There is no question that small group leaders can increase the effectiveness and depth of group discussions through the right amount of planning and preparation. But there is an X-factor involved—one that typically rears its head at the worst possible moment in the middle of a discussion. That X-factor is silence. Stated simply, when one or more group members refuse to answer your questions or engage in the discussion, their silence can make all of your preparation seem worthless.
Fortunately, several practical methods do exist that can help shy or quiet small group members open up and get involved.
Don’t Jump the Gun
When you ask a question that goes unanswered by the rest of the group, the temptation to jump in and break the silence can be very strong. But it’s important to resist. Answering your own question is almost never a good idea and usually implies one of two things—either that the question wasn’t important enough to discuss in the first place or that your group members aren’t capable of answering it on their own.
Instead, wait for an answer. Let the silence stretch for 30 seconds or even a minute. Doing so gives people a reasonable amount of time to process the question, compare it with the material being discussed, and formulate a response. If after that amount of time it becomes clear that nobody is coming forward, consider rephrasing the question by focusing on a different angle. Better yet, get the rest of your group involved by asking, “Is there a better way to approach this topic?”
Make Eye Contact
In a group setting—especially one where people are interacting as part of a circle—people usually interpret eye contact as an invitation to speak. So if a group member hasn’t contributed to the discussion yet, look directly at them as you ask the next question. Also, be aware of the message being sent by your body language. Lean forward and smile as you ask the question. This reassures the person that you are interested in what he or she has to say.
If you are in a group where one or more people have a history of not participating in the discussion, use your choice of seating as an advantage. By sitting directly across from a quiet person, you maximize the amount of eye contact he or she will receive.
Many discussion leaders are hesitant to “call on” a specific group member for fear of intimidating or embarrassing them. But this is a useful tool for group discussions where it’s important that each person participate. Asking for a specific person to respond doesn’t need to be authoritative or mean. Instead of demanding an answer, simply ask, “Steve, did you have anything to add?” or “Jamie, did anything strike you as especially interesting?”
When taking this route, be sure to accept “I don’t know” as an appropriate answer. Sometimes people genuinely don’t have anything they want to add, or what they did plan on saying was mentioned by somebody else. As a discussion leader, it’s not your role to drag information from each member of the group. Rather, it’s your job to politely and assertively let each person know that their opinions are valued and welcomed.
Praise, Praise, Praise
When a traditionally quiet person does speak out in the middle of a discussion, make sure it becomes a positive experience. Credit the person for the thoughts expressed, and be assertive in inviting more by saying something like, “That’s a great insight, Chris. We need to hear more from you in the future.”
Again, watch your body language, and be sure to smile. If a quiet person says something that you don’t agree with, or that doesn’t quite match the topic at hand, don’t grimace, or smirk. Instead, credit that person for speaking out, and then seek out the opinion of another group member—ideally, this would be a co-leader, if you have one—who can steer the conversation back on track.