Everyone who has ever lead a small group will have run into this: a small group that is eerily quiet with too long periods of uncomfortable silence. Questions keep lingering in the air, without anyone offering an answer, or the answers are of the one syllable kind. For a leader, a small group that won’t talk, that won’t share, can be a real struggle. One of the reasons for a small group to keep quiet can be that the leader is asking the wrong questions. Because asking good starter questions will get your small group to talk!
Asking good questions means preparation on your part. Don’t just prepare what you want to tell them, but think hard and long about how you want to formulate your questions so they will have maximum impact.
Here’s a quick guide to asking good starter questions to get your small group talking:
Ask open questions
Open questions are questions that can’t be answered with just one word, but that require at least a sentence (and preferably more). The good thing is that it gets your students to talk, and that they can add to each other’s answers.
Example: Why do you think Jesus took time for prayer so early in the day?
Ask directed questions
If you direct your question to a specific student, they will in all likelihood answer. Be careful doing this with very personal questions or with questions in which you suppose knowledge. You should never force anyone to share something personal and you don’t want to put someone in a position where they will look like a fool if they don’t know the answer.
Example: Why do you think Jesus took time for prayer so early in the day, Jason?
Ask focused questions
Have you ever been witness to a discussion where the question was so difficult, that it had to be repeated before people understood it? Make it a rule of thumb to ask one question at a time (instead of say, three on a row) and to address only one subject.
Example of unfocused question: Jesus rose early in the morning to pray. Why would he do that? We see Him do that a couple of times, so apparently He made a habit out of it. Why would He make it a habit to pray? What would be a good time for you to pray?
Ask follow up questions
Always listen to what your students are saying and then ask follow up questions. Be especially sensitive to ‘hidden messages.’ It not only shows them you’ve been listening, but it also makes them feel you’re really interested in what they have to say. This will add to the sense of security in the group and will create more openness.
Example: Student’s answer: I think Jesus was too busy the rest of the day to pray. I know how He felt. Follow up question: What do you mean? Do you feel you’re too busy to pray as well? Or: What are you busy with at the moment?
Ask good starter questions
I’ve found that good starter questions (the opening questions of a small group session) can make a difference. They can get your small group in a talking mode right from the start of the evening. Good starter questions are often funny or are about something everyone can relate to and they still link to the subject of the small group session in some way. They invite to share stories, to laugh together and they create a sense of sameness.
Examples: Are you a morning or an evening person? What happens when you’re forced to be the opposite? Or: What is the weirdest conversation you’ve ever had with your parents?
Ask awareness questions
Awareness questions are questions that make your students aware of a specific emotion or experience in a certain time period. I’ve actually written a whole post on awareness questions and how you can use them to get your small group to share, so you can find more info there.
Ask divergent questions
Divergent questions are questions where the answers can go in a lot of directions. Because there is no good or wrong answer, students are more likely to share and more kids can answer the same question.
Examples: Suppose you have no obligations, what would your perfect day be like? Imagine you were God, what would your priorities be in ‘fixing’?
Ask questions that address head and heart
Don’t ask for just knowledge. Bible knowledge is useless unless they actually have a relationship with God and act it out. So make sure you address both head and heart in your questions.
Example of a ‘heart’ question: How do you feel when you’re alone, talking to God?
Don’t ask the obvious questions
There’s this really cliché joke about a boy in Sunday school. When his Sunday school teacher took the class outside to show them God’s creation, she pointed at a squirrel and asked the kids what it was. No one answered. Finally the boy raised his hands and said: I know the answer’s supposed to be Jesus, but it sure looks like a squirrel to me.
We all know the obvious questions, the ones that have a standard, cliché answer. Don’t ask them, unless you’re somehow interested in meaningless answers. Make your questions original, intriguing, captivating.
Stimulate your students to think by asking out-of-the-box questions.
Example: Why didn’t Jesus just create ‘office hours’ so people would come between 9 and 5 and create some free time for Himself?
Don’t be afraid of silence. I know, silence can be truly threatening and as a small group leader, silence can make you sweat. But I took some journalism classes when I was in college and one of the most valuable things I learned in interviewing techniques was the use of silence. When people answer a question and you feel like there’s more, like they’re not saying everything, just wait a few seconds. A majority of the people will start talking again if you don’t.
Have you ever had a small group that was too quiet? What did you do? What type of questions seem to work in your small group?