Small Group Challenges: They Won’t Talk!


In this series on challenges that small groups face, we are discussing common issues that can stymie a group or, when addressed, can move the group on to more effective Bible study. Last Monday we considered how to lead the group when one person dominates the discussion. Today, let’s look at a similar problem: no one speaks up in discussion.

You probably know the situation. You ask a question. Most of the group members just look down. No one answers. You wait for what seems to be an extraordinary length of time. No answers. You answer the question yourself. Then you go to the next question, etc., etc.

The truth needs to be told here. Most of the struggle to get small groups talking have a group leader to blame. Here are some contributing factors:

  • You answer your own questions. The silence is very uncomfortable but your group has learned that if they wait long enough, you will answer. So, in their minds, why should they answer?
  • The group is not a safe place. By that I mean group members do not trust one another. Being honest is too risky. What if someone repeats outside of the group something personal that was divulged in the group?
  • The group feels that answering with a wrong answer will be too embarrassing. Some people will say they are afraid to speak in front of others, but what they are really afraid of is appearing foolish, inept, or stupid in front of others. They can feel this way if the group leader or another member communicates shame or a put down to someone’s response.
  • You are looking for only one very specific answer to a question. This frustrates learners and they won’t chance an answer again.
  • People won’t respond if they don’t have enough time or information to process an answer before they speak.

So, what can you as a great group leader do to counter these difficulties in group discussion?

  • Don’t answer your own questions. Well, maybe once in a while. But, the more you answer your own discussion questions, the less the group will respond. Wait them out. Don’t let the silence intimidate you. We usually wait less than ten seconds for a respond. Wait at least ten seconds and then restate the question another way. Keep waiting.
  • Make sure the group is a safe place. State almost every meeting that we want the group to be a safe group where trust in one another can grow. Point out that we NEVER put down another group member for a response, even as a joke. Remind everyone that the group has a level of confidence so that what is said in the group stays in the group. There are exceptions like a confessed crime or someone sharing about being endangered in some way but these are rare.
  • Never put down a wrong answer. There are several ways to deal with a wrong answer. One is re-direction. Ask the speaker to share more about his or her idea. Ask if someone else can add another insight. It is very likely you can steer a wrong response to become an acceptable answer if you just keep redirecting the question. Always thank and affirm members when they respond. If they feel that the risk was worth the reward they got, then they will risk answering again. The reward is acceptance and respect.
  • Asking questions with very specific answers tends to shut down discussion. What opens up and encourages more discussion is a question that has several possible correct answers or the answers can be stated in numerous ways. When learners know their chances for success are higher, they will attempt to answer.
  • Prior to asking a question, make sure the learners have enough information to process the question. Some questions don’t need this, but most questions about Bible content will need prior learning to answer such questions. And, if you will put forth the questions in two forms, they will have more help in processing the question. For instance, ask the question verbally as the learners read the question in their study guides or from a poster. And, go back to the suggestions about wait time. Allow learners enough time to think about the question. One way to do this is to tell them or show them the questions in advance. If we are reading a Bible passage, I might ask a question like I did Sunday by saying, “The psalmist of Psalm 42 is facing a problem. What problem is it?” I then read the passage aloud. Then I asked, “What problem is the psalmist facing?” This helped the learners listen with intention and provided guidance in responding to the question.

Leading discussion is both a science and an art. You can develop the skills in guiding great discussion in your small group so that they don’t give you the silent treatment.

Scripture: Read Matthew 16:13-20. Notice that Jesus asked a great discussion question and got responses. Which of the hint above might Jesus have used?

Dig Deeper: Read Good Questions Have Small Groups Talking by Josh Hunt.   

Now It’s Your Turn: How do you guide effective discussion that involves everyone?  Please share your ideas so we can all grow together.

Disclosure of Material Connection:  I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”



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