How 20 Seconds of Silence Gets People Talking

A friend, colleague, and author once told me, “The one who talks is the one who learns.”  I’ve actually seen that principle at work in Bible studies I’ve led over the years.  As I’ve matured in my leadership of Bible study groups, I’ve learned to say less and to get group members talking and discussing what they’re learning instead.  I finally realized that it’s not about what I do, it’s about what they do.

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When you lead a Bible study, one of the most effective ways to help learners engage in the study is to ask compelling questions.  Jesus asked questions when He taught.  “Who do people say I am?” was followed up with “Who do you say I am?”  Sometimes Jesus used questions to expose the hypocrisy of the religious leaders; other times He asked questions to help people clarify their thinking.

I try to ask compelling questions as I lead my Bible study group each week  (my wife and I have recently started a new group at our church); discussion takes off, and it’s hard to rein in the conversations and move on to another point in the lesson.  But there are other times when I ask a question and the people just sit there and look at me…you know the look!  It could be that I’ve asked a great question that group members are trying to process before they answer; on other occasions it may be caused by an ineffective question I’ve asked.  At any rate, the most uncomfortable part of leading a Bible study is when there is a prolonged period of silence.  What is a group leader to do?  Quickly ask another question? Rephrase the question? Provide an answer? Move to a more lecture-oriented style of delivery? Or is there another option?

20 seconds of silence helps the learning experience.

Group leaders almost always use questions to guide Bible study, but most of us commit a “leadership sin’ after we ask our questions.  What kind of sin do we commit?  We answer our own question when the group members don’t respond right away.  By doing this, we train group members to wait for us to answer, and it leaves us wondering why people don’t respond to our questions!  We’ve accidentally taught our group members to wait because experience has taught them that we (group leaders) are so uncomfortable with the silence that we’ll answer our own question!

Research indicates that the quality of student responses improves if the wait time after a leader’s question extends beyond the normal one to three seconds to twenty seconds according to Basics of Teaching for Christians (Pazmino, p.68).  Group members need time to process the question that’s been asked, but all too often leaders jump the gun and answer their own question because they are nervous and uncomfortable with silence.

The next time you lead a Bible study and ask a question, commit to refrain from answering your own questions, and get comfortable with the 20 seconds of silence.  If you do, you’ll find that your group members will begin answering the questions, and you’ll boost the discussion that takes place in the group.  Silence is golden…especially when it’s 20 seconds of silence.

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Ken Braddy is manger of Adult Ministry Ongoing Curriculum at LifeWay and regularly blogs on  small groups.

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