So small groups eh? The beating heart of youth ministry and my big passion! I started leading my first ‘koinos’ group at 14 in my parents house which turned out to be the busiest in the church – probably less to do with it’s ‘quality content’ and more to do with all the nonsense and chocolate I filled it with! That said, there’s not been a year since that I’ve not been involved in leading a small group of some sort.
A few days ago a I led a training session for North Wales youth workers on Small Group Dynamics. Below is the skeleton of my notes – minus the Acts 2:42-47 Bible Study we began with. These come from my own experience, some notes I took on a brilliant Mark Russel (CEO of Church Army) talk that I can’t find anywhere and this short simple document found here by Karl Leuthauser.
Below you will find:
– Small group personalities and characters
– How to respond to these in a group setting
– How to respond to these individually
– A one-liner on an effective group and an effective group leader – because we all love one-liners!
Small Group Personalities and Characters
Each small group is made up a various characters. Below is a list of the most likely characters you’ll run into in your small group. These don’t take into account age, experience, maturity, culture, context, personality type, or learning-style differences which will all also have an effect. And, truth be told, most people will be a mix of several rather than just one. People often change categories too for various reasons. However the principles remain the same when they appear, so have a read through and see if you recognize anyone…
Always answers questions and wants the first and last word. Dominator often interrupts others, launches long monologues, and come across as needy or bossy. Dominator often tends to be right too (annoyingly!), and easily closes down conversations because of this. Dominator can be critical or dismissive of others, and as the name suggests, often ‘dominates’ the conversation by demanding attention.
The opposite of dominator – disappearer doesn’t answer questions voluntarily, and when called upon has the tendency to freeze, waiting awkwardly for you to pass them by. Disappearer often vanished into the background as if by magic. They can make a group feel uncomfortable and lead other characters to try to force them to interact.
Gladiator loves the arena! They want the debate, the argument, and to get it they tend to ‘take the other side’ – whether or not they actually hold that view. They are the devil’s advocate of the group. Gladiator can take you down unnecessary tangents and cause conflicts with your plan and with other members of the group. Groups often kick back at gladiator personally and hurtfully.
Gladiator’s opposite. Placater never wants the debate, is a master of sitting on the fence, and actively seeks to close down conflict and arguments. Placater shuts down helpful discussions and turns genuine, iron-sharpening-iron conversations into personal issues.
The answer is always ‘love’ in some form or another. ‘It’s because God loves us and we should love others’ is the stock response. They can come across annoyingly deep and hard to follow with less emotive sounding answers, thus lover too shuts down conversations. Lover also can be uninterested or even hostile to important and juicy topics like hell, punishment, judgement, sin, and wrath.
In some ways opposite to lover, downer seems to ‘bring things down.’ Downer has a tendency to give a negative spin on whatever answer they offer, and seem to be by nature glass-half-full. Downer is often hurtful, critical, biting, or sarcastic towards other members of the group and they noticeably blow off activity and discussions.
Missioner has a ‘go out and do’ approach to every question. Missioner wants to be actively doing something rather than talking about something – so often appears disdainful of the small group idea. Missioner is often social-gospel focused and critical towards those who don’t appear to share their views.
Joker is there to be the class clown and often dissipates serious and deep moments of important discussions with jokes and humour. Joker always sees the funny side of everything however inappropriate and tends to be distracting when starved of attention for a while. Joker can independently see that your group never gets personal or deep about anything.
Tends to see every question as an opportunity to show off knowledge, and if they can’t they manipulate questions to fit what they do know. Educator likes attention for being ‘in the know’ and can take you on enormous detours from the subject or question.
Doesn’t understand the socially acceptable and line between enough and too much information publicly. Revealer has a habit of pushing the ‘too much info’ button and sharing deeply personal and awkward stories that are too sensitive for the public nature of the group mid study. Revealer tends to be inward focused and moves attention onto themselves.
Solver is very analytical by nature and a big fan of the ‘rule of thumb.’ Solver often presents ‘easy’ and ‘obvious’ answers to complex, and broad questions and issues, and worse can give impersonal action points to another group member sharing a struggle. Solver can both override genuine experience and shut down needed conversations.
So did you recognize anyone? What about yourself? I tend to be a bit of gladiator and solver in most situations – however at Bible College, or situations where I feel intimidated I tend to be a mix of disappearer and educator. It’s worth saying that not all of these traits are necessarily bad – they can simply be undeveloped gifting, as we will see in the individual responses section. Also – in a strange way, God himself embodies some or all of these personality types in various ways for various purposes. So with all this in mind – what do we do with this odd bunch of people?
There are a few things we can do with the format, group setup, and general dynamics of a small group to allow these members to interact in a healthy and up-building way – or at least we can set the context for group health. Here’s a bunch of ideas in no particular order:
1. Use names. Names are super important in small groups – they give a sense of belonging, ownership, and you can direct conversation away from characters who might steal from it, or towards those who wouldn’t otherwise engage.
2. Plan a mix of both open and closed questions. Open questions have a high degree of subjectivity and are pretty hard to ‘get wrong.’ These allow more interaction from those who might talk less, makes answers less rigid, undercuts arguments/placating, and boycotts over specific closing-down answers. Closed questions are often more objective and renders monologues, rants, and question-manipulation more difficult.and Closed questions often require more thought and searching/probing out.
3. The ‘Split & Feed’ Method. This is where you break the group into smaller groups (often pairs) and get them to discuss questions on their own and prepare to feedback to the overall group. This gives space for those who might normally not volunteer answers and guards against those who hijack discussions. You can do this to get different responses to the same question, give opportunities for creative retelling of stories, and generate talk where things have been quiet and unengaged. Be strategic with who you put with who! For example, disappearer and dominator would be a disastrous pair!
4. The ‘Circle/Opt-Out’ Method. Here you ask a question and go around the circle giving everyone a opportunity to answer. You should encourage everyone to have a go, however provide an easy way to opt-out or let the question pass them by.
5. Reflection Times. This is simply where you don’t ask for immediate answers, but get them to silently reflect for a while then feedback. You’re more likely to get genuine answers this way and give everyone a good opportunity to engage. This is also a great way of calming down an overly excited group.
6. Good Social Times & Ice Breakers. A good time before the group begins to simply ‘hang out’ is a great way to integrate those who might be quiet otherwise, and to let those who hijack time to vent social steam and get their fix before you begin. This is a good reason to have an extra, un-busy leader to hang out with them to encourage inclusivity. Ice breakers too should be simple, not embarrassing (unless volunteer-based) and begin conversational momentum. I will post some thoughts on effective ice-breakers at some point.
7. Ground Rules. These should be used to teach and re-enforce healthy group dynamics – they shouldn’t be used all the time as an Orwellian matter of course. Such rules could be, ‘only speak again when someone else has spoken,’ ‘1 minute or less answers,’ or using a ‘talking hat’ or ‘talking banana’ to hold or wear if they want to speak.
8. Get Them To Take Responsibility. Talk to your group often about group integrity and the responsibilities they have towards each other. They should not be allowed to ‘police’ each other – but encouraged using carefully placed prayer and discussion to be self aware, encouraging, and understanding towards each other as part of your group applications.
Here’s a bunch of basic ways to respond to each of the 11 characters above.
– Use directive body language, eye contact, and names to sometimes clearly avoid them
– Give gentle correction, such as “sorry matie, but I want to give someone else a chance to speak…’
– In a one-to-one setting encourage their enthusiasm and try and help them take responsibility for the group. A ‘secret sign’ like a wink could be a trigger on which you agree together to allow them room to speak when the group is going quiet – giving them a leadership purpose
– Get them to lead a session!
– Through gentle coaching and encouragement allow them space to answer questions. Give them plenty of positive reinforcement when they do, let them know how valuable their input is – but don’t push them
– Use split & feed, and mix it up often so they have opportunities to meet everyone personally
– Make space in your program for debate. One of the ways to do this is ‘role play’ where you break everyone into pairs and give each member a view to hold. This makes debates less personal
– When there’s disagreement, place the focus on the issues not the people
– When they add disagreement, get them to be specific and clearly articulate it
– Get them to moderate a debate (rather than engage in one)
– Step in and make the conflict apersonal – i.e. make it about the views held, not the people holding them
– If a disagreement arises, take the two views and take them to their extremes (eg. rather than ‘maybe there’s freewill // no there’s not’ to ‘God gives us absolute, autonomous freedom // we’re all God-programed robots’) and get the whole group to discuss the pros and cons of each position
– Enforce security and care over arguments; affirm the people and positions held – more on how to do this another time
– Same answer to any ‘closing down’ question: develop the answer with how, what, when, where, or why. So how is love the answer, what kind of love, when does that apply, where was that shown, or why is love like that? etc.
– Encourage them to try and reframe their answer using positive language while still affirming the point they made
– Use humour to deflect the issue, “yes we are doing that, and as a special treat you get to be my partner!”
– A one-to-one talk about why they’re approach is so critical and negative might be worthwhile
– Teach on the importance of prep and reflection to effectively ‘go out and do’ also teach on calling and how God equips people differently for different ministry
– Run a group mission! Get missioner to help organize and run it
– When humour is not appropriate, don’t laugh and pointedly move on
– In a one-to-one, talk with them about the importance of going deep and how they could use humour constructively. Encourage them in it as a gift that is great in the right place
– Get them to lead an ice-breaker
– Specifically call them on staying on topic while affirming their answers. Sometimes ask them when they begin to talk to think whether or not they are on topic.
– Get them to prepare 5 minute intros to themes and sessions on given topics.
– While affirming the person and giving broad sympathy to the issue shared, redirect them to a more appropriate time to talk. Be direct but gentle
– Give clear empathy towards the person who’s problem they are ‘solving’ allowing them the space to struggle in a more complex way – redirecting away from the solution given and giving permission for more exploration
– Have a one-to-one, talking about complexity and irrationality as important parts of the journey
– Get solver to plan the study questions with you, talk about potential answers with them
An Effective Group…
… is a clear discipleship and fellowship ground where every member is comfortable with who they are in the group – and have the ability to use their specific gifts and characteristics to add to the group.
An Effective Leader…
… sees themselves more as a facilitator of learning and maturity, who is clear, firm, gentle, empathetic and constructive.
So there’s a bunch of stuff on small group dynamics and personalities – hopefully some of it is helpful. For more posts on small groups click here.