Sep 05, 2016
Never Answer Your Own Question
Cole Penick shares great insight on how to lead a small group well through asking the right questions and waiting on answers.
You’ve been there. You’re leading a small group Bible study. You’ve just asked a question but the room is silent. You agonize while you wait for an answer. But you have to wait. You have to resist the urge to feed the answer to the room. Because if you do, you’ll short-circuit the process and hamstring your group and short-change your teaching.
Every time a question is asked in a small group, everyone in the room is answering three internal questions before they speak. They may not even be conscious that they’re doing it, but it’s happening. The personality of the individual, the familiarity of the group, or the nature of the question might speed up or slow down the process but none of them removes any of the three questions. Only you as the leader can do that. Let’s look at those questions.
Internal Question #1: Do I understand the question?
When you first hear a question, the first mental step is to assure yourself that you understood the question that was being asked. You do this partly because you want to avoid embarrassment. No one likes having to admit that they misheard or misunderstood the question. “Sorry, I thought you said…” is a quick way to scare someone from answering again any time soon. You also ask this question because your subconscious is lazy. No one wants to spend the mental energy crafting an answer to a question that wasn’t asked.
This is why “Will you repeat the question?” is so often asked. Nine times out of ten, it’s a socially acceptable stalling mechanism to give them more time to answer the three internal questions before speaking up. When this happens, just repeat the question. Try not to reword it, especially if that rewording makes it longer or more complicated. Instead of helping them answer the first internal question, you’ll forced them to start all over.
To help your small group, craft good questions. Be clear and concise. One of my flaws is that my questions come out muddled. But when I take the time in advance to craft my questions, I serve my group well. Well-articulated questions make it easier for the hearer to answer the first internal question and easier on you if you’re asked to repeat it.
Internal Question #2: Do I know the answer?
This one is obvious, but its order in the sequence might not be. You can’t answer it until you’ve answered the first internal question affirmatively.
It also takes time to answer this question, way more time than it took you to craft it. You already know the answer. You might have known the answer before you even created the question. So be patient. Awkward silences give time for brains to work; especially your introverts and internal processors who might need some time to answer internal question three.
Remember, this step is the reason you asked the question in the first place. Yes, you want good discussion in the group. Yes, you want them to vocalize their views. But more than that, dialogical instruction is intended to make students think. Even if they don’t get to share, which is often the case in larger groups, they still needed to flex their spiritual muscles and meditate on the question.
Internal Question #3: Is it my turn to answer?
This is where group dynamics and individual personality really mix it up. Your extroverts and external processors have a permanent “Yes” stamped in their brains in response to this question. And so they are quick to throw an answer out there, even if they really didn’t refine it during Step 2. Your internal processors are busy polishing their answer while your introverts are trying to summon the courage to speak up.
As a good small group leader learn to read your group and then teach your students those skills as well. You might have to coach the guy who is always the first to answer to give others a chance. You might have to prompt the introvert in the circle whose body language tells you they have answer but can’t seem to jump the third hurdle without a nudge. Don’t put people on the spot, but a well placed prompt can do wonders for the balance and diversity of answers given in your group. Over time, the group dynamics will settle all of this out. Unless you answer your own questions.
If you can’t wait patiently for the group to answer, you’ll create a bad habit in your group that keeps them from ever processing the internal questions. Remember the laziness that urges students to answer internal question #1? That same subconscious desire to eliminate needless work will also keep them from even expending gray matter on a question they know you’ll eventually answer for them. All they have to do is wait. And all too often, they are way more willing to sit out the awkward than you are.
So be patient, they’ve got a lot of questions to answer.