How to run Sycamore 5: Group discussions


The time of discussion in groups is central to Sycamore – both the informal chatting over supper or coffee, and the more ‘organised’ discussion while you are watching and pausing the films. This is the time when, hopefully, people can be themselves, get to know each other, share their thoughts, ask questions, hear different perspectives, etc. So much of the fruitfulness and spiritual growth for the guests at Sycamore comes not from the formal video input, but from the conversations that arise.

The discussion time can be the most exciting, and also the most nerve-wracking for the leaders. It’s unpredictable. Leaders are often anxious about silence; or no-one having anything to say; or heated disagreements; or one or two people dominating and others not getting a chance to speak; or not knowing the answers to difficult questions that come up.

It will take time for people to grow in trust. This is extra hard if the groups are not stable, e.g. in the first week you have 12 guests; the second week you have 8 guests, but only 4 of these came in the first week, with 4 new ones. Do you try to keep the same groups/tables, or do you give up and start from scratch each time? You need to work out the best answer for each situation…

This is not the place to give detailed advice about how to run a discussion group, but there a few tips or key principles that can help guide the leaders:

  • Very briefly, at the beginning of the session, pray silently in your heart, for all those in your group.
  • Allow people to speak, share and discuss. Create an atmosphere (by what you say and do) where people know they are completely free to share their honest thoughts and views and feelings; where people do not feel judged for their views, or feel they are stupid for their lack of knowledge or strong opinions. Have lots of affirming replies up your sleeve: ‘Thanks for sharing that…’, ‘that’s very interesting, what do others think?’ etc.
  • At the very beginning of the first discussion each week, just remind people about all this: encourage people to share honestly, and to listen and respond respectfully.
  • A small amount of solid ‘content’ is provided by the video input (teaching, catechesis, Gospel stories, etc); this is the foundation for discussion and debate, and it is one part of the learning experience. This means that the discussion group itself does not need to have a big emphasis on teaching and input. It is a time for commenting on the input, and giving people the freedom to share their thoughts. This is one way that we grow. If you are asked a question, it might sometimes be appropriate to give a straight answer to a straight question about Christian belief, if you do know the answer as a leader; and to do this briefly and lovingly. But don’t do it in a way that turns a discussion into a teaching session.
  • Sometimes a conversation just happens – people talk without much prodding; the discussion flows. It is hard to explain why this works; it usually depends on the mix of personalities, their openness; and the question under discussion.
  • Sometimes the leader needs to prod people gently. First, to have a few general questions to ask to the whole group, hoping a few people will respond, e.g. ‘what do people think about this question?’ e.g. to re-phrase the question on the screen (e.g. the first question about childhood games can be re-phrased as ‘what were your favourite playground games? What sports did people do at school?’ Etc…). Then, if only one or two people have spoken, to invite others to respond who have not, e.g. ‘Does anyone else have any thoughts about this?’ – looking round at those who haven’t spoken. It’s usually best not to put people on the spot in the early sessions, e.g. ‘What do you think Stephen?’ in case they don’t want to speak; but it might work to say ‘Did you want to add anything?’ if someone has been very quiet.
  • Don’t be afraid of silence. Be willing to sit with silence for a few seconds – allowing people to gather their thoughts; allowing others to speak who have not spoken. Even a slight awkwardness can be the thing that prompts people to speak in order to fill the silence! But if the silence becomes very awkward, then do ask the question again, or use a follow up question, or say something from your own experience to fill the gaps, or whatever…
  • It is worth looking at all 4 questions for each video (see the complete list of questions here), and thinking beforehand about some follow up questions for each one, and writing these down to have in front of you, or preparing some as a group. E.g. for the Film 1 question, ‘What role do you think religion plays in people’s lives?’ you could follow up with, ‘Do you have friends that are religious? What are the main religious groups in your area? Did you learn much about religion at school’ etc. We hope to prepare a list of supplementary questions for all ten videos.
  • If near the end of the session someone has not spoken at all, you might like to invite them to say something gently, ‘Did you have any thoughts to add before we finish?’ But to respect them if they prefer not to speak.
  • If someone is dominating the conversation, speaking all the time and not listening to others, you can let this run for a few minutes. If it is becoming clear that they are de-railing the session, you might need to be firmer, e.g. ‘Thanks for sharing that; shall we just hear from some other people now…’ They will usually take the hint. If they don’t take the hint, don’t be laying down the ground rules again, e.g. ‘We want to try to give everyone a chance to speak, and to hear from different people in the group…’ If it has been really bad, and you can’t see it getting any better, you may need to speak to the person after the session, and talk about how it can work better; or move someone into a louder group.
  • If someone is being argumentative or disrespectful or rude, it might be necessary to be firm and cut someone off, or change the subject; e.g. ‘this is getting a bit too heated, let’s leave this for now… we’ll come back to this another time… it’s OK to disagree but let’s do this gently and respectfully…’
  • It’s good to have two group leaders for each group: to support one another; and so that they can bring different skills to each situation; and so that while one is leading/talking, the other can be praying.
  • When the discussion has come to a natural end then you can move to the next part of the video and the next input. It’s better to finish while the discussion is still good, leaving people wanting more, instead of going on too long each time. If there is more than one table, then a main leader will need to judge when is the moment for the whole room to start the next part of the video.

The discussion questions are designed so that anyone can enter into discussion, even if they have no background knowledge of Christianity. For this reason, some of the questions feel quite simplistic; but the aim is to allow open discussion, and not to make people feel awkward by seeming to test their knowledge. The first question is always a simple icebreaker. The following questions try to go a bit deeper.

Some of the questions work well, but some of them need improving. When we ran the sessions at Newman House with university students, it was clear that we needed some deeper questions for the later sessions, building on the discussions so far and on the input. There was criticism that some of the discussion questions seemed disconnected from the video input and did not allow participants to engage with the video input. For this reason, we have added some supplementary questions onto some of the videos when you hit the PAUSE button for discussion. But we have not had time to develop new questions properly, or to film new interviews; and so some of the present interviews, while still stimulating, do not fit very well. Please do give feedback on each of the individual film pages about which questions might work better – we value your feedback and suggestions.

For more information about how to run Sycamore, see the links below:

How to run Sycamore 1: Background

How to run Sycamore 2: Overview

How to run Sycamore 3: Preparation and planning

How to run Sycamore 4: The structure of each session

How to run Sycamore 5: Group discussions

How to run Sycamore 6: Optional Retreat Day

How to run Sycamore 7: Follow up

How to run Sycamore 8: The prayer team

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