For many Group leaders, one of the more intimidating things we do is facilitating a group discussion. Very few of us feel like we’ll have all the right answers, or that we can handle every curveball thrown our way. To make matters worse, it’s challenging to gauge whether we’re doing a good job. But here’s the good news: that’s not what facilitating a group discussion is really about. We don’t have to have all of the right answers. We don’t have to lead the perfect discussion every time. We don’t even have to get through all of the material in each meeting.
When we’re facilitating in our Group, our main goal is to create discussion. We want to challenge people to think about the topic at hand, and to create a safe environment for people to share their thoughts—to help everyone feel valued about the input they’ve offered. That’s all we’ve got to do. Thankfully, there are some established practices and principles that can help us accomplish those goals.
One of the most important skills in Group facilitation is asking the right questions, not having all of the right answers. Here are a few secrets to asking good questions:
Ask open-ended questions. Avoid yes/no, true/false, multiple-choice questions—”Is Jesus the sheep or the shepherd in this parable?” Similarly, avoid questions that let people off the hook with a simple Sunday-school answer—”Why did Jesus die on the cross?” You want to ask questions that require people to share some actual thoughts and feelings. A good example is asking about experiences: “When have you experienced mercy?” You might also ask, “What does it look like to care for orphans in the 21st century?” Open-ended questions invite group members to think critically, consider their feelings, and answer in multiple ways.
Ask follow-up questions. Many people default to staying pretty surface-level with their answers, so get in the habit of not letting them off the hook. Ask more questions that follow up on their response. Here are some examples of good follow-up questions for the short/simple answers that people often give:
Start an argument. I like to tell my groups that if we always agree with each other and with the author of our study, it makes for a pretty boring group and a somewhat pointless discussion. The point of actually discussing things is to get different perspectives and wrestle with the issues.
Here are some examples of questions that can help create discussion by playing “devil’s advocate”:
Make sure the rubber hits the road. I tell my Group that by the end of the night, we need to make sure we apply what we’re discussing to our lives. Otherwise we just leave group a little smarter, rather than with changed lives. So whatever it is you’re discussing, make sure to end with some application questions.
Here are some examples:
Creating a Safe Environment
Trust makes your Group a place where genuine community can form. Group members need to be able to trust that the group is a safe place—a place where they can get real and know that they will not be judged, gossiped about, and so on.
So how do you create this safe environment? There are several important factors. Make sure to cover the privacy and safety issue in your group guidelines or covenant. Put it on paper that “what is said and happens here stays here.” Review these same group guidelines every single time a new person shows up to group. And as the leader, model this safety and confidentiality yourself.
When people share in the group—no matter how much you may disagree, or how theologically incorrect they may be—make sure they feel affirmed about their answer in the moment. Thank them for sharing. Later, and outside the group meeting, you can (and often should) talk to them about their comments, but it should be done one-on-one. Let them know you appreciate that they share in the group, and that you want to talk further about a particular comment they made. It can be helpful to ask for clarification on what they said and to ask why they believe it. This can both clear up any occurrences of simply misspeaking and also allow for an opportunity for them to realize their fault on their own. If they still hold on to the incorrect belief, you can lovingly point out the truth to them.
Also, avoid giving unrequested advice within the group—”Well if I were you, I’d just do this.” That is one of the quickest ways to shut someone down from sharing. When you hear other group members start to do this, gently remind them by saying, “This is a safe group, and we’re here to listen, not to give advice.”
Remember: the end goal of a group discussion is life change, not perfect discussions or getting through all the material. So stay open to the Holy Spirit during each group meeting and follow where he leads. Some of the most memorable group meetings occur when the leader is willing to scrap the plan for the night and address a specific need or do something fun and spontaneous.
It’s also important to spend some time in prayer before each group meeting. Ask that God would lead the discussion where he wants it to go. And get an apprentice who can help you facilitate, so that you don’t have to go it alone.
Remember that God is the one who does the work in people’s hearts—we are not responsible for it. We are simply creating an environment for community and life change to happen.
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