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Recently I went on a tour of a historical site with some friends and family. From start to finish, I made sure to ask questions of the tour leader and I frequently poked my group members in their sides so they would answer the questions he threw out. Why was that so important to me? Well, I was actually thinking of volunteer manager Jonas.

“And then the silence was so awkward,” Jonas said one day, recalling the time he took a large, prospective group of volunteers on a tour of his organization’s headquarters. “I really, really pitched the benefits of volunteering with us. I showed them all the great opportunities to volunteer, I stopped staff in the hallway to say hi, I mean, I was passionate and threw out lots of anecdotal stories to get them thinking. But, then, when we stopped back at the lobby, I asked them what they thought and crickets! No one said anything, they just nodded and looked like they were ready to get their things and leave. I felt like a big balloon had popped.”

Ahhhhhhhhhh, the silent group. We’ve all had them. Now, it’s not that they’re evil, or mean, or out to make us look bad, these are just groups that have a quiet dynamic. It makes it harder to connect with them, and in my humble experiences, I have found the groups that engage in honest give and take will bond with each other, with you and with the mission. But it takes skill to facilitate a group and real effort to create an atmosphere conducive to meaningful conversation.

So, what can we do to encourage participation by the groups we train, or speak in front of, or tour with? Here are just a few methods I’ve toyed with over the years:

Begin by establishing your expectations: Tell your group that you are not a lecturer, you are the group facilitator and that you are extremely interested in their comments and questions.

Don’t wait until the end to ask questions: Ask several immediately and establish the give and take.

Make it about them: Do research on their group if you can and speak to that or…
Be an ignoramus: Ask questions about the group itself and let them school you on their interests, reason to be, etc. But keep in mind, it only works if you show genuine interest in them.

Never start with hard questions: No one wants to be the first to be wrong. And then, when someone answers the simple questions, you can say, “see, you know more about us than you think!”

Try a simple yes or no polling question and go around the room, capturing everyone: (thereby making everyone verbalize an answer but without having to be put on the spot) Then you can mentally calculate the stats and ask another question about the results. “Are you surprised at the results?” You can compare your group’s results to other groups or national stats to pique curiosity.

Look for people who speak to each other and ask a question for the two of them to answer.

Offer “This is one of the questions other groups have asked” and throw out your own question: Follow up with “what do you think?”

Use humor and be self-effacing: Let them know you are approachable and not authoritarian.

Break them into smaller groups: Have them discuss a topic then present to the others if you have time.

I remember one training group I had. No matter what I did, they would not talk. It was just the wrong roll of the group dynamic roulette wheel. These were the hardest hours (over the course of six sessions) of my training life-my voice went hoarse, I started to babble and finally when I was just about to dismiss them ridiculously early, one of the group members raised their hand. “Thank you, thank you,” I silently breathed, not caring if the question was silly or redundant or even, “do you know that you have a piece of spinach in your teeth?”

From that day forward, I made a promise to myself to never let a facilitator suffer through the silent treatment. Engaging with groups is an art form. You paint a picture and hope they can find something worth admiring or critiquing or just plain talking about. Sometimes you paint in silence, but that doesn’t mean the connection is not there.

It just may take your best skills to bring that connection out.