I have found that group discussions are one of the most difficult kinds of communication to do effectively.
The challenge of group discussion lies partially in the fact that the leader has less direct control over how it goes. If you are leading a group discussion, it’s not enough for you to know your material well: you must know how to invite others into the process of discovery. You also take greater risks, since the quality of the discussion often depends on how interactive and focused the group chooses to be. But if a group discussion is led well, it can also be one of the most effective ways of communication.
Here are some principles I’ve learned along the way that can save a group discussion from being a disaster.
1. Set a clear agenda and let the group know the parameters of the discussion.
People who are eager to learn will feel frustrated by a rambling discussion. Make sure you make it clear at the outset where you intend to go. Setting the parameters at the beginning can also be a preemptive action for potential conversation hijackers.
2. Ask the right questions.
This is such an important part of group discussions that it deserves several points.
- Ask questions that lead toward the central thought you are communicating. For example, if you are teaching on prayer, you might ask, “Why is it so easy for us to neglect prayer?”
- Don’t make your group guess what you’re trying to communicate. This is an easy mistake to make. For example, if you are trying to communicate that our model prayer should be the Lord’s prayer, don’t ask, “What should our model prayer be?” If someone says anything different than the Lord’s prayer, you’ll end up having to say something like, “Nice try, but you’re wrong.” Questions like this come across as, “I’m asking this question to see how many wrong answers you bozos could come up with. Now here’s the real answer.”
- Ask specific, but open-ended questions. For example, the question, “How important is prayer to you?” is open-ended, but not specific enough. The question, “Does the threat of losing something valuable make you desperate to pray? is specific, but not open-ended. The question, “What kinds of circumstances do we tend to feel the most desperate to pray?” is both specific and open-ended.
- Give people time to think about the questions. Since your group is hearing your question for the first time, they need a little time to mull it over. To keep from having dead spaces in the discussion, ask a question, and then talk about the question while giving the group time to come up with answers.
3. If a person says something completely wrong, affirm them without affirming their wrong answer.
Of course you try to avoid questions that might yield answers that contradict your central thought. But inevitably someone is going to offer an idea that is totally wrong. You don’t want to say, “That’s right!” to such a statement. Not only is that dishonest, but you will lose credibility with those who know that answer is wrong. At the same time, you don’t want to embarrass the person who gave the wrong answer. You might get away with a good-natured, “Nope!” But if the person is sensitive, that might embarrass them.
The key to navigating this potentially awkward situation is to think how the wrong answer seems reasonable and explore that path a bit. That way you can communicate that, while it might be reasonable to think such-and-such, given more information the opposite is actually true. Of course, you can’t control whether someone feels hurt or embarrassed. But you can at least do your part to show them respect.
4. Use humor to lighten tense moments and to help people feel comfortable enough to talk.
Tactful humor or even just small talk about yourself can ease the atmosphere in the room. You don’t have to be clever or a comedian to make people feel laugh and feel comfortable, but make sure that any deprecating humor is directed only toward yourself.
5. Regardless of how the discussion went, know ahead of time what ideas you want the group to take away from the meeting.
Don’t end the meeting by saying, “Well, that was an interesting discussion.” The discussion might have brought to light some points you hadn’t thought of, but make sure that you reiterate the central point you were trying to communicate. Ideally, the discussion will have amplified, illustrated, and driven that point home even further.