No good discussion can happen unless the right climate or environment has first been cultivated. Just as a farmer’s job begins long before he puts seeds into the ground, a group leader’s job begins long before the first discussion question is asked.
No farmer walks out of his house one morning and just decides to throw some seeds on the ground. He knows if he hasn’t spent sufficient time preparing the ground, the seeds will have little or no chance to grow. Before he ever plants the seeds, the farmer spends time clearing the land, installing irrigation, removing weeds and plants, and cultivating the soil. When preparation is done properly, the seed will have the best possible chance to grow.
Giving your group’s discussion the best possible chance to be effective requires the leader to spend time creating an accepting environment. People’s ability to open themselves or close themselves is often dependent on whether or not they feel accepted. Someone who feels unwanted will typically withdraw, clam up, and eventually disappear. An effective group discussion will only happen when each group member feels valued, desired, and welcomed.
As the leader, you need to be able not only to cultivate this accepting environment, but also to evaluate the existing environment to notice whether or not people feel welcome. Observing group member’s level of involvement and body language is an easy way to identify whether or not people feel accepted. Some simple questions to ask yourself are:
- How often are people contributing to the discussion? If someone is never contributing, they may not feel accepted by the group. If they are fully engaged, they likely feel very accepted.
- Has anyone demonstrated a drastic change in group involvement? When someone who has never engaged suddenly begins engaging, you have probably succeeded in creating a accepting environment. The reverse is also true. If someone has consistently participated in group discussions and suddenly is withdrawn, you probably should inquire as to why.
- Are people leaning in or backing out? When someone sits back with their arms folded protectively over their chest, they may be demonstrating that they don't feel welcome. When people lean toward each other, they are exhibiting the type of vulnerability which is a result of feeling valued, welcomed, and accepted.
- Regularly remind them of specific ways they make the group better.
- Seek opportunities to interact with them apart from group time.
- Remember birthdays and milestone days.
- Celebrate their accomplishments.
- Follow up on their prayer requests.
- Send random encouraging notes or emails.
- Contact them when they've missed a group gathering.
- Invite them to participate in informal "life-sharing" activities.
Actively listen to each person.