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People Art: Small Group Facilitation

A strong facilitator is the difference between a small group masterpiece and a Bible study flop. Throw away the formulas and fill-in-the blanks. If you’re going to make a difference in the way people live, you have to be agile, studied, and artistic. Here are some foundational tools to add to your facilitating palette:

Give plenty of wait time. 

The silence after a discussion question can be overwhelming and frightening to a facilitator. A good question should cause people to think. So give people the time they need. Fearing the dreaded silence, facilitators often answer their own questions, skip to the next question, or clarify the question to the point of creating a new question. While the facilitator is panicking, the group members are simply working the question out. What seems like an eternity to the person asking the question is just a moment of think time for people preparing responses. If they don’t understand the question, they’ll ask for help.

Keep things on track. 

This is the most difficult and most important part of facilitating a discussion. Rabbit trails can be very frustrating to members of a group. Keep nudging the conversation back to the point. You might simply repeat the question to bring things back or say something like, “That is an interesting point. Let’s explore that further at the end of our get-together.”

Keeping things on track is an art because people often take circuitous paths to make their points. Once people are looking forward with glazed eyes or arguments over technicalities start to surface, facilitators can be sure that their groups are smack dab in the middle of a tangent. Because of time constraints, facilitators may also need to move to the next discussion point even when the conversation seems to be on track. A good teacher will remind groups how much time they have left during a discussion to help the facilitators stay on track.

Draw people out. 

Some people love to talk; some people take a little nudging. God has created us all for relationship with one another and talking is an important part of building relationship. Make it a goal to hear from every person in your group at least once during every get-together. You can easily make a shift in who’s speaking by saying, “Does anyone else have thoughts on this?” If that doesn’t work, you may have to be more direct by saying something like, “Marcus, we haven’t heard from you on this. What do you think?”

Avoid making a person who is afraid to share feel like his or her contribution is wrong or foolish. A person who feels judged or ridiculed may likely never open up to the group again. People will test the group’s responses to their initial contributions. An excellent facilitator works to make sure the reactions are caring and encouraging.

Have a positive attitude. 

If the facilitator complains about an experience, the experience is doomed to failure for that group. We have different learning styles. An experience that may cause you to bristle may be the very activity a different group member needs to discover the point. Facilitators need to model a willing attitude. Perhaps you’ll find meaning and learning in activities you thought you wouldn’t like.   

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Karl Leuthauser directs the research and development division at Group Publishing and co-wrote the runaway bestseller, Quiet Strength, with Tony Dungy