Keys to Great Group Discussion

13 Principles

Leading a good discussion is a skill just like teaching, cooking or playing an instrument that must be learned and developed. Mastering and applying these 13 principles will prove useful to anyone who desires to excel at facilitating good small group discussions.


1. Create a Good Physical Atmosphere

You can make or break a good discussion before you even start. Create a welcoming and comfortable ambiance with the following in mind: 

  • Good Lighting
  • Comfortable temperature (Goldilocks’ rule) 
  • Minimize distractions
  • Have students sit in a circle where everybody has eye contact (NOBODY on the outside) 


2. Create a Good Spiritual Atmosphere

In order for each student to feel comfortable sharing, It is important that members are regularly reminded of the following:

  • Everyone’s opinion is valued
  • You can disagree, but do no put-down or attack one another
  • Nothing leaves the room (unless it’s so serious that help is needed) 

See safety guidelines for details on mandatory reporting. If you don't know what to do about something a student says, talk to your coach. None of us are perfect, so let’s grow together. 


3. Keep it Real

Be authentic and encourage your students to do the same. Even if someone says something you believe to be heretical or just plain goofy, an overreaction or put-down on your part will cause you to lose the trust of your group. Create a safe place for students to share how they really think and feel, and soon you will get nothing but honest answers from them (James 1:22). 

  • No “churchy” answers allowed
  • Be honest about your struggles (with filters)
  • Do not belittle or judge others for their answers 


4. Establish Yourself as the Leader

Your students will take their cues from you. By not controlling your group’s atmosphere and authenticity, you imply that what we are doing isn’t important.

Ideas for ground rules:

  • No cell phones out unless it’s being used as part of the discussion.
  • No squirrel answers (Refer to “Keep it Real”)
  • Talking ball (students only speak if they are holding the talking ball)
  • No Gossiping
  • Listen when others are talking
  • Reasonable discipline & accountability for offenders (not during group time). Showing students that you have expectations of them shows that you care & believe in them.
  • Keep your group on task. Leaders who let group members “hijack the conversation” and take it on a tangent are communicating that they really don’t value the purpose of group discussion. 


5. Have Patience

No matter how much you love them, there will be times when they annoy you more than you thought possible! Being patient with them shows them that you love them (even their quirkiness), and it models to other students that it is important to be kind to others. And yes, that includes people who annoy us!


6. Speak to their Potential

Encourage and engage your students. Don’t tell them who they are, tell them who they can be! (Prov. 18:21). The right words can help kids reason, win, and believe.

Examples of the right words: 

  • Thank you for…
    • I saw how you... 
    • ICNU (I see in you…)
    • I’ve noticed how you... 
    • It was great when you... 
    • I believe in you.
    • You can do it. 
    • You did it! 

Ephesians 4:29 says, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” Help create a culture where students can ask hard questions and don’t have to carry secrets. Let church be a positive place for them, and let your words lead the way.


7. Tangents can be a “God Thing” or a “Goof-Off Thing”

Goof-off tangents: sometimes the group wants to talk about anything other than what is on your discussion guide. Guys/Girls, YouTube, videos, memes, sports ... they just want to goof off. It’s okay to goof off some! But as the leader, you need to insist on getting back on track. 

God-thing tangents: Sometimes something happens that makes it appropriate to set aside the discussion guide and talk about something else (e.g. a friend dies in a drinking & driving accident and your students are noticeably upset). 


8. The 20% Rule

Your job is to get students to open up and share. It’s hard for the students to talk when you talk most of the time. Great small group facilitators talk no more than 20% of the time. 

  • Don’t preach. (Don’t be “that guy or girl”) 
  • Get off your soap box (or podium or social media status or anything else you might use to share unsolicited opinions about things you are passionate about). This time is for students to share.
  • Don’t re-teach the message. Allow students to explore the message through discussion. 


9. Silence is OK

Avoid the temptation to “fill in the blanks.” When you ask a question and there is silence,  simply wait. If you jump in because the silence is awkward, you will teach them that they don’t have to self-examine. Some of our greatest realizations happen in the midst of silence.

The questions we supply are designed to help them think and articulate things they wouldn’t have in other environments (e.g. their fears and struggles). Students, especially introverts, need time to think about and process these questions. They also need some time to build up the courage to share what they are feeling. 

Another note: If you break the silence & answer first, there’s a danger that students will follow suit and give similar answers to yours—instead of talking about what’s really on their mind.


10. Ask Probing/Open-Ended Questions

Avoid “yes or no” questions unless there is a follow-up question like “Why?” or “Explain.” Often-times, small group questions will be supplied to you; however, you may want to push further on certain points. Ask questions that facilitate discussion, thought and discovery.


11. Know your Students, Treat them Individually

Recognize the individuality of group members and approach each of them differently. The people in your group are very different people. It’s a challenge to learn to deal with talkers, non-talkers, shy ones, and extroverts.


12. Watch Non-Verbal Cues

Is someone in your group counting ceiling tiles? Leaning back in their chair or sitting outside the circle? These are all signs that they are disengaged. 

Ideas for reengaging: 

  • Individuals: Reeling an individual back in may be as easy as asking them to physically move back into the circle or directing the next question their way. 
  • Whole Group: Each night is different. Sometimes you may have a great 45-minute discussion and other times it’s like pulling teeth for 25 minutes. Pay attention to your group and go longer or shorter as needed. 


13. Be Spiritually Prepared (Pray, Pray, Pray)

Most leaders arrive to their small group after a busy day. We recommend taking some time in your car before you enter the environment to get yourself spiritually prepared for your ministry time.  Take five minutes to be still, talk to the Lord, and pray for your group. Then… go get ‘em! (1 Thessalonians 5:17)