10 Commandments for Discussion Leading: #6

Be careful not to "take sides" in a debate.

From time to time in your group discussions, you will happen upon a controversial topic which launches your group into a debate. Particularly, I'm thinking of the type of "disputable" issues like those addressed by Paul in Romans 14.

As your group discusses the issues, you will very likely have an opinion; but it is important that you wait for the right time and use the right methods to share your thoughts. As a group leader, there is always the potential that some in the group may be hesitant to voice their opinion if they feel it is contrary to your position. Your first responsibility is to nurture an environment which allows everyone the opportunity to share their thoughts.

Often our greatest growth comes when we are confronted with opposing viewpoints. We are then given the chance to reconsider the validity of our opinions and either make a change or gain a deeper understanding and appreciation for our position. Good small group debates can be the best possible place for this questioning and reconsidering to happen.

To foster this kind of debate, think of yourself as a moderator, not a participant. The time will likely come when you can share your opinion, but work hard first to ensure the right environment. Here are some simple ideas to be a good debate moderator:
  1. Make sure everyone understands each other. Listen closely to see if group members are misunderstanding one another. If you need to, spend the time rephrasing and restating each person's ideas so everyone knows what everyone else is saying.
  2. Give everyone a chance to participate. Don't let one person dominate the conversation, and offer opportunities to people to give their thoughts. Watch body language to see if someone might be considering speaking, then give them some encouragement.
  3. Ask questions to clarify positions. Give people a chance to be clear about what they are saying by asking clarifying questions.
  4. Don't shut down the debate by making "final statements". If you give the impression that your position is the only appropriate position, you'll rob the group members of their opportunity to sharpen themselves through debate and consideration.
Finally, as the group leader, you do have the last word. Use it wisely. At the end of a good debate, take the time to affirm everyone for their involvement and then give your final thoughts. If you feel an important point needs to be made, take the necessary time to make it. If you feel that people need to go and consider each other's ideas, encourage them to do so. Make sure no one has hurt feelings or is upset, try to quickly summarize the main points of the debate, and if you need to give a short thought about the Bible's position on the topic.

Ultimately, it is up to you to create a good environment for your group to have formative debates, but it is also up to you to be be certain the debates are productive, not destructive. Be careful to work hard toward these goals.