You already know the kind of meeting or group discussion that makes you want to discreetly check your phone, your cuticles, your watch. What’s the difference between those and the discussions that make you lean forward?
Author Jim Rubart knows what snatches the attention of the adult brain. He describes part of the brain’s anatomy, Broca’s area: “Broca is the nine-hundred pound bouncer of the brain. What Broca hates: Boredom. What Broca loves: Surprises.” That well-chiseled bouncer (in a too-tight tee, no doubt) only allows into the brain’s attention ideas that are relevant, interesting, or noteworthy.
Here’s what doesn’t make it in from your group discussion: white noise; information that draws no conclusions to the realities that matter to them. Rubart encourages, “Surprise Broca and you’ll make an impression that can last for months, sometimes years.”
So when you’re the host of a group discussion, how can you make sure Broca lets you in and group members stay alert and engaged, drawing in spiritual concepts you hope will alter the ways they live and love? How can you facilitate group members making meaningful connections between the material, their own lives, and each other?
A few ideas.
1. Supercharge group discussion.
Truth: Understanding your group’s world makes all the difference in facilitating life-changing conversation.
A blue-collar group, for example, might have totally different felt needs than an independently wealthy group. Someone using these ideas in a diverse inner-city neighborhood could bring needs to this conversation different from someone working with a youth group in their spare time.
If you don’t meet these needs, their brains start thinking—even subconsciously—This isn’t the group for me.
So take a bit of time to mentally enter the world of your group.
Shift, an e-learning company, suggests questions like these:
- What types of skills is the team missing that you’re looking to fill with this course?
- What do they already know?
- What do they not know?
- What’s their experience with this topic?
- Do they think they need this training?
- What could keep your group from really connecting with the material and carrying it out?
- What is using this content going to be like in their real lives?
How would differing answers to each of these questions alter your course as a facilitator?
This is one reason to insist as one of your ground rules that people share what they’re really thinking rather than the expected, churchy answer (which, BTW, doubles as white noise).
2. Let them come to conclusions on their own.
Think of a time when a parent told teenage-you something you shrugged off for one reason or another, but life experience later drove the lesson home.
Truth is, conclusions are infinitely more effective when we see our need for them ourselves, rather than others implying, Here’s what you need to do.
Effective adult learning knows experience is more important than ideas! Owning a concept and pulling it into our own lives ratchets that idea to a place we can and will apply it in the future.
That’s why it’s so important your group applies these ideas to their own life’s potential potential, rather than you teaching an idea and coming to the conclusion on their behalf.
3. Understand that your goals may be different than you think.
Is your priority to steer your group to the “right” answer?
If the group members wake up to the idea their opinions don’t really matter—only your expert opinion does—your group discussion hits the brakes faster than a teenage driver at a stop sign. Unless you’re hired or positioned as an expert or teacher, the power of your role at the table lies in facilitating.
Yes, steering your group away from errant conclusions is definitely a good idea. But consider moving from some typical leadership mindsets to healthy alternatives.
|“Right” answers||Broader thinking and understanding; moving from one-size-fits-all “McAnswers” or churchy answers to discovering what members crave for their own anticipated scenarios. This requires knowledge of individual members.|
|Task completion||Personal application and creative thinking about a topic.|
|Comprehension||Understanding one another and the stories and “whys” behind our answers and opinions.|
|Teaching||Facilitating, prioritizing experience of the information over theory.|
|Interrupting or jumping in||Creating verbal space for processing, those timid or slower to speak, esteem of the answer just given.|
|Significance of the leader||Group discovery, humbly affirming group thoughts, including ideas valuable to each member personally.|
4. Manage group dynamics by quietly demonstrating trustworthy, thoughtful authority.
You’ll help draw out quieter personalities and graciously rein in (while still acknowledging) more commanding ones. You will indicate you’re okay with silence, or encourage the group to chat if the silence goes on too long. And you’ll divide larger groups into smaller discussion groups of six members or less, to encourage more intimate participation.
Other responsibilities as a facilitator:
- Model the group dynamics you hope to see. Set the tone toward vulnerability, curiosity, good listening, patience, and honest, well-considered answers.
- Keep the group talking, while still respecting their time, i.e., getting the group dismissed on time.
- Allow the group discussion to generate ownership, creative thinking, and application around the material. The more your group interacts with a concept, the more likely they are to use these principles in actual mentoring situations.
5. Deal with conversational off-roading.
As the facilitator, it’s your responsibility to graciously prevent irrelevant conversation—not from happening, as these are often times of connection and humor, but from dominating. Maintain tension between healthy conversational off-roading and helping the group successfully answer the question at hand.
- Is someone sharing a vulnerable moment, where pulling the group back to the main discussion would feel crass or diminish trust—putting tasks ahead of people?
- Does what someone’s sharing maintain a thread to the topic, so you could model reflective listening while gently steering the group back on track?
Phrases to keep in your back pocket:
- “Let’s stop for a minute. I want to respect everyone’s time and let anyone else chime in on this main idea of xyz.”
- “Is there anything someone wants to add before we move on?”
- “May I interrupt you here? Just want to make sure we have time to talk about…”
Find more ideas in our infographic, How to Lead the Off-Roader.
6. Use three magic words.
Carry your group to fascinating new depths with three little words: Tell me more. Rather than the task-oriented goal of your group coming to the right answers, go for the higher goals of understanding not only the concept, but each other and the “why” behind the ways people answer.
7. Use tried and true prompts.
Maybe it seems like a no-brainer, but “Adult learners can be easily bored when they are stuck in a routine, and it is important to keep them engaged with stimulating questions,” points out learning site LaughLearnSpeak.com. If group time follows the pattern of watch video/regurgitate the facts/throw in a good application point, your group has likely already checked their brains at the door.
What’s the point of a course or study which no one finds personally valuable?
Adult learning specialists recommend group discussion prompts like:
- Which of these concepts have you already experienced in real life? What’s one that surprised you?
- What’s something controversial you believe about this topic?
- What’s your main takeaway on this, and why is it something you want to remember?
- What are you curious to learn more about on this topic?
8. Try these tips toward listening well.
- Before getting the right answer, prioritize that the person speaking feels heard, received, and understood.
- Refrain from
- Finishing sentences.
- Talking immediately after a group member stops.
- Planning your responses rather than listening (see Proverbs 18:2, 13).
- Proving yourself as wise or helpful.
- Ask thoughtful, nurturing questions. Ideally, the person walks away feeling that being heard by and processing with your group offered them a better understanding of themselves.
If you’re getting the idea a good facilitator extends the group a great deal of trust, you’d be drawing the right conclusion. Like a great coach, a wise facilitator demonstrates listening techniques, shows the boundaries of play, occasionally offers direction from the sidelines so the ball heads in the right direction. He’s not a nuisance, shouting at every possible missed play, but he offers guidance so the game continues to be fun and fair. Other than that, a good facilitator lets the game take its course. Everyone enjoys a great game that stretches their capacity.
Copyright © 2023 Janel Breitenstein. All rights reserved.
Janel Breitenstein is an author, freelance writer, speaker, and frequent contributor for FamilyLife, including Passport2Identity®, Art of Parenting®, and regular articles. After five and a half years in East Africa, her family of six has returned to Colorado, where they continue to work on behalf of the poor with Engineering Ministries International. Her book, Permanent Markers: Spiritual Life Skills to Write on Your Kids’ Hearts (Harvest House), empowers parents to creatively engage kids in vibrant spirituality. You can find her—“The Awkward Mom”—having uncomfortable, important conversations at JanelBreitenstein.com, and on Instagram @janelbreit.