Summary: The start-point, check-in and check-out are 3 components that if executed well, can take small group discussions from being unstructured, choppy and difficult to listen to and follow; to being times where the group can operate at its highest level.
Every good story has a beginning, middle and end. There are certain events throughout a good story that provide the transitions. The beginning grabs the audience’s attention by setting the scene, establishing relationships and providing the overall foundation of what will happen throughout the rest of the story.
Once the audience is locked in, then events happen that transition the audience into the main purpose or lesson.
Then to wrap things up, the event is resolved and we learn how the story and its characters will move forward from here.
This basic structure of stories also applies to having healthy small group discussions as we are living out the story of our time together. They should have a beginning, middle and end – to direct the flow of the conversation by setting the stage, exploring the purpose and coming up with resolution.
The authors of The Circle Way: A Leader In Every Chair call them the start point, the check-in, and the check-out.
The difference is that in a discussion, the audience is also the participants.
A start point is a tool used to shift participants from social chatting to focused listening and speaking.
What can be used for a start point? A lot of things. Common examples include Bible verses, songs, lyrics to songs, a summary of last week’s discussion, the story of why the discussion is happening, etc. Whatever it is, it shouldn’t be random. It should relate to the purpose of the discussion and propel the group forward into it.
When you begin a discussion in an intentional manner like this, it helps participants reflect on why they’ve come and gives them time to reorient their minds to that purpose.
After we’ve provided a way for people’s minds to adjust and their focus to kick in, we can transition into the meat of the discussion through the use of a check-in question. This question most often springboards off of the content of the start-point and is designed to get people to start exploring the purpose of the discussion and issue at hand.
It should be carefully prepared (and given to people ahead of time to prepare their answers) because it will lay the foundation for the rest of the discussion. The check-in is designed to unlock the group to begin their exploration.
The questions that are picked for discussions are essential to the success of being able to explore the topic fully and accomplishing the group’s purpose. (They are so essential that I just may do a series on crafting questions to use for discussions in the future.)
Here’s how the authors of The Circle Way explain the importance of the questions used to unlock and guide discussion…
The question is like a flower that beckons to the bee, and the responses pollinate the ensuing conversation. Intriguing questions serve to unlock a treasure chest of information, experience and passion.
The authors go on to give some attributes of a powerful question that are helpful for taking inventory of the questions we’re using…
- Generates curiosity in the listener
- Stimulates reflective conversation
- Is thought-provoking
- Surfaces underlying assumptions
- Invites creativity and new possibilities
- Generates energy and forward movement
- Channels attention and focuses inquiry
- Stays with participants
- Touches a deep meaning
One barometer for the quality of questions presented in a discussion I’ve learned is the amount of time they get discussed. In general, I’ve found that if good questions are being asked that have the qualities listed above, 3 or 4 of them will wind up in a 2 hour or more conversation.
If participants gave the questions presented thought and this is not the result, you need to revisit the questions you’re presenting and work to make them more powerful.
This is a great point in the conversation to get short responses from everyone so that it opens the group up for everyone to participate verbally. Doing this sets an environment where it’s clear that everyone has a voice regardless of any differences there may be. The question posed here tends to be the most effective when it elicits some type of personal vulnerability in the form of opinions or stories.
While check-in could go on for a while if allowed (and it seems appropriate within a specific discussion), it’s typically best to keep it to 10-15 minutes as a way to transition to the meat of the discussion, much like a specific scene in a movie catapults the story into the main plot.
In order to stay on track with this, a host may have to use techniques to keep the conversation in focus.
But, there may be times when the check-in question will extract so much from the group that it will serve as the main conversation as well. You may have prepared additional questions, but you’ll find they may become just offshoots of the main question posed.
Just like we shifted our small group into focused listening and speaking, we also have to shift out. Whatever is used here can be just as varied as how we opened, but you have some other options as well.
Not only could discussions close with Bible verses, songs, lyrics to songs, a summary of the discussion, the story of why the discussion happened, etc. Also, someone could summarize what the group built and extracted together. Or the group could do a round of appreciation where each members calls out one thing that was said that impacted them.
Whatever is chosen, resolution is being provided on your time together in what is deemed to be an appropriate manner.
Direct the flow of conversations
If you’re used to just showing up to a small group discussion (as a host or participant) and the flow of conversation being unstructured, choppy and difficult to listen to and follow; learning how to implement these components is a great place to start. They will help direct the flow of conversations in the ways our minds need to focus in and participate at their highest levels.
They naturally weave the group together in a process that will help them explore the purpose of their gathering in a cohesive manner. This causes discussions to make more sense to everyone involved than simply opening up the group to randomness and letting it go wherever the participants take it. If that doesn’t end up in disaster, it likely won’t be as productive as it could be.
Remember, the key to our goal of there being a leader in every chair through every-member participation will only be achieved through preparation; and these three components are of the utmost importance to prepare for and execute.
Sharing the execution of these components with every participant is a way for leadership to be shared as it should. Each of these components can be executed by anyone in the group. They should know this and be trained to do it by whoever is doing the equipping.
The rest of the posts in the Made For Circle series are here.