start back in.

We ourselves are uncomfortable with the silence, so we fill it.

Here’s what I can tell you.

Don’t shy away from the silence.

Let it happen. Eventually, it will pass and someone in the group will share something of value that you would have missed out on otherwise.

There are two tips for getting navigating these moments (before they happen).

Lay the groundwork

There are several things I share at the start of every group I lead. I talk about my expectation for confidentiality and for participation. Confidentiality is important because for most, they won’t share unless they know they’re safe. So, I tell them. Every week. They’re safe.

Now, I make this fun and funny by making a joke about how I’ll hunt down anyone who I catch wind has shared something confidential about someone else. And they all laugh. But this is so important for participant to know that what they share will be held with grace and gentleness.

Next, I lay out the expectation for each person to participate. I tell them that the group will be best, most formative, and impactful when each person ‘shows up’ not just physically, but emotionally and mentally for each gathering.

Notice how I said that I’m not scared of the silence. That’s the next tip.

Don’t run from it

When it is quiet, look people in the eyes. Scan the room and visually acknowledge the people who are waiting to speak.

By simply embracing the silence, you’re giving time for people to formulate their thoughts. You’re giving space for the introverts to gain courage. You’re letting people simply process the question you asked.

Let the silence linger. Obviously, there is a limit. But, allow people to respond. If you feel awkward and rush through the moment, then your group will feel awkward and want to get out of the moment. If you slow down, breathe and wait. They will step into the moment with courage.

Next, I want to address the other issue we so often face in small groups.

Derailing Drama

We all know when this happens. And if you don’t, look in the mirror. It might be you.

Nearly every group has one or more people who just talk too much. Or, it seems like every time they speak, you have to correct what they’ve said for the sake of the others in the group. It can make you feel scared to open up the conversation because you don’t want to have to figure out how to get the group back on track.

I’ve got a couple quick tips for this situation, too.

Lean in

If you’ve got a classic over-talker, here’s the best tip. Sit closer to them. If you sit closer to the over-talker, they will likely be a little quieter. You’ll be shocked by how this subtly encourages most people to reign it in just a little bit. If it doesn’t work, however, and you notice a persistent pattern, you may need to ask to speak privately.

Always praise people in public and correct them in private. With your classic over-talker, you may need to casually speak with them in private. Affirm that you appreciate their contribution to the group. Thank them for their investment. But, let them know that you’re concerned sometimes other people don’t feel the need to contribute. Ask them to help you create space for the quieter people to chime in. Often, when you talk with tact and respect, your gentle request will be well received. Make sure to communicate your appreciation to the group member.

Recap the crazy

When you’ve got people saying crazy things in the group, I always follow the rule just stated… Praise in public and correct in private.

If possible, I try to avoid correcting people’s theology in public. However, there are times when someone says something that can lead others in the group astray. I never want that, and suggest stepping in when you need to.

However, in these settings, try to avoid scolding the group member. Again, praise them whenever possible. Here’s what I typically do.

Affirm them by thanking them for their comment. Unless it is blatantly against scripture, I typically say something like “it sounds like God is ministering to your unique story in a special way.” Then, reinterpret and redirect for the rest of the group.

By this, I mean, I would say something like “I want to draw a few things out of what you’ve shared for the rest of us.” Then, I would state a few points in response to what the crazy comment was.

Let me give an example.

I was recently leading a group where a participant was attributing the pain in their life to God. It was a situation where the participant was wrong in attributing the pain to God.

I let the person speak. While they were, I prayed for wisdom (as I always suggest when you need to make a correction). I wanted to make sure to bring correction because what was being said would certainly have the potential to lead a newer Christian into thinking God authored their pain.

So, when the group member was done, I thanked them for sharing. I said it seemed like God was ministering to her and working out something special in her life (this was true based on what she shared). I affirmed that I was excited to see how God would continue to grow her through this.

Next, I said “for the whole of our group, I want to draw out a few things based on what she shared.” I went on to then share some theological points and affirmations for the whole group. Then, to the group member who spoke, I shared some specific theological affirmations that redirected her.

She left the conversation feeling affirmed. Her thinking was also gently redirected. And the idea that she is still growing was reinforced. For the rest of the group, it became a teaching moment where I was able to affirm proper theology and encourage the group in their relationship with God.

I highly doubt the group noticed that I was pushing back on the theological point put forward. But I was.

Apply it

I hope that these tips will help you next time you’re leading in a group. Girl, I know there are countless crazy stories we could swap from small group settings. But, these tips will help you navigate the most common issues. And hopefully, they’ll give you a confidence boost in your next leadership moment.

What are some of the tactics you use to facilitate your small groups? Leave me a comment and let me know.

If you’re looking for some insight on how to launch or revision your small group ministry, check out my last article.

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One thought on “The Danger of Dialogue

  1. Wow, so loving and gentle! My husband and I were once in a small group with a super-sharer. Yes, we felt sorry for what she was going through. However, the facilitator of the group didn’t handle things the way you just described. They just froze. Then, we felt sorry for them as well. You could see the entire room get fidgety…week after week. It was great that she felt safe and was willing to share. Unfortunately, she was sharing the same hurt week after week. “Uncomfortable” is the perfect word for what was going on. It actually became the most dreaded 2 hours of our week and we could not see a gracious way to quite the group.

    As a side note: We have not joined a small group since. I hope many group leaders read this and implement what you’ve suggested. It could make a huge difference for the Kingdom.

    Thanks for your Blog!

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