Starting a discussion is one thing. Keeping it going is another. Your goal is to keep the energy level high. You’ve taken pains to get the beast off the ground. Now it behooves you to take care not to let the air out of the balloon. Call it what you will—energy, electricity, excitement, dynamism or umph. What follows is a simple list of do’s and don’ts that I’ve found helpful. First the don’ts.

Don’t judge.

You’ve set up your whole discussion on the premise that there are no right answers. Don’t give it the lie by evaluating their comments. I’m at my best when I take a quizzical stance. “You’re not wrong, but I’m not sure you’re right either.”A gentle probing works wonders—never challenging but in a friendly spirit of curiosity, exploring the depths of what another is saying. If a girl states that she’s against war, I try to find out what war. Vietnam? Israel’s six-day pre-emptive strike against Egypt? The Allies resistance to Hitler and Tojo in World War 2? It may turn out that there are some conflicts she’ll regretfully support.

If a fellow announces categorically that God would never have us lie, I’ll mention Rahab the prostitute who lied about the spies she was hiding in the attic. In Hebrews 11 she’s praised for her faith. I won’t push the point. And there are any number of objections to my example. But chances are my questioning will be an impetus for others to plunge into the discussion.

Put together a group of ten people and on any given issue you’ll have ten different opinions, maybe fifteen because sometimes folks are of two minds. I work hard to bring out these variant views without putting anyone on the defensive. As leader, I won’t argue. If I can promote a spirited interchange between group members, however, I’ve achieved my aims. A bit of conflict helps people overcome their inhibitions and enter the fray.

Don’t preach!

Many Christian leaders feel an irresistible urge to put in their two cents. Usually it comes across more like a dollar fifty and squelches contributions of others. The best advice I ever received about discussion leading came from a longtime professional in a high-powered business workshop. This one piece of wisdom made the $100 price of admission worthwhile. “Whenever I’m tempted to stick in my own opinion, I shut up. It’s the height of arrogance to suppose that others are going to be more interested in hearing my views than they are in expressing their own. So when I feel that gnawing desire to pontificate creeping upon me, I make it a practice to wait at least sixty seconds. By that time I’m usually glad I resisted the impulse to intervene. I suspect the group is even happier.”

Avoid the detached stance of the scholar.

You’re the leader. The group will take its cue from you. If you lean back and stroke your beard (admittedly difficult for some of my readers) as you objectively weigh each thought, the conversation will be dull and halting. If, however, you model excitement, the thing may catch fire.

I try to sit on the edge of a table or desk. I lean forward eagerly when someone speaks. I’m careful not to let my eyes wander. Eye contact says that I’m up for hearing her thoughts. Lack of it would scream out an indifference to the value of her opinion. I’ll also nod my head as she continues. If you want to see how effective this is, try an experiment the next time someone shares an idea with you. Nod your head and intersperse your listening with verbal signs of approval: “yes … uh-huh … that’s interesting … go on.” The words will pour forth in a torrent. Some other time, meet his words with only a blank stare. Or worse yet, solemnly shake your head back and forth and mumble with a sigh, “That’s not right.” It’ll wipe him out. (I suggest you only try this latter experiment with an understanding friend.) Another way to show your interest is to repeat back what was said in your own words. It shows that you were really listening.

All of this takes continual effort. I make sure that I enter a discussion internally fired up, raring to go. For you it may take a cup of coffee, a slap of aftershave or a good night’s sleep. Unless the occasion is formal I wear my tennis shoes. Somehow I feel more bouncy. Anything to overcome an impression of indifference. The discussion needs energy. Lethargy is a killer.

Plan ahead!

It’s easy to fall into the trap of not listening to what people are saying because your mind is racing ahead trying to come up with your next question. Preparation is the only way to combat this tendency. It’s important that you bone up on a topic so you are ready with illustrations. A discussion of moral choice will go much better if I have a number of Rahab-type ethical dilemmas to trot out at the appropriate time. That kind of mastery takes effort.

An effective discussion takes more preparation time than a speech. In public address I know where I’m going. I start with point A, go to example B and proceed to statement C. It’s linear. (See Figure 6A.) I can rehearse the speech until I have it just right. With discussion it’s different. There’s a geometric progression of options. I start at point A (my opening question) but I don’t know for certain whether the group is going to branch off on B, C or D. The possibilities aren’t limitless, but good preparation requires that I be ready to react to all contingencies. The actual discussion may go from A to D to M. (See Figure 6B.) But I can’t know ahead of time. So I’ll have to think through all possible responses ahead of time, even the odd ones. Then I’ll be free to concentrate on what the others are saying while avoiding the deadening gaps that often plague a spur-of-the-moment effort.

Use humor.

I’ve already stated that conflict enlivens a discussion. It’s the same with laughter. Many leaders are afraid to use humor in a religious discussion. That’s too bad. I’m firmly convinced that God wants us to take him seriously, but not ourselves. Humor is a great way of releasing tension and keeping things loose. Besides, a discussion should be fun.

I’m not a stand-up comic. I’m a lousy joke teller. But the kinds of humor that help a discussion along are repartee, puns, plays on words, incongruity and exaggeration. Most of us are capable of an occasional comic rejoinder if we have a whimsical attitude ready to spot something ludicrous. If all else fails, poking fun at ourselves guarantees some group mirth.

Don’t force it. If you have trouble seeing the funny side of life, you’ll appear stilted trying to be something you aren’t. But if you have a humorous bent, this is the time to give it full play. One further warning, however. It’s easy to slip into a caustic biting humor that tears down group members. Chances are they’ll never let you know they’re hurt. But the sudden resistance you meet from them and their friends will tell you too late that you’ve overstepped. When in doubt, err on the side of making yourself the butt of your jokes, not them. It’s both effective and Christian.

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.

Group members who talk too much present a different problem. At first you may be glad for their participation when others are hanging back, but your reaction may soon switch from gratefulness to gritting your teeth. It’s not just that their constant chatter is irritating. That you could handle. But when one person takes up fifty per cent of the time, others are getting shut out. They may even decide that crashing in is not worth the effort for fear of appearing as obnoxious Mr. Know-it-all.

Your response to the person who has no unspoken thought will depend on the reason for their talkativeness. It’s no use being subtle if they’re insensitive to the reactions of the group. Chances are that talking has been their way of getting attention since childhood. (My nickname in junior high was “The Mouth.” Not very flattering, but I learned that if I talked long enough and loud enough, people would at least pay attention to me. It was better than being ignored.) The firm approach works best. “Kathy, you’ve put in some interesting ideas. Now give some other folks a chance.”

Sometimes it may be necessary to interrupt a rambling monolog. “Hold it right here, Pete. You’re tossing out a number of worthwhile ideas. I’m not sure we can handle all of them at once. Take your first point, boil it down to one simple declarative sentence and we’ll see what the others think about it.”

Excessive participation may be due to a special interest in the topic. In these cases monopolizing isn’t chronic. The person merely gets caught up in a topic that fascinates him or her and has a chance to shine. I’ll sit on my hands when the subject is Oriental mysticism, but just try to shut me up when we’re talking about airplanes, persuasion or a Christian’s responsibility to world hunger. A bit of private affirmation will usually bring the amount of participation down to an acceptable level. “Bill, you know a lot more about Sanskrit than others in the group. I’m afraid your knowledge might intimidate them. How about hanging back awhile so others can get in their licks without feeling stupid?” This way you’ve deputized the monopolizer as an associate discussion leader. Instead of concentrating solely on his own comments, he shares your concern to draw out others.

If there’s no chance to talk with him in private, a public comment can accomplish the same effect. “Bill, you’ve obviously thought a lot about this. Your ideas are pretty well cast into wet cement. That’s been helpful for us all. But creativity is a tricky process. Fresh ideas often come from those who are brand new to the problem. Let’s see what others have to say.” The precise way you do it isn’t as important as making sure you intervene. If monopolizers are unchecked, they’ll kill the discussion.

“Protocol or no, if he doesn’t stop talking soon, I’m going to eat him. “

Reprinted with permission from The Saturday Evening Post Company Copyright 1980.

Winding It Up

Unfortunately most discussions don’t wind up, they wind down. The leader asks plaintively, “Does anybody have anything more to say?” The answer is painfully obvious. This often happens because a discussion goes too long. I’d much rather have an intense fifteen-minute discussion and quit while things are hopping than drag it out to fit a predetermined time frame. My youth pastor helped me see the wisdom in this flexibility. We had a forty-five-minute time slot scheduled for a weekly discussion. He gave me a wide latitude. I especially appreciated his permission to fail. “Kids are unpredictable. Sometimes they’ll come on like gangbusters. Other times they’ll sit and vegetate. If it’s not going, cut it off. No use making everyone miserable. If things catch fire, go on longer. My experience is that only one out of three discussions goes. So don’t worry if you have a few losers.”

I’m often asked about the best way to summarize a discussion at the end. My advice is simple. Don’t.5

A summary has about three things going against it. The main drawback is that it has a calming effect. It ties everything into a package. This imagery is reflected in typical discussion terminology. The summary is the time for “wrapping up.” There are no loose ends. Folks can relax now because the topic which seemed so uncertain and turbulent is now reduced to a neat list of principles that won’t bother anyone. They can go home now with an unfurrowed brow.

But you don’t want that! The whole purpose of the discussion was to stimulate. You’d much rather see folks walk out of the room arguing, churning with things yet to say, bothered by ideas they heard. The best way to accomplish this is to simply end while things are going well. “Hey, that’s it. This has really been good. See you next week.” Better to leave a few folks agitated by quitting too soon than to miss a good stopping point.

Another problem with a summary is that it never catches the full flavor of what’s been said. How could it? When you try to capture all the diverse elements of an hour-long discussion in a three-minute synthesis, something is bound to be lost. Ideas get truncated, sharp edges blurred. I may have spoken only twice, but I remember best what I said. If my ideas are missing in the summary, I feel gypped. Even if I spot them, I feel ticked that you didn’t understand their full nuance. It’s a no-win situation.

Finally, there’s the ever-present problem of evaluation lurking just below the surface. Although it’s theoretically possible to summarize in a purely descriptive fashion, judgment almost always creeps in. People have long memories. You’ve stated up front that there are no right answers. If your mood and manner at the end give those words the lie, it can be fatal the next time you try to get folks to open up. They figure you’ll give the “true word” at the end, and so sit back aloof and wait for you to lay it on them. Of course none of these thoughts about summaries apply if you’ve had a problem-solving session and need to conclude by crystallizing the decisions the group has made. But that sort of discussion was dealt with in chapter four on decision making.

Emory A. Griffin, Getting Together: A Guide for Good Groups (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997).