As I planned to launch a small group ministry at my church, a friend confided in me that she disliked small groups. The ones she had been involved with (briefly) all contained small group members who talked too much. The unrestrained talkers prevented meaningful dialogue, the formation of friendships, a sense of belonging, and both personal and group maturation. After a few sessions, she and other members exited, and the groups fell apart.
I hated hearing about her experiences with small groups and their lasting, unpleasant impressions.
But I knew that such situations happened. Who
was am I to make things happen differently?
Here’s the deal: my goal isn’t to make things happen. It’s to let conversations unfold. It’s to equip small group leaders with tools to get people talking about things that matter and not talking endlessly about things that don’t.
While the dominating small-group member is easy to spot, the path to deep conversations that transform lives is nuanced. So, it can be helpful to understand that small talk, when channeled correctly, even when it seems like too much, can lead to more meaningful conversations. Also, a letting-things-happen approach of getting people to speak can sometimes result in one person (only) talking a lot, perhaps even “too much.” However, these situations may lead to connections among members and significant spiritual growth, depending on the group dynamics.
What shouldn’t happen, repeatedly, though, is one person monopolizing discussion at every single small-group session for months while you and your group members listen (or keep quiet) out of obligation, not enthusiasm. When this situation occurs, what do you do?
Here are suggestions based on your best guess as to why someone is talking too much.
If he talks to fill a discussion void, design sessions to encourage conversation.
My favorite way to get people to talk is by asking interesting, thought-provoking, and/or easy-to-answer questions. To accomplish this goal, choose Bible studies and related curriculum with group discussion in mind. Look for discussion guides that evoke real conversation. Skip those that generate one-word or rote responses only. Avoid those that ask vague questions about abstract concepts with unclear application to real life. Consider developing your own prompts to fit your group’s personality if the study materials are strong but discussion prompts, lacking.
A more time-intensive but enjoyable technique to encourage conversation is to get to know the people in the group, either during sessions or outside of traditional group time. Generally, members will feel more comfortable sharing their stories when they know you and others in the small group. It’s also easier to direct questions to someone when you know them. That’s not to say that you should make assumptions about a group member based on a tidbit of information you’ve gleaned or call them out because of something they said in a private conversation. Rather, the idea is to invite various perspectives while respecting privacy.
Another way to avoid having the same person consistently fill the discussion void is to allow for silence. Let people know that it’s okay, desirable even, to contemplate their responses before speaking. Neither you as the small group leader nor a talkative member must jump in immediately with a response to kick off the discussion.
Lastly, consider keeping the group small enough (perhaps 4 or 5 people) so that members won’t feel intimidated by sharing personal information with a large group.
If she talks to get help with a problem, let the conversation flow as long as the process is beneficial.
A group member may monopolize your time together as a small group when she’s experiencing a crisis. Depending on how well you know each other and the structure of the group, allowing or even encouraging her to talk about her problems may be the best course of action. For example, if you’ve been hanging out together for more than a year and your group is an ongoing one, members may provide support by hearing her concerns, offering insights and resources, praying for her, and encouraging her both during and outside of group time.
But if group members don’t know each other well, turmoil associated with certain problems may be overwhelming and inappropriate. Rather than unifying the group, this too-much, too-early revealing may distance the member from others. When discussing the problem isn’t beneficial and the person remains stuck, find a way to help the group member without disrupting group time. Consider chatting with the group member privately or encouraging her to seek professional guidance.
As a small group leader, you want to guard against emotional hijackers. These are the folks who undermine the group’s purpose by bringing up emotionally-charged problems at every meeting. Rather than sharing, connecting, and growing, the group’s focus is misdirected toward this person and his crises. If someone presents excessive neediness with no forward progress, then consider referring him to your pastor or a counselor.
If he seems to enjoy dominating discussions, confront him about healthy group dynamics.
There are many reasons that small group members talk too much, but I won’t attempt to psychoanalyze them here. The important thing to know is that engaging everyone is essential to an effective group experience.
Here are some techniques to quiet down the excessive talker while engaging more people:
- Communicate the small group’s purpose and values in terms of spurring growth by allowing yourself to be known, knowing others, and building each other up. More specifically, let members know that you’d like to hear from everyone.
- Create a structure in which you elicit responses from specific people. This approach may involve asking each member to respond to a discussion prompt or offering a turn to everyone. Alternatively, you may call on a specific person or request multiple responses so you’ll hear more than the dominating talker.
- Call on group members who raise their hands to respond to a question or clearly indicate their eagerness to talk but need quiet or space to begin speaking.
- Position yourself away from the talker’s line of sight. Many small group experts suggest that making eye contact with a talker seems to grant permission for them to begin talking without end. A subtle positioning may change the person’s perception of being given the floor.
- Establish a time limit for talking. If a small group member has been talking for more than 10 minutes, for example, ask him to quickly summarize so others may contribute to the discussion. Alternatively, allow him to finish the story but continue the discussion on this particular topic at the next meeting. This process can work if you don’t need to cover a specific number of lessons in a given time period.
- Speak to the over-talker about the problem, explain the benefits of creating opportunities for others to talk, and ask for cooperation.
If someone is talking so much that you can’t get through your lessons on time, consider evaluating why your lessons should adhere to a schedule. There may be legitimate reasons that discussion should be limited; for example, if childcare is being provided for a limited time or if the small group is formed to get a certain task completed according to a timeline. But, setting limits may be a personal preference or a false perception of group members’ expectations; that is, people may enjoy and benefit from longer discussions than the small group leader previously thought. In general, if the conversation uplifts members or helps them confront serious issues in their lives, then it can be encouraged in a way that enriches rather than detracts from the group experience.
When you can encourage more people to talk, because of the way you’ve cultivated relationships, structured your sessions, and created discussion prompts, you’ll most likely find that the people in your small group have fascinating stories to share and insights to release. This cycle of more equitable talking then reinforces itself as group members recognize and embrace the value of conversation, get to know and trust each other, and become eager to listen to members’ stories, struggles, and breakthroughs.
What have you done to encourage more than one person to talk during your small group session?