Seven Tips for Leading a Dynamic Discussion

There are  few things I hate more than being stuck in a bad group discussion. One member’s on a tangent, the other ones won’t talk, and the leader has no clue what to do to fix the situation. It’s painful because it only takes a few adjustments to create a thriving discussion. 

I love a dynamic discussion, where people are excited, participating, and co-creating meaningful insights and applications. Through observing, studying, and leading groups, I’ve distilled these experiences into seven tips to help leaders build these types of discussions.

1. Have a Goal In Mind

Before you begin the discussion, you need to have a goal for your time.  What do you want the participants to get out of the discussion? Where do you want to go? That doesn’t mean things can’t change as you go along, but you want to work down a general path towards a predetermined goal.

This rarely happens, and instead, the de facto purpose is to fill the time. This causes discussions to become about the quantity of comments, rather than the quality. People are encouraged to say whatever comes to mind, and the discussions degrades into a series of rabbit trails and unconnected thoughts. A good discussion leader knows what they want the members to gain from the time and works to guide the group there.

Example: Goal: To understand why suffering is present in every person’s life, and to see how the gospel and Christ’s suffering weave our difficulties into God’s cosmic story of renewal.

2. Know Your Role

For a discussion to flourish, the leader must understand their role in the group. I like to imagine a group as a symphony. The worst kind of discussion leaders are the ones who think they are the first violin. They see themselves as the most talented of the group, and feel responsible to drive the group through their abilities and insights. This pushes the rest of the group into the role of audience member, left only to applaud the brilliance of the leader. 

Most discussion leaders know they shouldn’t be the first violin, but in reaction to that they become too passive. The vast majority think of themselves as the emcee of the symphony, having a role as host and facilitator, but not actively involved in the performance as a co-creator. These leaders ask the prepared questions, but then passively sit by while everyone throws out their thoughts. Then when the comments stop, they ask if anyone has any more thoughts, before pausing and reading off the next question. This hands-off approach may be okay, but since discussions naturally tend towards disorder unless led, you will end up with bland, mediocre discussions that jump all over the place.

The third role is the perfect balance between the over-activity of the first role and the passivity of the second role. A healthy discussion leader acts as the conductor of the orchestra, deftly working to draw out the strengths and gifts of the members of the group. The leader doesn’t play in the orchestra, but also doesn’t sit by as an observer. The conductor, through his gestures, coaxes the orchestra along, drawing out different instruments and quieting others in order to create a beautiful harmony. A good discussion leaders uses a variety of questions, both big and small, to co-create an atmosphere for the group members to thrive.  At the end of the concert, as the crowds applauds, the conductor stands to the side, acknowledging that it is all about the group. Think of your role as the conductor; through your actions and adjustments you are there to make the group sound beautiful.

3. State the facts and ask for opinions (avoid close-ended questions and ask open-ended ones)

Don’t ask questions where everyone in the group can look down and see the answer. This is awkward and insults the participants’ knowledge.  Let’s pretend you are studying Matthew 6:38, where Jesus says: “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

So many leaders would start by asking the group some variation of, “So what two things does Jesus want you to seek?” Everyone will stare at the ground, embarrassed by the simplicity of the question. Instead, the leader should state the obvious, and then draw an open-ended question from that. Example: So Jesus tells his followers to seek his kingdom and his righteousness. Why do you think Jesus chose these two concepts as the most important things to pursue in the Christian life?”  

By doing this you have changed the entire discussion; the people aren’t looking for an answer in the text, they are instead creating answers in their mind that are based on the text. You are jumpstarting their brains, rather than turning them into regurgitation machines. If you just want facts, have them do a worksheet and save everyone the time. Fact-based questions kill a group’s momentum, while asking open-ended questions empower people to think.

4. Affirm answers, then reframe the discussion by pulling out key truths.

So you’re stating facts and asking open-ended questions, and people are giving insightful answers. So far so good. Now, as people talk, affirm their answers.  Use verbal and nonverbal cues to encourage the members. As someone answers, nod your head up and down; or give a quiet “yeah” or “mhm-hmmm” when they make a good point. These should be genuine of course, but remember that 90 percent of your group is insecure about their answer.  As the “expert,” help them to believe that they have something to offer the group. Over time, this encouragement will help create members who feel confident to talk and share.

Then, after someone finishes, let someone else build off of that answer. Sometimes, though, particularly if an answer is long or complex, it helps if you draw out the most applicable point from their insights and reframe it as the foundation for group to build off off: An example: 

(To James) That’s a great point, James. You’re right about the clues that the author provides to help us see the man’s disappointment. (To group) How do these insights help shape your reaction towards the man?

(To Jessica) I hadn’t thought about that. (To group) What makes that such a crucial part of the story?

You don’t to do this every time, but this is a great way to keep the group progressing along the best path for the discussion (step 1). This reframing of a comment is crucial for keeping a discussion going in the right direction. Affirm to encourage participation, then reframe to keep things on track.

5. Re-prompt with simpler questions

The previous tactic assumes things are going well. But what if they aren’t? What if people aren’t answering? Yes, it is good to keep quiet and give the time to let the members answer. But often leaders don’t know the difference between a good silence and a bad one. If you have asked the question, waited through silence and no one is responding, you may need to re-prompt the group.

Example: What is the most important insight from the death of the boy? (Crickets) “Okay, let’s take a step back, what do you think changed after the mother found out?”

Don’t let the group sit in silence if there is nothing turning in the members’ minds. If a question doesn’t resonate, adjust and come at things from a different angle.

How can you re-prompt? Break a question down by drawing a simpler question out of a more complex one.  Often a complex question has two or three presuppositional questions. Find these and then build up to the original question.

6. Flip the Question

There are two general types of questions, how questions and why questions. How questions are about the means to an end; (how do we do this?, how does the text suggest that?, how would you apply this to your life?), while why questions cause us to think about end goals and purposes (What is the purpose? Why should we believe this? Why did the author choose this?). So if you group gets stuck going down one of these paths, switch over to the other one.

Example: So we talked about why Jesus wants us to seek first his kingdom and his righteousness (why question). What is one way your life would change if you lived with these two things as your goals? (how question)

Some groups naturally gravitate towards being practical (they like how questions) while other are more theoretical (they like why questions). If a group gets stuck on the practical, ask them about their end goals (why should you be motivated to do that?). If the group gets stuck on theoretical, ask them about the means (How are you going to do implement this in your life?).

7. Be Appropriately Vulnerable

As the leader, you set the tone for the group. You can’t expect people to go deeper than the leader is willing to go. You have to judge this carefully and use vulnerability appropriately; no one wants to hear too much too soon. Peel the onion one layer at a time. 

Example: I think that it’s hard to admit to others when things aren’t going well. I know when I went through __________, I felt embarrassed…I didn’t want others to know that I didn’t have it all together. 

You have to show the members of the group that this a safe place for them to talk and share about meaningful things. You have to create an atmosphere of grace, so that the members know they can be open about the hurts and challenges of their lives. The leader has to model that for the group, so that they can feel safe and protected.  And when someone threatens the safe atmosphere of the group, the leader has to gently address the situation and continue on.

Conclusion

Leading a dynamic discussion is an art form learned over time. Don’t give up! Using these tips will help draw out group members and keep building group momentum. With good leadership, a discussion can go from limp and lifeless to a robust time of mutual growth and encouragement.