Small Group Discussions That Don’t Suck.

I was recently asked to give a short talk on how to lead a small group discussion. More specifically, how to keep the attention of the group and encourage engagement. Both of which are not always easy to do when the subject may be dry or the group members are shy and unwilling to talk. I have had A LOT of experience in this area.


For the past four years I have worked at a non-profit that works with at risk youth. As part of our program we teach our life coaching curriculum to youth in small group settings at public middle and high schools. The groups vary in size, and the crowd is typically unsure about myself and my fellow coaches. I would not call it hostile territory, it also isn’t a friendly and receptive environment either. I still remember my first time in front of the first batch of students that we were using as guinea pigs testing our almost done material that I had only just become familiar with. I went in so confident because I had been speaking in front of people for years, sometimes in front of thousands of students. I had this. The fact was I didn’t have it, and the worst part is that I didn’t realize it. And it wasn’t me who would feel the negative impact the most, it was the youth I was trying to help and teach. As I stood up there unprepared for the task I willingly agreed to, I had an almost out of body experience. It was one of those times where I watched myself say words and I wish I would stop. My presentation was choppy, and I was so concerned with getting out the information out that I wasn’t even concerned with interaction. I missed the whole point! That days opportunity was shot. The whole reason we are there is to interact and build relationships so that when it counts our voice matters. Over time I learned better through more awkward class time and learning from my mistakes, some cringe worthy mistakes that other people have made. These are the rules that I follow in a small group discussions.

1. Have a Bottom Up Approach
In the development of our life coaching curriculum at StudentReach we worked off a bare bones version that was the undeveloped brain child of a friend of our organization Scott Braden. When working to bulk up the material by adding some videos and activities we also added components that we knew would be helpful for the youth we were working with. Things like how credit works, proper investment strategies and the fact that college students will change their majors an average of three times before settling on one. But our students were not into it. We started to find reasons to skip those sessions a move on to other sesions because we grew to hate them. Periodically we would we would meet with Scott to touch base and get feedback from him on our progress. At one of our meetings we shared with him our dilemma. He listened attentively, nodding his head to indicate that he was listening. After we were done he explained that we had a “Top Down” mentality and we need to have a “Bottom Up Mentality”. Yeah, I was confused too. But as he explained I understood. A “Top Down Mentality” says I know more than you, your questions don’t matter, I am going to tell you what is really important (said with a pointing finger). A “Bottom Up Mentality” forces us to put ourselves in the shoes of the audience you are serving, in my case teenagers. Yes, knowing how credit works is important as well as handling money in general, but a 15 year old boy is not interested in living by a strict budget. We have to ask ourselves what questions are they asking, what are the things that keep them up at night. This takes us listening and learning about the people that are participating in the group discussions and tailoring the discussion to them.

2. Say Something Shocking!
My goal when talking to people is to be remembered. I do this by saying something shocking or sometimes slightly offensive. It’s a trick I learned years ago. When I was young I once heard a speaker say something shocking that was almost offensive, I questioned if I should even stay.  But as I broke it down, I actually thought what he said was true and was something I agreed with, but I was intrigued. He did this several times during his talk. I realized what he was doing, he was keeping my attention! By saying things in a way that seemed slightly offensive, or saying talking about some sensitive issues with out dancing around the issue he held my attention. Although risky, communicating in this way is not without reward. As people work through their slight offense/shocking they will continue to listen the way that I did. You just have to make sure you say something worth listening to. Donald Trump uses this tactic but is lacking in any real substance. I’ve danced on the line a few times, slipped and fell in the way of making some people mad and had todo some smoothing over. Most of the time I make it through relatively unscathed. It’s a good tool for hard crowds.  The important thing is not to say anything actually offensive, just saying what you want to communicate in a way that causes a reaction inside of the listener.

Stay tuned for part 2.

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