Winding It Up: finishing a small-group meeting

How thoroughly should you summarize your small-group discussion? Not very. Let people go home with their hearts and thoughts churning.

I’m often asked about the best way to summarize a discussion at the end of a group meeting. My advice is simple: don’t.

A summary has three drawbacks. The main one is, it has a calming effect. This is because a summary “wraps it up,” eliminating loose ends. Folks relax because the topic that seemed so uncertain and turbulent is reduced to a neat list of principles that won’t bother anyone. They go home with an unfurrowed brow.

But you don’t want that! The whole purpose of the discussion is to stimulate. You’d much rather see folks walk out of the room discussing, churning with things yet to say, bothered by ideas they’ve heard. The best way to accomplish this is to end while things are going well: “Hey, that’s it. This has really been good. See you next week.” It’s better to leave a few folks agitated by quitting too soon than to miss a good stopping point.

Another drawback of a summary is that it never catches the full flavor of what’s been said. When you try to capture all the diverse elements of an hour-long discussion in a three-minute synthesis, something is bound to be lost. Ideas get truncated, sharp edges blurred. I may have spoken only twice, but I remember best what I said. If my ideas are missing in the summary, I feel cheated. Even if I spot them, I feel ticked that you didn’t communicate all their nuances.

Finally, there’s the ever-present problem of evaluation lurking just below the surface. Although it’s theoretically possible to summarize in a purely descriptive fashion, judgment almost always creeps in. People have long memories. You’ve stated up front that there are no right answers. If your mood and manner at the end give those words the lie, it can be fatal the next time you try to get folks to open up. They figure you’ll give the “true word” at the end, and they sit back and wait for you to lay it on them.

From Getting Together by Em Griffin. Reprinted from The Small Group Letter (volume 1, issue 6).