How to Create Small Group Transparency

Help Couples Feel that They Aren’t Alone

One of the big advantages of working with couples in small groups is hearing each other’s stories. It helps to know they are not alone. It helps couples to know that others struggle with the same issues.

I have attended and I’ve led a number of small groups in my life. I’ve led a number of couple Bible studies.  Some were great and some were not so good.

I was sitting in a couple’s Bible study and the leader asked if there were any prayer requests. One woman responded, “Yes, I have an unnamed prayer request.”

At the time, I didn’t think very much about it. I was in my 20’s and I knew that she was uncomfortable sharing her personal struggles in a small group. Now, as I think back, I see that the group wasn’t very open about anything that was personal. We talked about the Bible, but not personal issues.

A few years after this incident, we had a leader join the same church and he had a great deal of experience in leading groups.

He opened the group session by saying, “I had a terrible today.” He proceeded to be very open about how he felt about what had happened to him.

It was an interesting dynamic. When he became transparent, the group became transparent. The more others saw that it was safe to talk about their struggles, the deeper the conversations got. After a few meetings, people were sharing intimate details and asking the group to pray for them.

A lightbulb went on in my head. The group leader can set the tone for the dialog. Over time, I’ve come to realize that it’s much easier to heal when we are open and honest about our struggles.

As I moved in marriage ministry, I started to lead marriage ministry small groups. This is another level of challenge. Couples come to the group in different places. Some couples just need a few tips. Some couples are struggling with big issues. The big issues may be deeply personal and are difficult to talk about.

How Do You Encourage Transparency in the Couple’s Small Group?

The leader sets the tone. My wife and I are very open in the first meeting.

Here’s the main points that seem to resonate:

  • Admitting we’ve had problems – We talk about how we struggled. We talk about the problems we’ve had. We talk about the impact to our connection. We both talk about the difficulty we had even acknowledging that we were struggling.  We acknowledge we’ve had issues. It helps people to know we aren’t perfect people.
  • Didn’t want to get help – I talk about how I didn’t want to get help. It was uncomfortable and I felt like I was failing.
  • Talking about it in our small group helped – We did go to our small group and tell them exactly what was going on. I found out that others in the group related to us. It opened up others.
  • How we improved – We briefly will talk about steps that we took to improve. We talk about the realizations we both had to come to. We talk about some of the changes that we both had to make.

We recommend that mentors couples agree what stories they will tell. Don’t surprise your spouse. You honor your spouse by agreeing how much of your story you want to share. Are there things you don’t feel comfortable talking about?

We’ve had mentor couples that we have trained. They’ll say, “I don’t know if I want to talk about the affair that we’ve recovered from.”

I tell them not to. I don’t want them to share anything that they are not comfortable with. That’s not promoting safety.

I do know that the leader or leader couple will set the tone. If the leader isn’t genuine, don’t expect your participants to be open.

Are You Failing if the Group Doesn’t Open Up?

Let’s put some balance into this. We’ve had some groups that never seem to open up.

Michelle, my wife, and I lead a marriage ministry at our church. We have trained a number of couples to lead marriage small groups. We went through a time when we emphasized transparency so much that we started to judge the effectiveness of our group by how much couples shared.

We were talking about this at a leader debrief. One of our facilitators made the comment that when they went through the course, they didn’t share anything. They were recovering from an affair. They were embarrassed about it and they didn’t want to talk about it with others.

They eventually came back and told their story to 70 people. On more than one occasion. They needed to heal a little to be able to talk about it.

It reminds me that just because a couple doesn’t open up, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t getting anything out of the group.

Internal Processors and External Processors

I often explain to groups that there are internal processors and external processors.

Internal processors hear something and they think about it. External processors talk about what they are hearing and learning.

Sometimes, I’ll even ask the group, “How many of you are external processors?” All the extroverts will raise their hands.

I tell the group that I want to hear from everyone. I tell the external processors that I might cut them off if they are dominating the group.

I tell the internal processors that I also want to hear from them. If you are quiet, I might direct a question to you.

“What’s going on inside your head?”

I’ll explain that you are always free to say that you don’t want to respond.

Tips for Marriage Mentors:

  • Be Transparent – You set the tone. If you aren’t open, the odds are that your group won’t be open.
  • Don’t Judge Your success by the Amount People Share – You may be pleasantly surprised later to find out how much the group meant to people that didn’t share.
  • Internal Processors – Know that there are internal processors. Some people may be getting a great deal from the group even if they don’t share.