I’m no pilot. But I imagine flying a plane is a little like leading a discussion. A 970,000-pound metal tube throttles through the sky, and all the responsibility of keeping it in the air belongs to someone who’s 1/5000th the size of the plane. Of course, there’s science and procedure keeping that behemoth flying. Similarly, a few tips can make in-person discussion less scary, too.
Here’s your pre-flight checklist.
Before the discussion, mark down one or two specific outcomes to accomplish during your time together.
Let’s say your outcome is . . .
By the end of our discussion, my learners should better understand how God's love for us inspires self-sacrificial love for others.
I’m focusing on how one idea and affection generates action in a particular area of life. So I’ll aim my questions at drawing out practical ways that my learners can apply this truth. Once I know my learners understand what I mean by "God's love for us," I'd want to start asking questions like, “How have you experienced God's love from others in the past?"
How do you get a discussion going and keep it flying? The trick is to have enough fuel. While a good discussion should take on a life of its own, always be prepared with the right questions to re-energize it.
Here are three tricks for asking the right kinds of questions:
1. Keep questions open-ended
Do your questions require more than a simple yes/no response or a single, fact-based answer? Your questions should provoke thoughtful responses that draw on synthesized knowledge and the learners’ opinions.
2. Shift perspective
Everyone finds it hard to answer questions that start, “What do you think about…” Instead of asking directly, shift perspective for your learner. In a discussion on time management, I might ask, “What would your friends say you spend the most time on?”
You could also shift perspective by asking your learners to make judgments. Here’s an example. Instead of asking, “Why do you find it hard to spend time on the right things?” I might ask, “Why do you think your partner finds it hard to spend time on the right things?” We readily share judgements about others, but this question draws out information your learners actually apply to their own lives.
A little distance will help your learners answer more easily and honestly.
3. Count to ten
Much simpler than the first two tricks! This is all about what not to say. Once you’ve asked that first question, it can feel like an eternity before someone responds because it’s so hard to gauge how time is passing. But giving learners time to collect their thoughts makes a big difference. After asking a question, count to ten (or even fifteen!) before restating the question or moving on.
You’re flying! Now what?
By picking a co-leader, you’re building in a conversational dynamic. You and your co-leader can model what a great discussion looks like. This is most helpful as you get the discussion started. But co-leaders can also help by rephrasing questions and bringing up different viewpoints. Another set of eyes and ears also helps ensure that no one goes unnoticed and unheard.
Ever been in a group where each person seems to say whatever comes to mind without considering what was said the second before? They become disjointed. Enter “conversational connectors”—my term for the little phrases that help us build on other people’s statements during discussion (it can be your term now too!).
If everyone begins a response with phrases like these, the conversation will build. I’ve found the best way to integrate these phrases is by modeling them as the discussion leader. Everyone picks them up quickly enough.
How do you steer a discussion out of a tailspin?
It’s natural for some personalities to overreact or overshare. Highly sensitive topics make this kind of turbulence more likely. In these cases, just stay calm. Thank your learner for sharing, acknowledge their viewpoint, then steer things back on track.
Try asking for someone else’s opinion or slightly change topics by using one of your prepared questions. If those tactics fail, kindly let your learner know you’re happy to talk to them after the group discussion is over to be respectful of everyone’s time.
Sometimes you’ll lead discussions in rough weather. That’s ok! Don’t get discouraged. The more discussions you lead, the more comfortable and prepared you’ll feel — the easier it’ll be to get the plane in the air.