5 Tips for Facilitating Great Group Conversations

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[This week, we're going to run a couple posts by Donald Smith. Donald is part of Care at North Point Ministries. He has a ton of insight and experience in leading groups through difficult conversations in a way that maintains group cohesion while meeting individual group members where they are. We think you'll benefit a lot from Donald's wisdom—Ed.]

GriefShare is one of our Care ministries. It helps people work through the trauma of losing a loved one. It's a group environment in which they can begin to understand what they're experiencing as well as acquire some tools to move forward and find some peace in the midst of really difficult circumstances.

We put a lot of time and effort into training GriefShare leaders because their ability to navigate tough conversations makes all the difference to the people who join these groups looking for wisdom in how to deal with their own pain. Like all leaders, GriefShare leaders don't have all the answers. They don't need to have all the answers. They do need to be able to create an environment where people in similar circumstances can form relationships and have rich, helpful conversations about their shared experiences.

Today and Wednesday, I want to share with you some of the practical tips we teach GriefShare leaders about facilitating great conversations. Here are the first five.

  1. Be a facilitator, not a teacher. You're not there to teach or lecture. You're there to facilitate . . . to make conversations easier. That means that your primary job is to clear any obstacles to helpful discussion and encourage your group members' growth. It's more important that you draw people out and help them to share than it is that you provide them with information. In the best groups, members feel free to address each other directly with helpful questions and feedback.
  2. Encourage everyone to participate. The more people in a group who take part in the group discussions, the better the group experience is for everyone involved. Using eye contact can encourage others to join the conversation. Don't stare, but use your eyes to invite participation. After asking a question, say, "Let's hear from some who haven't had the chance to share much yet." If you sense that someone wants to say something but is hesitating, it's okay to call on that person by name. But don't put anyone on the spot. Sometimes quiet people are listening and receiving from the conversation, but aren't able to verbalize ideas yet.
  3. Don't allow anyone to monopolize the conversation. This is related to the previous point. Some people are talkers. If there's silence, they want to fill it. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. They may have a lot to add to the conversation. But they can also monopolize the time if you don't referee their participation. Making sure everyone has a chance to talk—and everyone has a chance to listen—is one of your biggest responsibilities as a leader. One thing you can do to discourage monopolizing is to remind the group at the beginning of each meeting that confidentiality is important. People are more likely to open up when they feel safe in group. And when everyone opens up, there's less chance that extroverts will feel the need to dominate the discussion.
  4. Ask open questions. Closed questions can be answered yes or no or with just a few words. They're a wet blanket to free discussion. Open questions usually begin with "What do you think about . . ." or "How do you feel about . . . ." They allow group members to personalize the question and respond by talking about ideas or feelings that are important to them. Open questions encourage the group to think. They don't imply a bias or lead people to the "right" answer. Open questions put more responsibility for the discussion on group members instead of on you.
  5. Deal with difficult questions honestly and biblically. In the best groups, people ask tough questions. Tough questions are a sign of openness and trust. Remember: it's not your job to have all the answers. It's okay to say, "I don't know." Admit your own limitations and ask the rest of the group if they have input. Group members are more likely to open up to a leader willing to acknowledge his or her imperfections than to someone who pretends to have all the answers. If you don't know the answer to a question, be willing to find out and follow up with the group later. You can always reach out to your Groups Director for help.

How have you seen these five tips play out in your own leadership?