Those awkward silences

Those awkward silences

Have you ever been in a small-group meeting when suddenly the conversation stops? That stretch of quiet can be a tense time for many people. Periods of silence will emerge in any small group, and they don’t have to be awkward. So what can a small-group leader do to help alleviate tension when silence happens?

Stretches of silence are natural. Sometimes these will occur at the beginning of group gatherings, before actual discussion begins, and sometimes after lively interaction that leads to resolution. In this case the group is simply pausing, and yet the silence can feel awkward.

Group silence can actually be good and healthy. It helps group members tune into their feelings, concentrate on group relationships and reflect on what they’re learning.

When silence occurs, the leader may fear that the group has nothing left to say and will be tempted to break in with a comment. Resist the urge. If a leader habitually breaks these silent moments, the group will always expect him or her to provide cues about what they should do next. The group will never learn to use silence productively.

Trying some group exercises into which silence is purposely structured can be helpful. They can help the leader to become more comfortable with silence and give the members opportunities to see and feel the benefits of silence.

One exercise to try is to ask a question just before you dive into your normal Bible study discussion. Ask a “large” question as a way of introducing the text. For example, “What do you think a missionary is?” Ask the group members not to respond until they have formulated a clear response or until 60 seconds have passed. (One minute of silence will feel like a long time!) Let them know that silence is not only okay, it’s desired. After everyone in the group has had a chance to think of an answer, have a few offer their responses. Move on to another question and follow the same format, and then ease into your other discussion questions.

Do this for several meetings until the silence feels productive and causes little tension for small-group members.

Adapted with permission from The Small-Group Letter.