“Discussion is an exchange of knowledge; an argument an exchange of ignorance.” – Robert Quillen, American Journalist and Humorist, 1887-1948
There is a good chance that if you have been participating in a book study, bible study, or some other peer-led discussion group, you will be asked to lead a session. However, leading a discussion group is not quite the same as teaching but rather more like participating at a higher level. There is an art-form in leading a group discussion that is sometimes more akin to herding cats and cutting off rabbit trails than it is getting a particular point across.
I have had the opportunity to lead a number of discussions and thought I would put down a few of my “lessons learned” to help others. Here are some pointers on leading a group discussion.
How to Lead a Group Discussion
The natural tendency for most people leading a discussion is to lead too strongly, almost as if they are teaching the group. A discussion group, however, is not typically made up of students, but rather, peers who all have something to share and something to learn from one another. While you do want to plan for a group discussion, there is a good deal of unpredictability which a good discussion group leader needs to be resilient enough to handle and alright with allowing the discussion to occur on a loose tether rather than a taut wire.
Here are some tips on leading a group discussion and dealing with some of the most common issues that generally arise.
Preparing for the Discussion
Be Prepared to Teach, then Don’t
Though you are not going to “teach” the discussion, you want to prepare for it as if you were. Depending on the subject, there may be things which the group does not understand and cannot come to a reasonable answer. For instance, if it is a discussion on a Bible passage or topic, knowing a bit of the context for the verses will be really helpful. This doesn’t mean exhaustive research, after all, the group is just as responsible for ensuring a good discussion and understanding as you, the facilitator. But do your homework and go the extra mile to get a fuller understanding of the topic at hand.
Create Discussion Points, not an Outline
In most discussion groups, the goal is to review a bit of a book; a chapter or a few verses in the Bible for example. While the discussion revolves around that topic and should not stray too far from that topic, you should not be too dogmatic in hitting every point or even going in order. I have seen a number of discussions get ruined when the leader said, “We are getting a little ahead of ourselves,” and then back the train of thought to an earlier point which matched his outline. Keeping the discussion on the rails and ensuring everyone is participating is far more important than going in order. I’ll touch on how to deal with “rabbit trails” later in the article.
Set the Environment for Discussion
I have often attended a discussion, and unfortunately led discussions, in environments that are just not setup properly. For me, the main thing is lighting. While dim lighting is good for, say, romantic settings, naps, and hangovers, it is not conducive to a lively discussion. Keep the lights on!
Snacks and coffee or tea are also great ways to keep people awake for the meeting. Don’t be offended if someone gets up in the middle of a discussion to get more snacks or coffee. In fact, it should be encouraged.
Start on Time
As the discussion leader, it is your responsibility to call order to the discussion and get things rolling. Sometimes groups like to have 10-15 minutes before the discussion to get coffee and chat a bit, which is fine as long as you set that expectation beforehand. Give a 2-5 minute warning to let everyone know that you’ll be starting soon. Once the appointed time has arrived, start the meeting, even if people are still lingering about or coming in late. Always watch the clock.
Facilitating the Discussion
The goal of a discussion group leader is not to teach, but to invigorate the group in a self-sustaining exchange of ideas. When people show up for a discussion, and instead they are taught, they tune out. The best way to keep people engaged is to get them talking. If a few minutes of discussion can take place without your involvement, you have done your job. Here are a few points on making that happen.
The Golden Rule of Discussion Leadership
There is one rule above all others when leading a discussion group: Make everything a question. If you can do this, and you don’t have a room of duds, you will have a lively discussion and best of all you’ll make it look easy. You will see examples of this as the article progresses.
Starting the Discussion
The start of the discussion sets both the energy and tone for how it will proceed. The level of energy you bring to the start will typically define the energy in the room. The tone of the discussion can also be set here. For example, if you didn’t like a chapter that is being studied and you let that be known, however subtly, the discussion will likely focus on the negatives rather than the positives. This might be appropriate depending on the scenario.
There is another tone that is set when the meeting is started. It is the feeling of whether or not this is going to be a discussion or a lecture. Many new discussion leaders fall into the trap of giving an overview of the topic, which generally includes their thoughts and feelings on the topic as a whole. After a few minutes of talking, the group has tuned out and is thinking, “Oh great. It’s going to be one of those kinds of meetings.”
Kick the discussion off with something simple: “Hopefully everyone read [whatever]. What are your general thoughts on [the topic]?” Baam! Right into the discussion. This opener allows for some rabbit trails to emerge, which if you are new you might not want to chance. If you are worried about that, use this instead: “Can someone give us a quick overview of [the topic]?” Boom! Your people are engaged. For some reason we like listening to people other than the facilitator talk.
Using the Boomerang Technique
There is probably an official discussion leader term for this, but I call it the boomerang technique and is one of my favorite tools on my discussion leader utility belt. It works like this. Someone in the group is having trouble with a particular piece of the topic. Instead of asking the group, they look directly at you and ask, “What do you think that means?” Now, you might know exactly what it means, but since you are the discussion leader it is best to turn this back into a question for the group: “I have some thoughts on it, but I would really like to hear from the group. What do you guys think about [whatever the question is]?” Whoa!? You are a facilitating ninja at this point. A ninja with a boomerang.
Dealing with Rabbit Trails
Rabbit trails are thoughts that tend to be hard to follow and often lead nowhere near where the discussion left off. They are usually created by two people who are apparently sharing some sort of brain-linkage to which the rest of the group is not privy. I like to allow some unplanned thoughts to emerge, but if things get too off the rails here are a few ways to bring them back.
Use the Rabbit Trail to Your Advantage — Many rabbit trails contain elements which would be great for the discussion. Rather than squashing is completely, use some of those elements to start a new group discussion. For example, “You know, I like something you just said and I want to see what the group thinks about it.” This tactic takes the focus off of the folks that have hijacked the discussion train and puts it back into the hands of the people.
Stop the Rabbit Trail Gently — You never want to kill the mood for discussion, so don’t be too severe when trying to bring order back to the meeting. A good way to do this is to say, “Guys, I think those are good thoughts, but we are getting beyond the original question and into territory not everyone can participate in.” You can sometimes stop a rabbit trail before it gets too far along. If you noticed someone in the group wanted to say something before the trail emerged, kindly ask the rabbit trailers to hold their thoughts so that so and so can chime in.
How to Deal with Conversation Hogs
Being that discussions are peer-led and peer-participated, there is always a chance that someone in the group just “has to share their thoughts” on every single question. These people do so to the detriment of the group. If a question is asked by the facilitator, and 3 minutes are spent in response by one person, other people generally won’t add their thoughts in consideration of time and also because it would seem so meager in comparison. Here’s how to handle a conversation hog.
Cut them Off — This is where you have to step in. Only do this if someone is really hogging the conversation and does this repeatedly in group discussions. The occasional rant is alright, but if someone is talking over others or making the discussion all about them and their problems, you’ve got to put a stop to it. You might say something along the lines of, “[John or Jane] I see you have a lot of passion about this subject but I want to make sure everyone else has a turn to chime in as well. Let’s give them some time to respond. Guys?”
Talk to them After the Meeting — Sometimes conversation hogs just don’t get it. They speak almost impulsively as if they are addicted to the sound of their own voice. After the meeting just ask them to hold off a little while before responding to a question to let other people have a chance to jump in.
How to Handle a Group of Introverts
Sometimes you just get a group of people who aren’t talkers. They are hesitant to speak and when they do say something it is usually the bare minimum they can get away with. Teens are notorious for this, but it happens with adults as well. Here are a few ways I have handled this.
Use the Awkwardness of Silence — Silence in a group discussion can feel like a void that must be filled, especially as a leader. Resist the temptation to fill the awkward silence and allow it to move someone to speak up.
Ask Probing Questions — Non-talkers or introverts will often answer a question with as little feedback as possible. For example: “What did you guys think of this chapter?” will get the response, “I thought it was OK.” In this case, hit that person with another question: “How was it OK?” or “Did it make you think differently about [whatever]? In what way?”
Call on People — I hate doing this, but sometimes it is necessary to kick things off. After a good deal of silence has passed and no one has said anything, simple say, “[Joe or Jane], what did you think about the chapter?”
Be Open — This is the one time it is OK to talk during a discussion group. It breaks the golden rule mentioned above, but introverts sometimes need to know it is safe to come out of their shell. Tell what you thought about the topic and make it as personal as possible.
Stop on Time
This one is simple enough. Respect people’s time. If you feel like the discussion is going well and it is possible to go over the time, ask the group if they want to keep going for another 30 minutes or so.
It isn’t uncommon to get a positive feedback from the group even if you totally bungled your role as a discussion group leader. Be sure to elicit honest, critical feedback one on one to make sure you can improve as a discussion group leader.
Once you have the hang of it, leading a discussion is really just throwing out some clever questions, getting a feel for the direction the group wants to take the discussion, and staying out of the way. The best discussions are the ones where the group says a lot and the discussion group leader says very little.