What follows is by no means exhaustive, but just a few suggestions for cultivating a healthy and spirited group dynamic, based on my experience in classrooms and other group settings. The following can be adapted to just about any study or reading group, gathering of friends, or classroom setting.
1/ In getting discussion started with a new group or with material that is difficult or potentially painful, general open-ended questions are always a helpful starting point. For example, “What struck you most in the reading this week?” “Was there a particular point that resonated for you, or with your experience, or that you found most provocative?” “What is the author’s most important idea in this chapter? Did you find the author persuasive?”
When a range of participants have responded the moderator can follow-up on particular comments to go deeper, or transition to more focused questions on the material at hand. The discussion questions you’ll find below under the website’s “Reading Guide” for each chapter tend to move in this direction, from general open-ended questions to particular ideas in each chapter. There are probably many more questions provided here than are practical to use in a single session. “Less is often more” – select those you find most helpful or provocative.
2/ Groups work best when ground rules or expectations have been established and there is agreement to hold to them as much as possible. Of course this is especially so with sensitive topics such as race. For example: “Each of us commit to the best of our ability to…
Listen without judgment / Ask follow-up questions, especially when you do not understand or disagree with another person’s position / Be comfortable with silence / Before judging, try to understand the experience, emotions, or beliefs that lay behind a person’s position, including my own (Why do I think, feel, or believe this way?) / Remember and respect that everyone enters the conversation with diverse experiences, memories, joys, and sufferings, perhaps even traumas, as well as diverse listening and learning styles / Allow people to come as they are / Resist over-analyzing or trying to “fix it,” especially when another person shares a difficult life situation or problem / REPEAT: Be comfortable with silence
Other rules of engagement? Laugh whenever possible! Unmitigated seriousness, especially with serious topics, is exhausting. (Singing and sharing food together whenever possible is also highly encouraged!) The group itself may wish to add to these or develop its own set of expectations, and thus build a sense of ownership and shared trust in the process from the outset.
Why silence? Periods of silence and/or prayer can completely change the tenor of a gathering, whether at the beginning, end, or in between. Silence gives people room to breathe, to think, to process emotion, to pray. Agreeing that silence is OK, and need not always be filled with speech, is healthy and freeing for both introverts and extroverts – it makes room for the former and tempers the latter.
3/ Encourage reflection not only on the content or intellectual substance of the reading but also the style or emotive and imaginative quality – i.e., how the material touches the whole person: head and heart, memory and experience, desire and imagination. The aim here is to help cultivate compassionate and holistic engagement with the topic and between the group members – and also to counter our natural inclination with difficult issues and uncomfortable truths to intellectualize, analyze, manage, and immediately try to “fix it.”
The underlying conviction here is that deep listening and real presence to one another are of first importance, laying a foundations of friendship and trust needed for (possible) collaborative action or shared labor toward a common goal.
4/ “Set the Table” – an effective way to build group ownership is to ask or assign a few participants to “set the table” at the next gathering, i.e., for each to select two or three quotes from the reading and then to formulate two or three prepared questions based on these ideas. Whoever is responsible for setting the table will put their quotes and questions on a half-sheet and print enough copies for all. At the next meeting, the discussion period opens with their quotes and questions, with a brief explanation as to why they found those particular quotes compelling. This also relieves the moderator of undue responsibility or influence for the direction of the discussion.
5/ Balance and focus: A healthy group dynamic aims to be both structured and free, allowing for surprise and spontaneity based on what emerges – but also nudging the conversation forward and returning to particulars in the reading when the discussion feels primed to do so. When the conversation gets bogged down or off-track, the book and author’s perspective should serve as both the focused launching point and “safe harbor” of return throughout. Again, a moment of silence is also a good centering practice and point of return.
6/ Encourage journaling or lectio divina (meditative reading and note-taking) between meetings – i.e., to freely record images, thoughts, emotions, etc., that arise as you engage the book and works of music, art, or other resources on this website.
7/ Your suggestions for groups and lessons learned from your experiences? Please add them below to the comment thread!