"As you think about how you want to convey information, aim for a mix. Talk, but also show, and give your group the opportunity to interact with what they are learning."
Groups of all Types
At some point or another, we all have to get up in front of a group of people not only to talk, but also to lead. This might be with a small group study, during a vestry meeting or visioning process, or directing a giggly pile of 3rd graders. Regardless of the people in your group, you will need to be confident in your skills as a leader.
Even the most practiced facilitator gets butterflies in their stomach before they start working with a group. And every facilitator will tell you that the bulk of their work is done before they set eyes on the group they will be working with. Keeping in mind these two facts, I've come up with a few tips to help in leading groups.
Put On Your Leader Hat
Like it or not, you are in charge! You are responsible for creating a positive learning environment. This means knowing your role. Are you imparting knowledge or are your facilitating a conversation? Whatever your specific task, your job is to encourage everyone to learn and participate. This means encouraging those who are reluctant, without embarrassing them. It also means preventing those who would derail the group. Setting out group norms at the start and then referring to them is vitally important. If there is one particular person who continues to pull the group out of sync, speak with them alone, never in front of the group. Finally, don't promise more than you can provide. It's not your job to fix problems!
Use Learning Styles
Everyone has a preferential learning style: visual (seeing and reading), auditory (listening and speaking), kinesthetic/tactile (touching and doing). As you think about how you want to convey information, aim for a mix. Talk, but also show, and give your group the opportunity to interact with what they are learning. In addition, everyone falls on a scale of introvert and extrovert. Introverts, particularly at the start of your time together, will appreciate time for the group to think before speaking; extroverts will prefer time to work in groups. One way to incorporate both is to structure an activity that asks people to think/draw/imagine by themselves, then in a pair or three's, and then in the whole group.
Creating a mix of activities for your time together will allow for all types of learning styles and will prevent your group from getting bored and off-task. So will planning for breaks! Incorporating 10 minutes of break time for every 90 minutes works well for adults. Of course, flexibility is also key. If you see your group getting antsy, offer a different type of activity or shift break time.
Beginning, Middle, and End
Introduce yourself before you ask others for others to do the same. Even if you think your group have all known each other since Genesis, ask for everyone to say their first name. Tell your group what they will be doing together. Write out a timeline of the group's time together and post it where everyone can see. Plan for an opening activity that allows participants to get to know one another, offers a glimpse at what the ultimate goal of your time together will be, and gets people talking to one another. It's not always possible to facilitate a conversation and keep an eye on the time, so ask for a volunteer to keep time. (If you have timed activities, be sure to give a one-minute warning and be clear when time is up.)
Plan for flexibility. If you have a set plan of activities and someone raises a point you don't plan on covering or will be discussed later, you can create a "parking lot" where you visibly park the idea, so that you can come back to it later. If you ask your group to brainstorm, listen as you would to popcorn. Like popcorn, conversations start slow, go fast and furious for a short time, and then slowly stop.
Just before the conversations stop completely, wrap it up. If you wait until everyone is totally silent, you may "burn" your group and those who have been done for a while will start to tune out. Wrap up your work together with a short synopsis of what they have accomplished, encourage them to take what they have learned and use it during the week, and thank everyone for their participation.
Pro Tip: Keep 3 Main Ideas
For every group I lead, I try to keep to three main ideas. As I prepare, I distill those main ideas into simple phrases, which I make sure are enforced throughout my teaching. To keep myself focused during conversations, I write those phrases on index cards and keep them in front of me. This way, our conversation and learning can meander a bit, but the main learning will always be in the mix.
If you are looking for more information on learning styles, this page offers several synopsis, as well as a quick, free test to learn more about your own preference. Living Compass offers many small group programs. Each one includes excellent information on how to lead small groups.
Charlotte Hand Greeson shares her passion for formation as a manager, editor, and writer for Building Faith. As a trained facilitator, she enjoys leading groups to make decisions. She lives in Alexandria, Virginia with her husband and two teenagers.
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