We have all experienced it: the long, excruciating silence that occurs in a small group, class, or Bible study after a (simple!) question is asked.
People gaze intently at their books and handouts, brows furrowed, as though they’re trying to work something out. Someone coughs a little. Others gaze out windows, doors, over friends’ heads, attempting to convey a look of thoughtfulness and reflection that might excuse them from actually saying anything.
If the silence stretches long enough, the group leader either caves and offers an answer, or awkwardly moves on to another topic. The group lurches on, and often the problem recurs again and again and again.
Why won’t people participate? Sometimes getting people to offer up thoughts or answer questions in any sort of a group or study session feels like pulling teeth. It has happened in almost every single one I’ve been a part of, and it’s enormously frustrating. In my attempts to remedy it, I find I am often the only one willing to answer anything, getting called on by desperate leaders over and over again.
Beyond the awkwardness it creates, this lack of participation can really drag down a group’s progress. It hinders intimacy, it freezes conversation, and it stifles learning. So how do we deal when nobody wants to speak up?
First, for leaders:
1) Make sure there isn’t a problem of understanding. Sometimes no one’s speaking up because no one has any idea what’s going on. Make sure you’re not moving too quickly, speaking too quickly, or assuming knowledge that others don’t have.
2) Leave room for the shy and anxious folks. Some people just have a tough time speaking up. If you have the sense that you have some shy or anxious folks in your group, approach them or give them the option to talk with you about how to participate without being overwhelmed. Let them know their participation is greatly appreciated, but be understanding about any nervousness. It helps some people to have thoughts prepared in advance, to know what questions or discussion topics might be, or even to be called on in a specific way. Experiment!
3) Foster an atmosphere of inclusion, warmth, and empathy. It is far, far easier to speak in a group when you feel supported and welcomed. I have no idea why small groups always want to throw a bunch of strangers together and then have them answer awkward questions in front of each other right off the bat. Make sure your group has gelled.
4) Consider your questions. If you’re asking questions that have yes/no answers, that’s not giving people encouragement to offer up anything more. Stick with “why” and “how” questions. Mix in a few softballs or some really challenging ones in here and there. Make sure your questions aren’t too vague or simple; alternatively, make sure they’re not too difficult. Experiment with different types of questions to see what works.
5) Recognize that participation need not mean “answering questions.” If I have reticent students in my college classes, I give them different ways to participate. Sometimes that means reading something pre-written. Sometimes it means breaking them up into pairs so they can share without the intimidation of a classroom staring at them. You have other options than putting everyone in a circle and asking them things.
6) Don’t let people off the hook. If a study requires people to do homework or pre-work prior to meeting, then make it clear the work is imperative to the functioning of the group. Don’t fluff it off or act as though it isn’t important. And if you have people who aren’t following through, then maybe talk with them privately – with compassion and kindness! – and see if there isn’t a less-rigorous study that might be better for them.
For group members:
1) Be honest with yourself. If you hate participation-heavy small groups, and you end up in one, go elsewhere! Don’t force yourself to sit in prolonged awkwardness. There are other options.
2) Be honest with your group leader(s). If the study is losing you, pipe up. If you feel uncomfortable answering the questions, let the leader know. Group leaders can’t read people’s minds, and to them your non-participation is bewildering with no apparent root cause. Give them something to work with.
3) Do the work. If the study requires effort or homework, do what is asked. If you can’t manage that, then the study isn’t right for you. But it isn’t fair to engage in a study that asks for you to come with a certain amount of knowledge in order to participate, only to shrug that off and then not participate.
4) Resist the temptation to be the answerer. I am often an answerer. It’s the Type A personality and academic in me. When an awkward silence starts, I am almost always the one to break it by replying. The problem is that sometimes an answerer gives everyone implicit permission not to participate: after all, they know someone else will speak up! If you restrain yourself a bit, other people are going to have to confront that awkward silence. Additionally, it sometimes take people a minute to gather their thoughts; you don’t want to always be talking over someone getting ready to speak.
5) Get comfortable with silence. I find that most groups cannot abide quiet. If no one answers in a few seconds someone eventually either mumbles out a one-word something or the leader awkwardly moves on. Dig into that silence, instead. Sit with it. Don’t let it be confrontational: consider it time to think and reflect. You might find that, as the quiet unravels, people become more apt to speak up.
With these tactics, you can at least get started on dismantling the awkward silences that can be so characteristics of group Bible studies or courses. And with that, some real growth and learning can take place.