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Dealing With Discussion Disruptors in Your Small Group

Leading a small group, Sunday school class, or even a committee meeting can be challenging at times. No matter the context of the group, some individuals make it harder to carry on a meaningful discussion. I call these individuals “Discussion Disruptors.” It can be frustrating for you as the leader as well as other members of the group. If you lead or facilitate groups of any kind, here are three common Discussion Disruptors that you may find in your group.

#1 – The Dominator

Every class has a Dominator. The Dominator does precisely what their name indicates – they dominate the discussion. It’s the person who chimes in every time there is a half-second of silence. It’s the person who often chokes out participation from others. It’s the person who will often interrupt others while they are still speaking. Whenever the leader asks a question, group members will wait to answer because they know the Dominator is ready to respond. If you’re looking for a biblical example, Peter was the Dominator among Jesus’ twelve disciples.

If you have a Dominator in your group, there are several ways to address this problem. First, you can redirect the conversation by asking others to share. For example, you can say something like, “Thank you for those thoughts. Let’s hear perspectives from three other people.” This technique effectively communicates that while you appreciate the Dominator’s response, you also want to hear from other voices.

Second, you can establish some ground rules through a Group Covenant. As part of that covenant, the group can agree that no one can answer two consecutive questions without someone else joining the discussion first. Enforcement of this rule doesn’t need to be awkward. Make it fun! For example, a designated class referee can throw a yellow penalty flag on the floor whenever someone violates this rule. Everyone laughs, but the Dominator gets the message.

Third, if the problem continues to persist, you can have a private conversation with the Dominator. Ask them to allow at least a specified number of comments before they speak again.

Fourth, affirm responses from other group members. Whenever someone besides the Dominator shares, make sure that they know you welcome their thoughts.

Finally, make sure that you’re not the Dominator yourself as the leader. One interesting characteristic of most Dominators is they don’t realize they are dominating the discussion. If you can’t identify the Dominator in your group, you might want to look in the mirror!

#2 – The Silent Witness

Every class or small group also has at least one Silent Witness. This is the individual who rarely participates in group discussions. Even when the group has less than five participants, the Silent Witness is content to listen intently but contribute rarely. As a group leader, it is incredibly frustrating when your class is filled with Silent Witnesses.

If you have one or more Silent Witnesses in your group, there are several ways you can encourage them to participate. First, break down your larger group into smaller groups of no more than three or four per group. Have these subgroups discuss the assigned topic among themselves and report back to the larger group.

Second, have participants write down their answers and then share. Some Silent Witnesses need time to think deeply about a question. It is not in their nature to blurt out the first thing that comes to mind. By allowing them to reflect on a question and write down their answers, they may be more willing to share.

Third, don’t force Silent Witnesses to participate, but invite them to do so. You may ask, “John, do you have any thoughts about this?” John may have thoughts that he’s willing to share. Then again, he may not, but at least you’ve given him the opportunity to do so in a non-threatening way.

Fourth, don’t be afraid to use non-threatening icebreakers to generate discussion. Icebreakers may or may not have anything to do with the topic or Bible passage under consideration. However, they will help your group members feel more relaxed and willing to participate. A simple Google search will yield many icebreaker ideas to try.

Fifth, make peace with silence in your group. Whenever you ask a question – and the Dominator is not allowed to answer – there may be a few seconds of awkward silence. That’s fine. Embrace the silence. Chances are, someone else in the group will not be able to do so. Just two seconds of silence will feel uncomfortable. Five seconds of silence will feel like an eternity. Eight seconds will seem nearly impossible to bear. That’s why I would challenge you to ask a question and silently count to eight before rephrasing the question. Even your Silent Witnesses will likely begin to speak before you do.

Finally, host small group/Sunday School class gatherings regularly. These fellowship opportunities will help group members get to know others better. As relationships grow stronger, group discussion will likely improve as well. 

#3 – The Rabbit Trailer

Every class also has a Rabbit Trailer – the person who can derail a discussion quicker than you can finish reading this sentence. The Rabbit Trailer will steer the group away from a relevant discussion concerning the topic or Scripture passage at hand and will lead you down a rabbit hole of chaos and confusion. 

There are several indicators that you’re about to fall into a rabbit hole. The Rabbit Trailer might say something like, “That reminds me of something else…” or “That makes me think of…” or “This has nothing to do with what we’re talking about, but….” The individual may have the best intentions, but the discussion quickly takes a wrong turn, and you, as the leader, cannot get the conversation back on track.

If you’ve ever had a Rabbit Trailer in your group, I have found one method very effective in preventing the group from falling down the rabbit hole. I’ve used it in several different settings. It’s called the Parking Lot, and it’s a simple concept. Using either a whiteboard or a large poster board, write “Parking Lot” at the top. Explain to the group members that while you would love to chase every rabbit, the group’s time is limited. Whenever the discussion veers off-topic, you will place the topic in the Parking Lot. If time allows at the end, you’ll return to the Parking Lot to discuss those topics. If time runs out, you erase the topics in the Parking Lot and start over with an empty Parking Lot during the next group meeting. I have found this simple technique has worked beautifully in preventing the group from falling down a rabbit hole.

Other Disruptors

The three Discussion Disruptors listed above are not an exhaustive list. You can probably think of others who make it difficult to carry on a meaningful discussion in an adult small group or Sunday school class. Who would you add to the list, and what are some practical ways that you’ve dealt with the disruption? Share your thoughts below!

Photo by Leon on Unsplash

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