Sometimes one of two things happens in a group. Someone says something that people think they understand and they don’t, or they know they don’t and never find out. They just sit silently and wonder what the person meant by what they said. As group leader, remember that your job is active, not passive. Even when you are silent, you are actively thinking about how to facilitate the group process.
Rather than sit and wonder what someone means, get more information and seek clarity. Make sure the person and the group are connecting.
If understanding is lost, connection is lost also. And chances are that if you are somewhat confused about something, the group is also. Here are some hints on seeking clarification level by level.
The first level is seeking the clear meaning of any ambiguity. If someone says, “I am going to take some time off,” what does that mean? What does “time” mean here—a day? a month? a year? And what does “off “ mean? Leave the country? We have no idea. And even if you do, chances are that others in the group do not. So just ask. “What do you mean ‘time off ’?” or “What does that look like?”
Deeper levels of clarification add to the awareness of the person himself. Asking questions about an emotional issue helps the person actually find out more. If he says, “I have been feeling rejected lately,” for example, that leaves a lot of room for the person and the group to discover more. You might ask, “What kind of feeling is that?” or “What do you mean by ‘rejection’?” That could easily lead the person to answer, “Well, maybe rejection is the wrong word. I guess it is more that my wife disapproves of some things, and I take it as rejection.” In response to the “feeling” question, the person might say, “It is an old feeling that I recognize from most of my life. I think it began when my parents divorced when I was a teenager.” The point is that we never know where seeking clarification will go. That is one of the great things about seeking more. It leads us to more of the person and also leads the person to more of himself. And it allows the members to know each other better and provide more for each other.
Use the group as a thermometer to see how clear something is. Ask them at times if they know what a member meant to say. “Was that clear to you guys?” “Did everyone understand what he meant by that?”
At other times you can ask directly for clarification on things you wonder about. You could wonder and ask, “What all went into that decision to take so much time off?” Your question would clarify it for you and the group. It would also give the person a chance to talk more about the whole issue.
Seek clarification when someone gives conflicting data. “You said you really want to go out with this person, and you also said he ‘scares’ you. Can you explain that contradiction?” Ask for specificity. “What specifically do you mean when you say that she is ‘abusive’?”
Hold the person to the exact meaning if she seems to say one thing but imply another. “Is this what you are really saying? That if we don’t agree with your decision to leave your husband, we don’t care about you? Is that what you are really thinking here?”
Seek out the thinking behind what people say. “How do you think that is going to help? How would leaving solve things?” Get to what has gone on in their heads behind a decision. Clarify what is behind a feeling. “What exactly is making you feel that way?”
Sometimes repeating the person’s words leads to more information. “You said the relationship started to go bad when he was unfaithful.” A statement like that invites the person to offer more information.
If you feel lost in the mire, just say so. “I am getting a little lost here. What are you trying to say?” This will get the person to focus better.
If there are gaps in the information, ask about them. “I think you might have skipped some things. We don’t know how you got to where you are. Bring us up to speed.”
Remember the different aspects of listening—feelings and content—as a map for what you are trying to draw out. “Is it the whole relationship or his unfaithfulness that has gotten to you?” “What do you end up feeling about it?”
Remember that if you as facilitator need to know more or don’t understand something, the other members probably feel the same way. Protect your group and its process. Be an advocate for it. If the group is suffering or in the dark, intervene. The members will be happy that you did.
Cloud, H., & Townsend, J. (2010). Making small groups work: what every small group leader needs to know. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.