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10 Commands for Leading Discussion: Don't Be Afraid of Silence

Read the previous "Discussion Commandment" here.

When leading a discussion, few things are more awkward and sometime discouraging than a prolonged silence. When you ask an open-ended question, and no one jumps in to answer; the temptation is to fill the silence with your own thoughts. However, if you aren't willing to live with silence, you'll slowly create a culture in your group which is unfriendly to discussion.

Silence is a sign that people are thinking. As a group leader, you've had an opportunity to look at your discussion questions ahead of time, and likely you've thought through your own answers to those questions. In many group settings, the group members haven't had that opportunity. The first time they hear the question, they may want to take a few moments to process their answer before speaking out loud. Allowing your group to sit in silence for a few moments will, over time, allow your group to have more robust and thoughtful discussions. James 1:19 encourages us to be “slow to speak.” Allowing your group to be silent occasionally, encourages them to be thoughtful with their words.

When you as a question and no one answers quickly, here are some simple tools for dealing with the silence:

  • Smile. If you don't look stressed about the silence, your group won't feel undue pressure to answer before they are ready. Look around the group, make eye contact with those who look at you, and continue smiling.

  • Acknowledge the silence. After a little while, it's okay to say something without answering the question. You can easily say something like, “I guess you guys are really thinking about this one” or “Take your time, I know that means you'll have better answers”. Simple statements like this help your group to know it's okay to have silence, but helps to relieve some of the awkwardness.

  • Volunteer to go first. If you are certain that the silence is not going to be broken, as a last resort, you can volunteer to give your answer. However, it is important to remind the group that you don't want to be the one always answering the questions first. Asking the group a question such as, “Do you guys mind if I get us started?” is an easy way to do this, but following the question with, “But someone else will need to go first next time” helps the group know that you desire participation.

Remember, good discussion depends on building a culture of acceptance and inclusion. Every time a group leader breaks into the silence by speaking first, they reinforce the idea that group members don't need to participate. By allowing silence to motivate thoughtful answers, you'll create a culture of openness and honesty; and you'll promote great discussions.

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Here is a great exercise for a new group. The instructions are pretty simple. Go around the group giving each person the opportunity to choose one question and answer it honestly. Anyone can follow-up with an opinion or clarifying question (no critiquing each other's answers, though). Once a question has been answered, no one else may answer that question.

If your group is larger, you may want to alter the rule and allow each question to be answered 2 or 3 times. Ideally, each person should end up answering 3-5 questions.

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