Ask an Expert
Tips for Encouraging Small Group Conversation
By Rachel Dodd
I have a rule of thumb when I teach my youth group: Never ask two questions in the same way.
Discussion is one of the most effective ways in which we process new ideas so we can put them into practice in our lives. Go through your gospels and count how many times Jesus chats and asks questions of his listeners, and you’ll soon see that the Word was intended to be mulled over, communicated, and lived out through the medium of relationships. But even though we all know that asking questions is a good idea during our teaching times, it’s easy to let our fear of the dreaded awkward silence keep us from making the most of group discussion time.
In any one gathering, I may ask my students at different points to reflect silently on a personal question, discuss in small groups, and write or draw a response on paper. We rarely sit still. While that might seem like a lot of work, changing up the approach throughout our time together not only minimizes the risk of students getting bored and tuning out but it engages the variety of learning styles you’ll inevitably have throughout the room. As you grow creatively in the practice of asking questions, you’ll also be helping students discover new things about themselves and the way they learn and process—boosting their confidence to share when it’s time for group discussion.
Create shapes which encourage conversation
Think about it: discussion in pairs is going to be a different kind of interaction than that which takes place in one large circle. If students are seated in rows or a triangle, they can avoid eye contact. Grouping around a table makes it easier for students to be distracted by their phones (which they can set down right in front of them), but at the same time creates a focal point if you’re asking them to collaborate. If you’re frustrated with the level of interaction among your small groups, start by selecting a seating arrangement for the conversation you’d like them to have.
When asking for answers, think outside the box
Some students have well-developed verbal communication skills, but for others, the requirement to form their thoughts into words and share them can actually be a barrier to participation. It’s good to help each one grow in their speaking abilities; however, a little creativity on your part will help them overcome some big fears.
If you’re asking for personal reflection, try teaching students to journal their responses. Ask them to doodle what they hear while listening to your talk and share about their artwork (Bonus: you’ll learn a lot about how each individual in your group processes information when you look at their doodles later). Give groups flipchart or butcher paper to compose their responses on so that they can form an answer collectively and recall it with confidence when it’s time to share. When discussing in pairs, ask individuals to share something their partner answered which made them think—an exercise that can also encourage active listening skills. And don’t be afraid to send your students home with a question to report back on the next time you meet. You may be encouraged at how much processing students do when they’re applying your topic to their everyday life.
Manage your environment for maximum engagement
Although seating arrangement can enhance conversation, prepare yourself for the inevitable: those who are least comfortable with talking are going to seat themselves in the places which offer the most distraction. So look around your meeting space and ask yourself: Where do my least talkative or most disruptive students sit? Then ask yourself why. Are any seats placed so that they face away from the one speaking? Are there games or equipment within reach, tempting them to lose focus? Are screens, music, or noise getting in the way of conversation? Do they make a beeline for the sofas, which will inevitably make them feel sleepy? Bright walls, lighting, and temperature can all affect students’ moods, volume levels, and willingness to participate. But the great news is that you can anticipate these factors and manage them before they become a problem.
Craft your questions - and your groups - with care
I’m sure we’ve all been in the awkward situation of having to discuss something we know nothing about. Or perhaps worse—something very personal that we don’t feel comfortable sharing. Before you ask your group to put their knowledge on display, make sure you do your own homework. Spend some time in the children’s ministry and with your long-standing youth leaders to get a better grasp of how your students have been taught so far, and gage their Biblical understanding so that your teaching and topics build on what they know. You can stretch them to go a little further in maturity or understanding but remember: nothing clams up a teenager like lack of confidence, so don’t change the goalposts dramatically. On the flip side, if students seem to have a good grasp of Scripture, be careful not to bore them with simple reading comprehension questions. Learn about the differences between the early, mid, and upper adolescent brain (there’s a lot of great resources being written lately on that topic!) so that your expectations match their physical capabilities. And think very carefully about how you frame both the question and method of response when asking for a discussion on topics that might be very personal to some—such as bullying, mental health, identity, wealth and poverty, etc. You may wish to evaluate your group dynamics: do your small groups feel like safe places for your students to share? If not, do you need to slow down the curriculum and do a little work on interpersonal relationships?
Allow students to be who they are.
Showing sensitivity and understanding to a student who truly doesn’t wish to share builds a solid foundation of a relationship on which they can grow.
Likewise, thinking ahead about ways to redirect the enthusiasm of that student who never seems to stop talking can protect him or her from staying away out of sheer embarrassment. If you feel that there’s an imbalance of over-sharers and/or non-sharers in your group, think about putting your discussion questions in a handout or weekly email so that they can dig a little deeper personally during the week. Plus, it’s no bad thing to encourage students and families to talk about their faith at home!
When students are in an environment where they feel practically engaged and lovingly encouraged, they’ll open up. So don’t fear the question—embrace it.