The Quiet Person in the Small group

A church’s small groups or Bible studies can help people to get to know one another and provide a more interactive approach than the main preaching service. I’ve seen a number of articles and blog posts about how to help one’s small group function at its best, and one item that always comes up is what to do about the quiet person who doesn’t say much.

The usual advice is to call on that person by name during the discussion time with a direct question, such as “Mary, what do you think?” May I say on behalf of quiet people everywhere: please don’t do that. Asking the group members to “turn to their neighbor” to discuss one on one a question from the study isn’t much better.

People may be quiet for any number of reasons. Maybe they’re introverts, shy, lacking in confidence to speak out, or just a quiet personality. All of those things don’t necessarily go together: introverts are not always shy and quiet people aren’t always lacking in confidence. But all of them cringe at being put on the spot, especially in front of others.

Small group leaders should naturally make leading their group a matter of prayer, part of which would be asking for wisdom in how to minister to the various personalities in the group and facilitate the best kinds of interaction.

Some people may not feel comfortable about speaking out in a group. I’m not talking butterflies in the stomach nervousness: I’m talking full-blown anxiety. Calling on them will only increase that fear and make them unlikely to come next time. It helps that person to be friendly and talk with them before or after the group: maybe over time she’ll feel comfortable enough to speak out. If she does share something while talking alone with the group leader, perhaps the leader can say something like, “That’s a great thought, Susan. Would you mind of I shared that with the others during discussion time, or would you like to, perhaps?”

Some may be mulling things over. Introverts in particular take a while to process what they hear and learn. That person honestly may not have an answer for you, or she may still be thinking about something from two questions ago. It might help someone like that to ask at the end of the discussion if anyone has any thoughts on anything discussed that day: that way she can feel comfortable bringing up a thought from earlier without feeling like she’s holding up progress for everyone else. Or, at the beginning of the next session the leader could ask if anyone has any thoughts from last week’s discussion: if someone has been processing the discussion through the week, she’ll be more likely to have something to say about it after some extending time to think about it.

Some might not contribute to the discussion due to fear of saying the wrong thing, especially in a Christian discussion. While we don’t need to let a falsehood pass just to be nice, we can handle it in a gracious way: “I can see how you might come to that conclusion. But consider this aspect…” People are more likely to contribute to the discussion if they feel safe doing so.

Some of my blog friends have mentioned their small groups getting together socially apart from their regular study, perhaps after one study and before beginning another. This is a great way for group members to feel more comfortable with each other and might facilitate more interaction in the regular group meetings. A quiet person is not likely to be the life of the party even in a purely social setting, but she may get to know one or two people a little better, and that’s progress.

Naturally small groups work best if there is a good deal of balanced interaction. Some translate that into thinking their group time has been a “success” only if everyone has participated, i.e., spoken and shared something with the group, every time. But may I suggest that’s putting form above function. It can breed thoughts like, “I have to think of something to say so people don’t think I’m unspiritual,” which adds even more pressure to the quiet person. A person may be benefiting greatly from her time there, yet never say a word, at least during the group discussion. After all, listening is participating.

OK, you might say, she might be getting something, but what is she giving? Maybe nothing to the group that day except her presence. But maybe she takes the truths she has learned and applies them in her own life, or teaches them to her children, or discusses them with a close friend, or expands on them in a blog post.

Sometimes one aspect of wanting to see everyone participate is wanting to see results, and those are not always for us to see: sometimes we just have to trust that God is using His Word in people’s lives even if they don’t tell us about it.

I’m not suggesting that everyone reading this opt for silence during the next Bible study or small group get-together, nor am I suggesting that quiet people should never extend themselves (perhaps a topic for a separate post some time). They We should. But they’ll we’ll be more likely to without the artificial pressure of trying to come up with something to say just because it is expected.

17 thoughts on “The Quiet Person in the Small group

  1. Good article, Barbara. I feel the same way about games that force people to mingle or being told to turn around and hug the person sitting behind me.
    I have two “quiet” people in my family. I’ve learned so much from their silences.

  2. What an excellent post, Barbara. These words especially stood out to me…”Sometimes one aspect of wanting to see everyone participate is wanting to see results”. I’ve been in settings like that and it is sad because in “forcing” answers we often turn people off and keep them from ever returning again, just as you’ve so beautifully stated in your post. Thank you so much, Barbara.

  3. Great post! I’m more often than not the quiet one. We don’t have a small group in our church since our church is small but when on furlough I practice “wall flower 101”. I’m just not a front and center kind of gal. I appreciate your post and helping us all to understand each other a bit more.

  4. Very good! Our church has small group studies and I really enjoy them. I am a bit of a shy person in a larger crowd but I’ve gotten to know people in our small group and it’s been fun. I agree that not everyone is comfortable speaking in a group. Small group leaders have to sensitive to people.

  5. YES!!!! I LOATHE being called out on the spot to answer a question. My brain starts scrambling and I start sputtering and I feel like a nincompoop who would rather have been ignored!

    One thing we’ve done is started a small group that is more about fellowship than a study. (Which does bug some people, yes, but I find it helpful to have some time to get to know people better before you launch into something that is supposed to be deeply meaningful and life changing.) I’d PREFER the meal and time of fellowship to anything else because I tend to feel most encouraged and strengthened in my love for the Body of Christ through fellowship. And then I study best on my own with some quiet and a book in hand.

  6. Appreciate your perspective and insight to introverted people in small group settings, Barbara. I’ve been a small group leader in the past and found that if I call on a quiet person with a question that is not an open-ended one (not “what did you think”) but a more factual one that’s in the text — an “easy” question — my quiet person can participate without too much stress. I only did this occasionally, but it seemed to acclimate her to responding and, over time, she trusted me not to put her on the spot.

  7. Really enjoyed this — helped me feel better about being the “quiet” one in groups. I think I was traumatized back in a college honors class I took, with about 10 students. The format each week was to meet with the prof and discuss the book. We were graded based on the number of “contributions” we made to each conversation. Even now, 30 yrs later, I still can feel the stress of sitting there, wondering what on earth to say spur-of-the-moment that would be earth-shattering. How would I break into the conversation and not interrupt someone else, etc. I always preferred large lectures because they didn’t have that pressure.

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  13. I absolutely agree. I enjoy a group where I feel I have the freedom to enter into a conversation or topic discussion or just listen. Sometimes, I get more out of a discussion by just sitting back and taking in.

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