Lesson 5: How to rein in rabbit trails

Lesson 5 - How to Handle Rabbit Trails

As a discussion group leader, you will face challenges that many have named “rabbit trails.” Someone in your group will lose focus after a question and will begin rambling about something they think is related and interesting. Suddenly you’ve bounced down a rabbit trail and the whole group is distracted from the question. These can catch you by surprise sometimes and if they aren’t taken care of, they can waste time and cause others to lose interest. You definitely don’t want members to stop coming because the discussion spins out of control. Rabbit trails are inevitable and the people who start them usually have good intentions or are completely unaware that what they are saying doesn’t connect to what was recently said. Pray for the Lord to give you patience and grace as you bring the conversation back on topic.

How can you do this?

First let’s look at a couple of examples.

Let’s say you just asked this question related to Trophy Insight #2: “What’s wrong with thinking that you are good when you do good things?” Instead of answering the question, one of the people in your group begins to tell a story about a time when they went grocery shopping and had a difficult time finding the exact brand of coffee they were looking for. After listening for about 30 seconds, it becomes clear to you that this is not a story that is going to relate to the question you asked. This is a rabbit trail. It is not helping the group to think more deeply about the question and it is distracting the focus of the group. Many of them have probably forgotten what your question was! Believe it or not, these sorts of distractions pop up sometimes.

Here is another example. Let’s say you just asked this question related to Trophy Insight #1: “Can you think of an example when a person’s actions reveal what they really trust?” One of the people in the group relates a time when they took a magazine from a store without paying for it (so far this does relate to the question you asked), but then they begin to talk about the inner workings of the magazine industry and how magazine publishers tend to prefer to locate their offices in expensive high rise office buildings in major cities for the purpose of projecting status and success. See how quickly things can change? This has now become a rabbit trail because it probably does not relate directly to the question being asked.

As a discussion group leader you generally don’t want to allow your participants to take the rest of the group down a long rabbit trail since it

  • Wastes time that keeps others from being able to discuss all the questions.

  • Denies others from getting benefits from the tried-and-true discussion questions.

  • They give the focus to a single person and distract from what Jesus has accomplished for all of us.

  • They prioritize one person’s individual emotions over the truths of Christ as revealed in the Bible.

Rabbit trails can surprise you and be frustrating. Again, pray for patience. You don’t want to embarrass anyone in your group, but you also can’t ignore the problem and let the person ramble on down their rabbit trail. That can negatively affect the other members of your group, which you also want to avoid. In addition to patience, pray for wisdom. The Lord will guide you as you lead these discussions. It can be tempting to simply interject and move on when a rabbit trail arises, but you can’t be rude or unbecoming in the way you redirect the conversation. Do so with grace.

How do you do that?

When you have an opportunity, you might consider saying something like: “I can tell this is heartfelt for you, I appreciate you sharing.” Then repeat the last question, asking if someone else wants to comment, or go on to the next question.

Or, you might just say, “Thank you for sharing.”.

In other instances you might say something like: “Thank you, those are good thoughts. So now, let’s focus on this question.”

Or, “Thank you. It’s good to consider things we experience in our lives, but how can we really focus on this question?”

Sometimes, you will have one person who continually monopolizes the discussion time with frequent rabbit trails. If this happens, try to rein in the discussion, but it may be helpful to begin calling on people by name to give others an opportunity to share. If the person tries to jump in, you could ask them to hold their thoughts so you can finish the topic and promise to come back to them. If the time ends before you are able to hear their thoughts, make sure to approach them afterwards to listen.

It is important to look for an opportunity to connect the rabbit trail to the discussion. You don’t really want to cut in and say, “Um, that doesn’t relate to what we’re talking about.” Right? So listen carefully to what is being said and find something useful that you can use to bring the conversation back to the right place. The most important thing to remember is this: when a person is on a rabbit trail, listen and make them feel welcome, wanted, respected, and valued. Be gracious with your words.