Orchestrating the dynamics of discussion is an art. There’s no better way to figure it out than to just jump, but here are some tips to get you started…
Pick the right room. If you want a study atmosphere where people digest the material thoroughly, meet around a table. If you want a social atmosphere where people digest each other’s personal lives, meet around couches or patio chairs. Whichever way you go, circular arrangements encourage dialog most.
Shut Up. The worst mistake a small group leader can make is teaching instead of facilitating. Ask a question and then shut-up. Let people play around with the discovery process for a few minutes and then start giving answers if they missed something important.
Repeat the question a different way. If there is an awkward silence, don’t switch into teacher mode, just repeat the question.
Validating and Focusing. If the discussion is clipping along, you will usually be able to identify five different trail heads for further discussion. You have to chose which trail to take while also validating those you did not. Comment on how each presented something interesting and then ask for more input on the comment you most want to build off of.
Closure before Transition. When it is time to transition to the next point of discussion, add some closure to the previous by summarizing key ideas contributed by each person. At the end of the night, a two-three minute overarching wrap-up is often appropriate, especially when used toward final application.
Paraphrase and Redirect. You’ll always run into tangents. Ignoring or silencing tangents discourages participation, so let them run with it a short while, paraphrase what you hear them saying, and then ask a question that redirects people back to the topic at hand.
Ask for ideas, not Answers. To encourage self discovery and dialog, you have to ask open ended questions. For example, instead of asking what forgiveness is, ask how forgiveness works in today’s world.
Look away from the person who’s talking. Sometimes people will talk to the leader instead of the group. Look away from them and toward someone else and you’ll find them searching the room to make eye contact with others.
Wear your clown suit. Well, not literally I guess; but a little humor does lighten the room encourages people on the periphery to join in. Everyone can contribute a laugh.
Any other tips you would like to add?