Seek balanced participation. This advice encourages you to deal head on with the two thorniest problems facing a discussion leader: how to get the apathetic person to enter in and how to prevent the monopolizer from dominating the discussion. Both extremes spell trouble.
There’s no way you can assess the thoughts of a silent member. But the problem extends beyond that. His silence may have a chilling effect upon others in the group. Suppose you were in a Bible study where people took seriously James’s admonition to get into the habit of confessing sins to one another. Nonparticipation of any one member is going to be viewed as a threat to the rest of you. “What’s he thinking about me?” you wonder. You’ll be less than candid as long as his reactions are a mystery. Also his apparent boredom seems to pass judgment on the worthwhileness of your effort.
But what looks like boredom is often fear. This is especially true in a new group. Remember “flight, fight and unite” from chapter two? During the first phase of a group people are reluctant to get down to business. They are casting about for where they fit, how they can contribute, what they can expect from others. This uncertainty creates tension which contracts facial muscles and tightens vocal chords. So although their minds may be racing with valuable insight, their actual appearance is one stage short of coma.
The standard way of dealing with silent members is to call upon them by name.
“Do you have any ideas, Bill?”
“What’s your opinion, John?”
“You haven’t said much, Linda.”
Unfortunately it usually drives them deeper into their shell. If they are quiet because they are scared of others, singling them out is merely going to increase their fear.
“What do you think, Joan?”
“I think I’d rather be someplace else.”
Going around the group so that everyone has a chance to say something doesn’t allay the tension. As his or her turn comes closer, the silent member dredges up some innocuous comment. It’s the bare minimum designed to shift the group’s focus toward someone else. Stimulating discussion it is not.
My approach to dealing with apparent apathy is more indirect. I try to create an atmosphere that is so exciting that people have to share their thoughts or they’ll split. All of the things I’ve talked about earlier in this chapter are designed to contribute to that climate. Controversy, humor, painting word pictures, creating common experiences, a nonjudgmental atmosphere, an informal setting, a high energy level—each of these are goads to overcoming self-consciousness.
I then conduct the discussion in a fashion that could best be described as “planned disorder.” I skip such order-producing techniques as hand raising or turn taking, and avoid making comments like, “Shh. Everyone listen to what Sue is saying. If you have something to say share it with the whole group.” At times it may seem chaotic. But perhaps the best a silent member can do is to turn to a friend and comment on what someone else said. I don’t want to stifle boldness. So I tolerate a wide latitude of whispering, laughing and interruptions in the hopes of activating silent members. In the process I try to be on the alert to the few people who are going to need that extra bit of encouragement to draw them out. Eye contact and an occasional smile are ways of signaling that you’re aware of them and that they are special to you.
When you see a flicker of interest or the person makes a side comment to someone else, you can casually extend a hand of invitation and offer, “Do you want in?” This personalized attention is best coupled with an occasional general statement such as, “Remember your idea is as good as the guy next to you—probably better.” Or “Let’s give some folks who haven’t had a chance to say something a shot at the question.” There’s no guarantee that this indirect strategy will free all members to participate, but at least you know that when people finally speak it’s because they want to, not because it was dragged out of them.
Griffin, E. A. (1997). Getting together: A guide for good groups. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.