The Good and Bad of Silence During Small Group Conversations

Scenario 1

  • The small group leader asked the group a question.
  • Silence
  • Then one group member asked, “Can you repeat the question please?”
  • The group leader repeated the question.
  • Silence
  • Then the group leader said to the group, “It’s not that hard!”
  • All of a sudden several group members replied with answers to the question.

Scenario 2

  • The small group leader asked the group a question.
  • Silence
  • Then one group member asked, “Can you repeat the question please?”
  • The group leader repeated the question.
  • Silence
  • Eventually one group member responded to the leader’s question. No one else.

These scenarios are real. They took place in small group meetings I attended.

Both of these scenarios are very similar. But they show different ways we can improve leading small group conversations.

Silence Is a Great Conversation Tool

The group leader did a great job in using silence to draw out answers to the questions in both scenarios.

A big mistake many group leaders make is to start talking or asking another question if members don’t give an immediate response. But there are reasons to allow several seconds of silence after asking a question before moving on.

Some of your group members are probably deep thinkers who take some time to process things in their heart and mind before responding. Sometimes none of your members want to be the first to speak. Silence for several seconds allows members to think before they speak and build confidence to be the first to speak.

It will be very uncomfortable to allow that silence the first few times you do it. But it will be worth it.

Silence Can Signal a Problem

After I examined the questions asked in the scenarios, I discovered each had a problem which resulted in an extraordinary amount of silence without a response.

Clear Questions

In the first scenario, the question could be interpreted in two different ways. No group member was willing to answer the question wrong, so everyone sat in silence. Once the group leader said it was an easy answer, it was obvious which interpretation was intended. That initiated a significant amount of participation by many of the group members.

Modifying the question to be clear would have avoided the difficulty.

Ice Breaker Questions

The second scenario was different. In the end one group member reluctantly, likely due to the silence, gave an answer. But no one else was willing to answer even after a significant amount of silence.

What I didn’t tell you was this question was an icebreaker question. It was the very first question asked during the Bible study portion of the meeting. The question asked required a very personal response. It required the small group member to get vulnerable. It required the group member to take a risk in exposing themselves to the rest of the group.

If you don’t get their participation up front from some members, it will be difficult to get it later when you are trying to have very authentic conversations. The icebreaker questions cannot require vulnerability. The questions need to be compelling. If at all possible, the questions need to be fun.

Many group leaders want an in-depth Bible study discussion and shy away from asking questions like, “If you are a superhero, what power would you have and how would you use it?” But it is this kind of question that gets everyone to open up and start participating in the conversation so that those in-depth conversations can happen later in the meeting.

For your next small group meeting, be intentional with the questions that you ask. Make sure they are clear and don’t force vulnerability too early.

Question: What questions have you used or heard in small group conversations that have worked well or fell flat? You can leave a comment by clicking here.