As a small group leader, you want to nurture people and discussions in your Bible study or activity-based group. You want people to open up, talk to each other, and learn and grow through conversation.
But there are certain statements that shut down conversation. I’ve known that terse responses and pat answers weren’t conducive to getting people talking and continuing to share their stories. But until recently, I didn’t understand why this happened or how to recognize phrases and stances that ended discussions abruptly.
What’s changed for me is my reading of a book by Brené Brown, Ph.D., LMSW, a shame researcher and vulnerability expert. Her book, I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t): Making the Journey from What Will People Think? to “I am Enough,” illustrates what shame looks and feels like in real-life conversations.
Shame evokes fight, flight, and freeze reactions according to Brown. My observations tell me that shame in a small group typically leads to conversational abandonment (flight or freeze) rather than arguments (fight).
While thinking about group discussions that went awry and reading this book, I identified eight things you should never say in your small group:
1. “You think that’s bad; let me tell you about ___” (insert worse situation)
When you bring up a comparable but worse situation, you’re turning the conversation into a competition. The person who started the sharing will then feel like she shouldn’t discuss her problems because there are others who have more difficult circumstances.
2. “At least …” (insert minimizing problems)
Similar to problem competition (#1), trying to put a positive spin on someone’s problem or demonstrating that it’s not as bad as it could be shuts down conversation. This approach also diminishes the person’s pain.
I’ve noticed that sometimes we tell ourselves “at least” some situation that concerns us isn’t as bad as it could be, compared to others. While that’s often true, we’re preventing ourselves from talking about the topic. Sure, adopting a healthy perspective is important but it’s also essential to share what we’re experiencing with others.
3. “That was your choice”
This phrase may not be entirely inaccurate. But it ignores moral dilemmas and complex situations. It makes a person feel stupid for having chosen wrongly — not always because she’s shortsighted or she had evil intentions but (perhaps) because she trusted the wrong person or because ethical choices can lead to worldly problems. Whether our decision-making abilities are pristine or flawed, certain choices place us in bad spots. We don’t need folks in our small groups to tell us so.
In the context of a small group, we’re shutting down conversation and withholding compassion when we blame victims. In addition, we’re preventing deeper discussion and examination, thwarting personal and group growth.
4. “I didn’t realize that was such an issue for you”
Certain topics and seemingly benign statements can evoke negative reactions. These responses can be exaggerated to the point of seeming irrational. But blaming someone for being sensitive or not enjoying being teased is akin to saying that their feelings aren’t legitimate.
I know, because I’ve said mean things unintentionally myself. What I’ve learned is that we’re all sensitive in certain areas. Labeling someone as “sensitive” or “fragile” isn’t helpful to nurturing friendships. What has been helpful to me is learning about areas in which many people are sensitive and recognizing the potential for making hurtful statements around topics such as body image, parenting, and money. My approach is not to “walk on eggshells” but to get to know people and learn why certain topics trigger shame and, at the same time, identify my own shame triggers.
Brown discusses common topics that trigger shame reactions in her book. You can find this list in my article on recognizing and dealing with shame in everyday conversations.
5. “Don’t worry about …” (insert a serious matter)
It’s great to put problems into perspective but your role as small group leader is to facilitate discussion, not fix problems or mandate how your group members resolve concerns. Yes, we’re all told not to worry but that doesn’t mean we can’t talk about a problem or consider the best way to approach its resolution.
Don’t simply offer false reassurance without truly understanding the concern. Instead, allow your group members to delve more deeply into a topic or reveal more about themselves in order to deal with the problem.
6. “That’s because you …” (insert reference of a person’s mistake discussed in a previous conversation)
When group members reveal imperfect parts of their lives, such as a mistake they’ve made, they risk being judged. Talking about difficulties, missteps, and lapses in judgment takes courage.
Ideally, those brave enough to talk about imperfections will enjoy closeness associated with transparency. But if you bring up past mistakes and blame members for any problems they’re experiencing, you’re revealing you can’t be trusted with their vulnerability. You’re showing them that your group isn’t a safe place to talk about and confront failures, sadness, or struggle.
Even worse, you’re stating that they’ll always live with this condemnation and they’re incapable of spiritual renewal because of a past transgression.
7. “I can’t believe …” (insert remark about another person or group)
Gossip or badmouthing often begins with “I can’t believe” or a similar phrase noting an error in thinking or doing by another person or group of people. Such a statement allows us to express disapproval. It can also be employed as a technique to build connection among the group members.
While I get that this approach helps us to define who we are in contrast to another group, it generally involves passing judgment. This stance may serve its short-term goal of creating a sense of belonging, but harms the longer-term objective of allowing people and groups to be loved for who and what they are.
8. “She’s like that because she’s …” (insert stereotype, negative or positive)
Labeling people may seem helpful in explaining or understanding another person’s perspective or motivation. But it can be harmful because it reduces a person’s personality to a series of predictable actions and reactions aligned with the stereotype. If we make assumptions about what someone will say or how they’ll react, we’re less likely to want to get to know this person. Why even discuss a topic if we already “know” what certain people will say or how they’ll respond?
Stereotyping and labeling limit our ability to build connection. When we think we know someone because of her membership in a particular group, we build relationships on assumptions. We miss the opportunity to know others and be known.”
I hadn’t realized how much shaming goes on in our society. It’s become reflexive and normalized. Yikes! I believe that we should all be confronted with truth, but also realize that we inadvertently show our fears, biases, judgmental assumptions, and lack of empathy in ways that cut off conversations and leave all of us feeling more alone than ever.
Jesus conveyed this idea succinctly when he said, “A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” Luke 6:25 (New International Version)
What I’ve learned when I make (inadvertently) harsh statements is that my heart isn’t right in these situations. I can work on my heart, for sure. I can also consider my words more carefully, which in turn invites others to share more of themselves. As I learn more, I realize that my thought patterns and assumptions about a person or a situation are wrong, which in turn changes my heart and allows God to build up good things there.
Likewise, as a small group leader, you can create a culture that rejects shaming and encourages authenticity. This environment pushes back the shortcut response and invites deeper conversation with kindness and compassion.