youth ministry, student ministry, small group discussion

6 Tricks to Get Students Talking

By Guest Contributor May 20, 2014

By: Rob Trenckmann

What do you do when students just won’t talk? You know the feeling—you’re leading a small group, or teaching youth group, or speaking at a camp, and you ask a question . . . and get nothing. Nada. Zip. Total silence. Some fidget, some look down, others stare at you defiantly, but no one will answer.

When I started in youth ministry, the entire youth group refused to talk. In fact, one of the adults told me to forget about it: “This group just won’t do discussion.” Hmm, I thought, that’s a problem. Because for me, discussion isn’t a style choice—it’s a core value. We’ll have to change that.

But it proved much harder than I expected. Each Sunday and Wednesday, 60 High School students would sit and stare at me. A token few would engage, but that quickly grew awkward for everyone. How could I get the rest of the group to talk?

Here’s what I did:

  • Reward good behavior with attention. It’s always important to praise a good answer, but it’s vital when you’re teaching a group to think and discuss. When someone says something good (or even semi-good), draw everyone’s attention to it. Praise it. Get excited about it. This sets the tone for your entire group.
  • Create a safe environment. Often, students won’t speak up because of pure insecurity. They’re afraid others will laugh at them. They’re afraid you have a specific answer in your head, and they’ll be wrong. They’re afraid to say something stupid. This is why, when possible, I figure out a way to draw an answer out, even if it’s a little “off.” And it’s why I take every answer seriously, even if the student is trying to be funny. It shows students that this is a safe place to be real, to be serious, and to try new thoughts. It takes a few months or longer before they feel safe, but it’s worth it.
  • Trick them. Yep, that’s right. I tricked them. Like most young people, they were happy to talk when it wasn’t official. They’d talk to their friends, laugh with the person sitting next to them, and then clam up when I’d ask a question. They were programmed to quit thinking when we opened in prayer. So for six months or so, we didn’t. I’d get them talking to their neighbor about something—“Tell the person next to you the best thing that happened this week,”—then get them sharing with me—“Whose neighbor told you a good story?” Then, I’d get them talking to me about the lesson. We’d get about ten minutes in before they realized we hadn’t stopped to pray, and by then, it was too late.
  • Make them argue. This was my wife’s brilliant idea. One week, we split the room in half and set up the chairs facing each other. We had a debate! I assigned one side the controversial topic (for example, there is no way the Bible is true; it’s just a bunch of manmade legends), and the other side has the job of responding. They had ten minutes to prepare their case and then five minutes to present, followed by five minutes to prepare a counter argument, and then present. After that, I let them argue. At the end, I drew everyone together for some final discussion. By that time, they were buzzing with conversation.
  • Model good questions. “Ask the questions they want to ask but are afraid to. And ask the questions they should be asking but don’t know it yet.” This was the advice my dad gave me when I asked him how to get the group to talk. Brilliant!
  • Call on them. Yes, it is ok to call on students and ask them to answer. Just be sure to do it kindly, consistently, and graciously. In fact, I find it is easiest to call on people when I know they should have an answer—like when I’ve just had them take a couple of minutes to talk to their neighbor about something. In those moments, I’ll often call on someone who hasn’t shared yet, because I know they should have something to say. If I call on someone and they say, “I don’t have any thoughts,” I’ll reply, “Okay, I understand. Keep thinking, and I’ll come back to you.” This creates the expectation of participation—part of forming your group culture. Of course, this isn’t drill camp. I’m sensitive to those who are new or who have some other reason not to take part.

I remember when that group started learning to think and discuss. It was contagious. In fact, by the end of the first summer, some of them started complaining that they didn’t get to talk enough. Eventually, on camps and retreats, I had to make rules about how many times they could share, so everyone could talk. In fact, they got so good at thinking and discussing that I grew lazy as a teacher! But when I’m with a new group at a camp, leading at a conference, or engaging a youth group, I come back to these tricks for teaching a group how to talk.

How about you? What tips or tricks do you have for getting a group to talk?



About the Author

Guest Contributor

The LeaderTreks Blog is proud to share the hard-earned wisdom of student ministry leaders from many different backgrounds and professions. From time to time, we will feature guest blog posts from writers other than our regular contributors. We include these posts to provide additional perspectives and insight that we’re sure will help develop you and your ministry…  Read More