Most people, by and large, aren’t used to having discussions. They just aren’t. What passes for discussion in most workplaces, classrooms and small groups is opinining without critique. Very rarely do students actually engage each other in face-to-face conversation about a difficult idea, and even more rarely does a whole group of people attain this level of discourse.

One of the chief problems I have as a Christian educator is changing the student’s expectations for learning. Partly due to habit, and partly due to insecurity, most students look to the teacher to tell them what to think. It is the teacher who determines their educational experience, not themselves.

In small groups, people don’t expect to have their ideas challenged or criticized. The closest people come is the workplace, but there people seem to rarely expect to work together as a unit, especially in competitive environments.

Setting clear expectations–this is a discussion, this is not a discussion–is essential for fostering great discussions. Where the expectations aren’t clear, anything can happen. In adult groups, that may be okay, but it won’t lead to flourishing. Great communities don’t happen by accident. With high schoolers, it’s an invitation for chaos.

That said, here are a three key ways of establishing expectations for discussion:

  1. Praise good things liberally. This is essential for any leader. If you see the smallest thing happen that’s right, praise it. Creating a culture where good things are praised makes people want to do those good things, whether they know it or not (this is especially true of younger people)
  2. Tell people what the expectations are. Most people forget to do this, but it’s extraordinarily helpful. Offer a brief description of what a discussion actually looks like, and work to disabuse people of their bad ideas about discussion. Be clear up front about the expectations so that there are no surprises. In a small group, when people start challenging other peoples’ ideas, it can get testy if no one expects it. Telling people what to expect is one way of mitigating that problem
  3. Be appropriately stern with people who “act out of line.” Classroom management doesn’t go away in discussion classes. If anything, it is even more important to maintain order by enforcing codes of courtesy and respect. Maintaining a safe environment is crucial for great discussions, so students have to know what is appropriate and what isn’t. While we will address discipline more specifically a little later on, having some is key.
  4. Ask students why they aren’t having a discussion. This is a fun one. In discussion classes where students have been raised on lectures, they will often turn toward the teacher and talk to him. Then they’ll try to guess what’s the teacher is thinking. Both of those practices, however, aren’t really “discussion.” When that happens (and it will–I promise!), you can engage those students in a mini-conversation about why they are looking at you and talking to you. In a discussion class, students should talk to the class. Discussion, it turns out, can be both a means and an end in itself.
  5. Remind discussants constantly of the expectations. People forget things easily–I do it, so I expect others to do it. Remind the people in your group of the “rules for discussion” every chance you get, and do it in unique and compelling ways so as to not make them hate you.

Ensuring that discussants know the proper rules for a discussion is essential to having great discussions. As a discussion leader, you want to bring the group along with you and give them ownership over their own learning experience. To do so, however, demands that they know what ownership looks like and requires of them. Clarifying those expectations is essential for students and participants to take ownership of the process of learning.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.


  1. As a fellow Christian educator, I appreciate your comments. I would add that the simple approach I take is to start all discussions with what Aristotle called enthymemes, or things on which everyone can agree. With that foundation laid, you add less fundamental concepts, and ask the students to process them together into conclusions. I try the same thing in home bible studies, but I find that there are some people who feel better just being told the answer. For some, the best discussion is a conversation about application, a debriefing of the lesson. For others, discussion is the heart of the learning experience.


  2. Matt, you’ve made some great points, especially for dealing with students. Adults in a small group are often harder to lead because they come with so many differing expectations and you can’t really be stern with them. Modeling what you want works well, and talking privately to those who are challenging in one way or another is useful. I deal with the most common challenges in adult small groups in my book. I use a lesson plan (available on the website) to keep both me and the discussion on track. That really avoids the rabbit trails. Since research shows that people remember best that which they come up with and say, it’s important for Christian leaders to strive to become excellent discussion leaders. Great blog.


  3. […] Matthew Anderson at Mere Orthodoxy suggests five strategies for setting clear expectations for a discussion. While he’s focused more on students, many of the suggestions apply to adult small groups as well. He recommends: […]


  4. Dr. Jones,

    That’s a great strategy, actually, that I have used in the past a little, but not extensively. Mostly, I lead discussions on books, so that makes the “common ground” a little easier. I think it’s a great strategy, though, and I’ve never really thought about it with respect to Aristotle. Thanks for the new insight! : )


    I’ve linked your critique in a post above, but I think you are absolutely right. I was thinking entirely of students when I used “stern,” which is my mistake. The two strategies you mention–modeling and talking privately with “problem members”–are strategies I’ve used a lot in the past, and strategies I’ve mentioned elsewhere in my series. I didn’t realize that you had a book out on this topic–it sounds like I should read it! : )


  5. […] MatthewLee: Fostering Conversations that Count: Setting Clear Expectations […]


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