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Conversations that Count: How Leaders Lead Discussions

September 28th, 2007 | 4 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

*Note: After taking a summer break from this series, I am returning to it and will finish it this fall.  For other posts in the series, see the bottom of this post.*

The flexible nature of discussion presents an inherent difficulty for any discussion leader: how does he ensure that the discussion goes well or that it meets the desired goals? Unlike a lecture, where an educator controls the flow of information, a discussion leader must work with other participants who don’t know the appropriate ending of the conversation. How does a leader ensure that the class makes progress in understanding the topic they are discussing?

  1. Know when to delegate. In a discussion, inspiration can come from any student at any moment. When a student’s face lights up because they have just seen something–had some flash of insight or understanding–go with them. Great leaders don’t have to be in control all the time–they are more invested in the success of the group than their own position. And sometimes, that means handing the reigns over to those who have a better sense of the direction the discussion should go.
  2. Persuade, don’t force. True education must be voluntary. We can only prompt our students to seek the truth—we cannot force them. But if participants do not understand why they are having a certain conversation they will be far less engaged than if they are convinced of the goodness of the direction. Persuading a class can be time consuming, and for some people it can seem distracting and less important than simply talking about the text. But in discussion we are not merely building a community. We are building a community of a certain sort. The question is, “What kind of community?” In the long run, a community where there is trust established because students see the decision making process and feel empowered to change it will be a far more healthy community than that in which they forced to go a certain direction against their will. Of course, the more transparent and persuasive the discussion leader is, and the more “successful” discussions he leads, the more participants will trust his judgment and it will be easier to propose a topic for discussion.
  3. Persuade the right students.  Within any community, a natural leadership hierarchy arises.  While you have a de facto authority, the students will have their own sense of structure.  Know who the leaders within the group are, and win them.  They can do more to help–or hurt–your cause than you may be able to.
  4. Treat people like adults. As we’ve pointed out here recently, infantilization may be harming students as much as hurting them.  Treating high schoolers like adults by ending “nanny style” education–repeatedly reminding them of assignments, holding their hands through work, etc.–helps them trust the leader more. That sense of trust, not surprisingly, makes it far more likely that they will act responsibly in the discussion and treat the leaders’ recommendations with more deference and respect. Students understand when they are being respected and are often eager to return it.
  5. Act as referee when you must. When improv actors break “the rules,” they need to be held accountable. If you give participants full authority over the course of the discussion, you must be prepared to act if they abuse that authority with firm, even-handed discipline.  This is true even for adult discussions—if you have a group that isn’t listening to each other, it is appropriate to ask them why they aren’t listening and what they plan to do about it. The discussion leader must make the appropriate behaviors and expectations clear for the group.
  6. Set the tone. Most discussion leaders have a de facto position of authority within the group. Good leaders use that de facto authority by setting the tone—through being energetic, dressing well, remaining engaged (even when silent), encouraging, etc.
  7. Mark transitions in the discussion by initiating recaps. The discussion narrative will have points where it is appropriate to take a broader perspective on the conversation itself–where have we been, where are we, where are we going? Those are the sorts of questions that leaders tend to ask, and by initiating them at the right moments, they will be affect the flow the conversation.

These are just a few of the ways in which we exercise leadership in what is, for all intents and purposes, a community of temporary equals.

I have spent some 850 hours participating in discussions and another 700 leading them.  These are my reflections on what went well and what didn’t.  If you want to hear more or have me speak to your church, your youth group or others about how to use discussion effectively, contact me at Matthew.L.Anderson at Gmail.Com

Other posts in the series:

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.