Small Group Dynamics:  The Rule of "In" |

People are different.  While that statement may sound like a firm grasp of the obvious, consider its implications for small group dynamics.

In the early meetings of a new small group, participants often seek connections through icebreaker questions. Inevitably, we discover during these exercises that people are different.   How we respond to those differences impacts the future community.  I’ve learned to employ what I call the “Rule of In”.

Rule of In

Before speaking, ask yourself:  “Will my response rule this person into or out of the group?”

If my response implies the information revealed is alien, I isolate the newcomer, ruling them outside the circle.  If my response indicates the information is so interesting everyone wants to know more, I include the newcomer, ruling them inside the circle.

Of course,  I learned the “Rule of In” the hard way. I made a humorous comment at a newcomer’s expense only to discover when she failed to return that I had wounded her.  At first, I rationalized my mistake by saying I hoped humor would make everyone comfortable.  Unfortunately, it made everyone comfortable except her.  We laughed and bonded over how different she was.  I sought her out to apologize, but she never felt completely comfortable in my small group and ultimately dropped out.   I had branded her as different and she could never forget it.

Another way to remember the “Rule of In”  is  “affirm, then inquire.”  Affirm the value of what was just said (“fascinating!”; “that’s really interesting!”; “cool”), then inquire (“give me an example?”; “how did you get interested in that?”; “what have you learned so far?”; etc.).

Ruling Out

Newcomer: I’m working on a Ph.D dissertation on the effect of tariff-rate quotas on international stock markets.
Leader  (sarcastically): Oh yeah, I was just talking about that last night at dinner.  Weren’t we all?
Subliminal message:  I’m never going to understand what you just said and I don’t care enough to try.  (Ruled out.)

The group has bonded over the shared laughter.  But like musical chairs, the newcomer is left standing outside the circle. She just shared something she was passionate enough about to make her life’s work and she’s learned she is too different to fit in.

Ruling in

Newcomer: I’m working on a Ph.D dissertation on the effect of tariff-rate quotas on international stock markets.
Leader:  Wow!  I’m  not sure I understood what you said, but we have a lot of economists in our academic town who would love to talk about that with you.
Subliminal message:  There are a lot of people like you here in this group. (Ruled in.)

In addition to your words, pay attention to  your tone of voice and body language.  If you sound mocking or insincere, or  include eye-rolls or wide-eyed looks, you sabotage your efforts.

I saw the “rule of in” skillfully done when introducing a newcomer to a campus pastor.  When the newcomer said he loved strategy board games, I cringed because I knew the pastor was an ex-football player who saw no value in non-physical games.  However, he responded:  “A lot of folks here play Settlers of Catan?  Do you like that game?  Let me introduce you to one of them.”

Not only did he rule the newcomer in, he drew the newcomer further into the circle.

More resources for Ministry Leaders

Photo Odd Man Out taken by Jessie Pearl and used here under Flickr Creative Commons.

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