Ways to Encourage Open, Honest Sharing
As group leaders or facilitators, we are called to help create a safe space where our groups can share honestly and openly. Within this welcoming atmosphere, group members can discover a community that is open to them and, as a result, come in contact with their ideas, dreams, and most authentic selves. Group facilitators help foster a space where everyone can grow—particularly with God and others—rooted in truth and love.
Some general attitudes to cultivate in yourself and in the group…
- Confidentiality: Establish the confidence that what is shared in the group is sacred and a gift to be treasured. Nothing discussed in the meeting should be shared with others outside the group.
- Openness: Rather than speaking from the head or discussing a topic, speak from the heart (meaning a deeper, more personal, more authentic place) and encourage members to do the same. This involves sharing what we feel about things, how they affect us, or what meaning they have in our lives.
- Vulnerability: Ask God for the courage to share with great honesty, especially those things that scare us and that we hold close to ourselves. When we share vulnerably, we create the space for God to enter, for others to grow, for greater self-acceptance.
Preparing a meeting…
- Pray for the group. Pray for members by name. Listen to how God has been moving and may be inviting the group to move forward together in the next meeting(s).
- Be familiar with the subject matter. Take some time in advance to prepare or review the meeting outline and the kinds of questions you want to ask.
- Make sure you have all necessary materials for leading the focus exercise, if needed. Print out a copy of any handouts for every member.
- Arrive early and set-up the space. Create a sacred atmosphere by arranging chairs, making a focal point (candle, cloth, cross, etc.), setting-up any music or videos, and fixing lighting (soft but bright enough to see each other and read, if necessary). Do your best to ensure there will be no outside interruptions (visitors, phones, external noise, etc.).
Beginning the meeting…
- Be the one to set the tone by welcoming members by name and offering to lead opening prayer (or asking for a volunteer).
- Give a brief introduction of the subject matter/theme if one has not been provided for you in the meeting outline. If possible, connect the evening’s theme to the meeting(s) that have come before.
Throughout the meeting…
- Use active listening skills (see “Learning to Listen” handout in meeting 2.02 for a review).
- If necessary, be the first to share to help others feel more comfortable. Speak from your heart, from your own personal experience.
- Be sure to address everyone in the group by name.
- Avoid evaluating people’s answers with comments like “good answer,” or “nice point.” Help the other participants understand why responses should not be evaluated. This will serve to keep the atmosphere open and objective.
After the meeting…
- Go over any business or logistics with the group: the date/time/place of the next meeting, upcoming social events or retreats, who will facilitate next, etc.
- Consider sending out an email summary of the meeting to help everyone become even more attuned to what happened during your time together. You could take a few notes during the meeting of words or phrases from people’s sharing that have stood out or capture movements and/or themes. Including these notes or other thoughts (prayer intentions, gratitude) may help deepen the group’s experience and help them stay in-touch with the group outside of the meeting.
Frequently Asked Questions
People wait a long time before responding to a question. What do I do with the silence?
- Understand and be comfortable with silence. This might seem contradictory to maintaining a good discussion; however, the group might be taking some time to think about their responses.
- They may not have understood what you asked. Be aware and alert to body-language and facial expressions in order to respond properly and clarify when necessary.
- Give everyone a chance to speak, but don’t exhaust the topic. Watch for boredom.
We don’t seem to be able to have deeper conversations. How do I help us share more deeply?
- Ask focused or specific questions. Try to frame your questions in the context of people’s lives. Relating something to their lives or the lives of their family/friends will elicit a greater response than something theoretical or disconnected.
- Help others explore how they feel about a topic. This will keep the conversation interesting and meaningful—steering away from simply reporting facts.
- Make sure everyone is talking in the first person “I” and “you” rather than “he” and “they.” If someone is being vague, softly urge him/her to be specific and concrete. Gently challenge the person to be open.
- Avoid questions that require a simple “yes”/“no” answer. If “yes” /“no” questions are necessary, be sure to ask “why” /“why not.” The best approach however, is to ask open-ended questions such as, “If you had to….,” “What do you think is the most effective way….,” “If it were up to you how would you have handled….,” “What do you think or feel about that?”
- When you ask questions, be sure to ask in a kind and non-confrontational manner so that no one feels as if they are being put on the spot.
My group tends to stray from the topic. How do I keep this from happening or get them back on track?
- Be orderly and focused in presenting questions and topics to help prevent tangents.
- Beware of tangents as they start or how they tend to start to avoid the types of questions or comments that trigger off-topic discussion.
- If necessary, ask the group before the meeting starts to help you focus the sharing by helping you notice when they are getting off-topic. They can do their best to guide the conversation back.
- Don’t be afraid to step-in as needed. Call the group out and gently ask that they come back to the main topic or question. Note that they can continue the other conversation(s) after the meeting or at another time.
Some people in my group disagree about issues/topics. At times I even find myself disagreeing. How do I help us get along?
- Don’t take disagreements personally and encourage others not to either. These times are simply opportunities for the group to think about a variety of views on an issue.
- Being uncomfortable at times can be an invitation to grow. But if there is significant tension in the group, it may be helpful to ask everyone to take a breath before continuing the discussion or moving on to another. Taking a moment to have everyone ask God for insight as to how the Spirit has been moving may be helpful as well.
- If the topic is particularly important or controversial to people, consider inviting them to have a more intellectual discussion at another time outside of the meeting separate from their sharing of the heart. Perhaps the group could agree on a day/time to do this if everyone is interested.
Are group members “allowed” to respond before, during, or after others’ sharing?
- Encourage members to ask questions of one another. This will keep from having the focus continually come back to you and maintain the conversational tone of the discussion.
- A good method for responding to have others wait until someone has finished sharing before gently asking a clarify question, lovingly challenging, or offering insight about a person’s growth or the Spirit’s movement. A “back-and-forth” discussion of the heart can then take place.
- The “listening deeper” portion of the meeting after everyone has shared is also a good opportunity to provide feedback (without criticizing, evaluating, or trying to solve). But this time is meant to be brief and focus more on the movement of the Spirit in the group. Everyone is asked to listen to what’s been occurring within them at this time and share a few words, phrase, or short comment as they feel comfortable.