The 15-Second Rule and Other Stunning Revelations from my Small Group

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I recall talking to my husband one night after everyone else had gone home after our small group meeting. I was frustrated.

“There are three people who hardly say anything,” I complained. “Why don’t they talk?”

There was a meaningful pause, then Bill said, “They don’t get a chance.”

Defensiveness stirred in me, painful self awareness dawning. “What do you mean?”

“Well, some people need a pause in the conversation. It takes a few seconds to gather their thoughts. But if the extroverts just keep talking, there’s never a pause.”

I’m an extrovert.

“So you think me and ___________ and _____________ talk too much?”

Bill was wonderfully diplomatic, “Try the 15-second rule,” he said. “Some of us need a silence that long before we’re ready to talk.”

15 Seconds of Silence?

15 seconds? Why on earth? Well, it turns out that there are two kinds of people – the ones who think before speaking, and the ones who are thinking as they speak. I’m the latter and thought everyone else was too. (Actually, sometimes I speak before I think. That’s usually not helpful.)

So I started trying the 15-second rule. Sure enough, those pauses often resulted in introverts speaking up. I thought they’d been withholding or checking out, when actually they’d just needed me to shut up for a minute. Lesson learned.

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That’s what’s so great about an ongoing small group where people commit and just keep showing up. There will inevitably be friction (the ‘storming’ phase of group dynamics) and every moment of friction is an opportunity for us to learn about ourselves and each other.

It’s the emotional equivalent of working out. Not till we excercise our relationship muscles do we realize what’s out of shape, what needs strengthening, what lacks stamina. We show up whether we feel like it or not and we grow in love.

Group Norms Help Self-Awareness

Of course, the group has to have norms that keep it safe for everyone. A toxic group won’t help us grow in love. In a group, for example, where no one is aware of the dynamics and taking responsibility, the extroverts will chatter on and the introverts will check out. It will be our growing up years all over again.

Here are some ideas for making sure everyone gets a chance to participate in a healthy way:

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  • Agree that the leader has the right to ask individuals if they have anything to say. That’s a way to address the imbalance without rebuking anyone.
  • Challenge our groups to self-awareness. Maybe teach about the contents of this blog. Take some time occassionally to have everyone answer the question, “How much do I contribute to the group, and would it help to speak more or less?”
  • If you’re the leader, take responsibility to guard the group from people who take over. This can be really hard – especially if someone’s in crisis. It may be appropriate for a person or couple to get most of the attention when they’re going through something really hard, but if it keeps happening week after week, that’s not good for anyone. The leader can gently suggest a separate time to minister to that need, and reclaim the group for it’s usual agenda, which includes giving equal time to everyone.

It’s really important that groups do strive for this balance of interaction; otherwise they’ll fizzle. Attendance will start to drop off. Learning to be present for each other and for ourselves at the same time is a key skill, necessary for unity and equity.

15 seconds may seem like a long time to pause, but if it gives introverts a chance to be heard, and extroverts a chance to quietly reflect, everyone wins.

8 thoughts on “The 15-Second Rule and Other Stunning Revelations from my Small Group

  1. Colleen,
    I love this. I’m an introvert and struggle with this issue often. In fact, I am on a weekly Google meet with high school friends. I’m usually drowned out by others and end up listening but feeling frustrated. I can certainly relate.

  2. I was told in a support group it ok to have slience and no one is required to talk. We use a timer to get everybody a chance to speak.

  3. Love your idea of the 15-second rule, Colleen, coupled with the prerogative of the leader to call on the introverts now and then and inviting them to speak what’s on their minds. Years ago I came across a quote about talking vs. listening, something like “As long as I’m talking, I’m not learning.” Sure, it’s good to to share, but listening to learn is equally valuable–sometimes more so!

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