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Creating conversation in groups

Group facilitators should read the following and download the advice notes opposite (4-page pdf file suitable for desktop printing).


Behind the approach we are recommending for use in our Lenten groups this year is a renewed understanding of the word ‘conversation’ as a graceful way of communicating which allows people to share their truth in love.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest understanding of the word comes from its Latin root where it implies a place of habitation, a ‘home’ where those in conversation share a common life. The term implies a way of communicating which is meaningful, warm and safe where people have the freedom to speak to each other in an open and honest way. In our view, therefore, a ‘conversation’ may be helpfully described as ‘an interpersonal journey undertaken by friends who are prepared to be changed by what they may subsequently discover’.

Contrast this to the original meaning of the word ‘discussion’. While it is often used synonymously with conversation, it comes from a very different root – the Latin word ‘discutere’ which literally means to ‘dash to pieces’. A discussion, then, is not the coming together of those seeking understanding and communion, it is the clash of adversaries who wish to judge or examine an issue by argument.

In groups gathered to explore such sensitive issues as life experience and personal faith what we need to hold then is not a discussion, but a conversation. Together, in an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect we can speak about the spiritual dimension to human experience. We won’t always see eye to eye, but we should be able to disagree gracefully.

Because of the inner pilgrimage we will be undertaking in small groups around the country, we can take comfort in the fact that the word ‘conversation’ always seems to have had a spiritual dimension. Several writers are quoted in the dictionary as using the term to describe inward communion with God. One memorable translation from a letter of St. Paul, for example, proclaims that, “our conversation (i.e. our true home) is in heaven” (Phil 3 vs. 20).


While the experience itself can be surprising and spontaneous, spiritual conversation in groups is an intentional activity, requiring boundaries and shared commitments – many of which need to be negotiated in advance. Although a positive interaction can never be assured, what seems to be essential is the creation of a certain type of environment. A social setting characterised by group safety, trust, non-judgmental acceptance and openness to the perspective of others.

Experience suggests that this is best achieved when it becomes the collective responsibility of the whole group. Nevertheless, it does seem to be necessary, especially when a group is forming (or is meeting only a few times), that a specific individual takes responsibility for how things develop. With this in mind, we are recommending that each group has its own facilitator.

Their role will be to try and model the best way of behaving in a small group; to manage the interaction and to look after the developing needs of participants, particularly when they do not agree with one another.


At the first meeting of each group the facilitator will be inviting everyone to become familiar with the group process and to consider, together, the best way of behaving so that the group may be life-giving for all. This negotiation will involve sharing an understanding of ‘conversation’ as distinct from ‘discussion’ and working through the advice written on the back of the Group Process Card. This reads:

We can all contribute to the creation of such a safe, sacred space by:

  • Listening carefully to whoever is speaking.
  • Reverencing the gift of each person’s unique experience.
  • Respecting everyone’s right to their own opinion.
  • Being open to modifying your own perspective.
  • Choosing not to make judgements about other group members.
  • Refraining from speaking for too long.
  • Owning their own views and speaking only for themselves.
  • Keeping a sense of humour and perspective.
  • Respecting the confidentiality of this small group.
  • Being prepared to apologise, if necessary, and to forgive often.
“our conversation (i.e. our true home) is in heaven”.

(Phil 3 vs. 20)

If you are interested in learning more about facilitation of group conversations the book ‘Breathing Spaces’ is available at the Shoreline online shop.


More advanced training is also available: please email The Shoreline Consultancy for more information

Small groups are powerful social environments, particularly when they are designed as vehicles for exploring the spiritual dimension to life. Touching, as they inevitably do, the deeper parts of our experience, they need to be handled with sensitivity and care.

Mark Davis
‘Breathing Spaces’


A Suitable Small Group Process

Most people joining a group of any kind are likely to have concerns about the way it is going to operate. In the sort of group we are envisaging it is difficult enough speaking about things that are close to your heart without having to worry about what might happen next. With this in mind we would like to suggest a particular methodology that you may wish to adopt. While not ‘set in stone’ it describes a well-tried small group interaction, which has proved very valuable in providing a context for spiritual conversation. It has enough structure to allow people new to this activity to feel comfortable and yet is not so confining that it prevents a meaningful response. The following group process is written on the front side of the accompanying card.

Small group process

•    prayer (prior to meeting)
•    preparation of the space

Welcome and prayer
•    welcome and “how are you?”
•    shared silence and opening prayer

Stimulus and reflection
•    introduction to the theme
•    presentation of stimulus material
•    time alone for individual reflection

Sharing and conversation
•    the sharing of experience
•    mutual exploration and conversation

Review and prayer
•    looking back
•    shared silence and closing prayer

Before leaving
•    refreshments and informal chat


Hilbre Island © Marianthi Lainas

Welcome to the 2016 CTBI Lent course

The CTBI Lent Course 2016 represents a departure in style and format from that offered in previous years. Each week, we are invited to gather in groups for reflection and spiritual conversation around a series of themes drawn from the overarching title of Pilgrimage’. The idea is that we embark on a spiritual journey through Lent, both alone and in company, sharing with others our personal reflections, stories and insights.

The notion of ‘Pilgrimage’ is presented in the form of collections of sayings, images, wisdom and prayers from a variety of sources, which are gathered into a pack of seven conversation booklets suitable for personal and group use. Each member of a group will need their own copy of the pack, which will be used as a personal journal.

Steps... up or down?


The Open Road

Where the invitation is to undertake a particular kind of journey, a sacred journey which involves both inner and outer dimensions. As we set out, what is our desire, or longing?


Dutch windmills


Taking and Leaving

Focus on choice. How do we choose what to keep, what we require for inner vitality and balance, and what to leave behind, things which may once have helped us but we now find burdensome and obstructive?






Becoming Present

Where the invitation is to become more attentive to our surroundings Where are the signs of God’s presence around us? How do we stay open to new insights?




Bread on sackcloth


Alone and Together

Focuses on our relationships with others. In our search for ‘unity in diversity’, how do we learn from ‘the other’?  What does it mean to be separate yet ‘one’?





Shepherd and flock walking down a tree lined path, Springtime


Living with Uncertainty

Where we think of times of alienation and separation that are common to us all. How do we live with unanswered questions?  From where do we find hope?




Approaching the top of a Medieval spiral stone staircase, light pouring in


Sacred Encounter

Where we are invited to contemplate the mystery of God at the heart of the Christian experience. Each step on the journey illuminates more questions, for example: what is the nature of suffering?




Reflecting over a cuppa, looking out of the window


Pilgrim Living

When we contemplate the significance of our pilgrim journey for the future. What people, networks, ideas, insights have we discovered that will continue to inspire us?




BBC Radio 4 Sunday Worship coverage