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.

3 Tips to Avoid Distaster While Leading a Church Small Group

5th in a Series on Why to Join a Small Group

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Ok, maybe disaster is too strong a word. Call it extreme discomfort, stinging regret, and probable loss of relationship. When people seek out a church small group for growth and support, they’re acting on a need for good relationships, so it’s doubly disappointing when they join a group and get hurt.

Leaders need to take responsibilithy for setting a loving, respectful tone. More than that, groups need to come up with some ground rules that help everyone feel safe. I’m going to start by just diving into how I’ve personally messed up in my group. Call it a cautionary tale.

Disaster 1 – We Weren’t on the Same Page at All

So we had a terrific, high functioning, homogenous group when a new couple joined. Basking in our automatic harmony, we neglected to review the norms of our group with them. We covered some basics, like when we met and what we did and the need not to break confidentiality, but we’d forgotten some of the rules that had become so ingrained they were not longer spoken.

One of them – the right to ask one another hard questions to help each other be accountable and make biblical choices.

One meeting, the newest woman began to complain about a relational problem, and I asked her a very personal question about that relationship. She looked stunned.

After several long seconds, she said, “I’m gonna plead the fifth on that one.”

And I realized – we hadn’t talked to this new couple about accountability at all. My question came out of left field for her. She had never granted permission for us to ask that kind of question, and as a person who had no experience in a Christian community, it just seemed intrusive and judgy to her.

I think her trust in me took a few backward steps that day, and it would have been avoidable if we’d been more clear during the onboarding process.

Disaster 2 – We Let Couples Blindside Each Other

Couples can be tricky in group settings. Common wisdom in group dynamics is that people in the group should say what they have to say to the whole group, without breaking into factions. This keeps everyone in the loop with no one feeling excluded. Nothing destroys a group like people talking behind one another’s backs.

But couples have a prior allegience to one another that has to be considered. One fateful meeting, a wife spoke openly about an unresolved conflict with her husband that put him in an unflattering light, and everyone in the group heard her out. A few faltering comments were made offering support to both of them, but none of us really knew how to handle it.

The husband was angry and shocked that the whole group allowed this interaction. He felt threatened and walked out, and they didn’t return to the group.

As we analyzed how to keep something like that from ever happening again, we settled on the rule that no marital conflict should be brought up within the small group unless the couple has previously discussed it and agreed to seek the group’s guidance and support.

That wasn’t the first time one spouse had used the group as a place to seek help with a marital issue at the other spouse’s expense, but you can bet it was the last.

As someone with a degree in counseling, I’d had a sense all along that we were venting too much about our spouses, but I never did anything about it until we lost two people from our group.

Disaster 3 – We Let Each Other Whine Too Much

I’m the biggest whiner of all, so I’m mostly talking to myself here. I think sometimes getting empathy from my small group, and having my problems prayed for, made me slower to do things I needed to do to take better care of myself.

For instance, I’ve suffered depression my whole life, but didn’t go on an antidepressant till I was 40. Having wonderful friends who listened and cared probably kept me from suffering worse depression, but I should have tried the drug a lot sooner!

There’s a fine line between venting in a healthy, honest way, and whining too much, but we have to help each other find it. We need to get comfortable with offering patient, affirming support and respectfully encouraging action. Some groups stay stuck by supporting an unhealthy status quo (like when we complain about our churches). Some groups stay stuck by trying to fix each other all the time without truly understanding and empathizing first.

Truly loving each other will help us avoid both. Love comforts and speaks truth at the same time.

Small Groups – Incubators for Healthy Relationships

The Bible is full of guidance for how to relate to one another. Small groups are the perfect place to learn this guidance and put it into immediate practice. We work on getting it right with good hearted people who are all committed to the process and playing by the same rules. That strenthens us to go out and relate well to the rest of the world, to bring in the same peace and joy where we live and work.

Because of my small group, I can bring three insights to any situation:

  1. Expectations need to be clear at the start of any group process.
  2. Couples need to be aligned before they involve a group in a marriage issue.
  3. It’s not helpful to let people complain too much without taking positive action.

Question for Reflection:

Have you ever been in a group situation where you’ve failed to communicate clear expectations and suffered for it? How would you handle it differently now?