There’s nothing more frustrating that unclear communication. Communication that is a fruitless, exhausting and repetitive. Where you feel like there is a lot of information circulating but it doesn’t make any sense. Or where there is a dearth of it and you can’t find what you want. A lot of effort with no results.

In order to make it better, the world is forever re-inventing things, coming up with new gadgets and new ways to fix it. There are so many different solutions to poor communication. But on a basic level, communication tools whether hi tech or lo tech are just conduits. It’s the people involved that are the most important. And it’s the people you need to consider when trying to understand what can go wrong, and what can possibly done to remedy it.

One of the difficulties faced with communicating at an organisational level, is in a group. Whether a working group, task group, small group, large group. Whether communicating face to face, in person, off line, on line or any other way you can think of. Communicating with a lot of different people can be hard. You might find yourself repeating yourself or going around in circles. Maybe not going at the right pace, going off topic and simply not getting what you need out of the exchange. Having 1: 1 conversations is so much easier than communicating with a whole group of people.

Group communication

Why is that?

There are a lot of different factors that come into play when you communicate in a group. Whether face to face in person, or on line using some digital tech there are a lot of things to think about.
When communication moves from being a dyadic (two person) interchange to being a collaborative affair it introduces so many different elements. It is often complicated by the need for the right space to communicate in, or the right mechanism for that group communication to take place. But at the end of the day it’s the people that can make it or break it.

Group dynamics

Group dynamics are the interactions that occur between different group members. They are affected by different attitudes, personalities, behaviours, thoughts, roles and relationships in the group.

There are the different relationships between people and the different roles people have. Some people will know each other better that others and have different history and feelings about each other. Relationships can form and change during the communication process.

The way people interact with each other and draw on different communication styles will have an impact on group communication as a whole. Some people are talkative and loud, others quiet and thoughtful and a whole range of differences in between. Some people are better than others at listening, or articulating what they think.

The different things that people say in a group, the different levels of input and opinions will impact on the group. And the responses elicited can affect the way the communication flows and the behaviour of the group. Much of this is affected by different attitudes and beliefs which may be very diverse, or very congruent depending on the people, the situation and the topic.

In a 1:1 situation it’s just you and one other person. You can shift what you want to say to get the best from that person, and you can avoid certain things that might make them defensive or go off topic. She can ask questions that she knows you will answer without having to worry about being judged by a room full of people. Having an exchange with one person, even if they are the kind of person that doesn’t really follow the general rules of conversation is far easier to work around. If you know that person well, then it’s all so much easier anyway, it’s just you and him and you can probably spent a little bit of time passing the time of day as well as getting down to business.

In a 1:1, that person will only be affected in that exchange by what you say (and visa versa). When you have a whole range of other people all contributing, the interactions, mood and eventually the outcomes of the exchanges between people can really change. And this can be hard to manage.

Control

In a 1:1 conversation there is far more control of the trajectory of the conversation. There are only two of you and even if you have a lot to discuss or there are some thorny topics to cover, it is easier to set the boundaries of the conversation. It is easier to come back from off topic meandering. And it is easier to change the pace and tone of the conversation to suit the two of you. You don’t have to take other people into consideration and you can concentrate on the other person alone. For some people though being pinned down in a 1:1 situation is far more uncomfortable than having their contributions distilled into the melting pot coming from a group.

A group of people full of ideas, thoughts, challenges and questions are much harder to manage if that is your role. You are not automatically in a “safe” environment. You do not have automatic control (even if that is your designated position) and there is so much room for manoeuvre that pretty much anything can come up. Of course being in control of the conversation is not always where you need to be, and as a manager or team leader you may need to exert or relinquish this control depending on the situation.

You are also probably not the only person in the group who wants to be in control. It is easy for some people to feel like the conversation is running away without them and that they lack control. Some people may want to have more control over a particular element of an exchange. The ways the control ebbs and flows, who feels they are “in control”and where the control lies is always something that requires attention in a group situation.

Multi-directional conversations

An example of when there may need to be some control exercised is when there are multi-directional conversations. In a group, depending in how big it is there can be several different conversations going on at once. Side talk can get really annoying. You can have a potentially illuminating and really useful conversation going on in one corner that doesn’t involve the greater group. And an entirely different one in another corner which might be about what everyone had for lunch! Conversations can bounce around in different directions between different people and keeping on top of this, and knowing when to jump in is not always straightforward. Managing those different conversations keeping people “in the room” and on topic can be a bit of an art form.

Ability to stay focused and listen

It’s hard in a 1:1 situation to drift off and not take an active part. At least it’s hard to do so surreptitiously! For many people maintaining focus when there a lot of people dipping in and out of a group conversation, asking questions and sharing ideas can be really tricky. Listening in a group is much harder than on a 1:1 situation, especially in today’s distraction filled environments. Trying to maintain a position of active listening where there are a lot of different conversations, or elements of discussions is also pretty tiring, for some people more than others.

And the bigger the group, the greater the risk of people “hiding” and not really engaging, which kind of defeats the object of the group in the first place. Some people may not feel they have anything relevant to contribute, others may feel bored or resigned to the way a conversation is going. A whole variety of things can cause people to disengage with the group, and if too many people do this then the group communication process risks running into problems.

Saying what you think is hard

For some people, particularly those who identify as introverts, joining in is not a comfortable thing to do. While the majority of people to a greater or lesser degree don’t mind speaking up and taking part in a group there will be some people for whom it will be extremely painful. That doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be a part of the group, but it does need some attention so as not to lose them. Not all situations need to be absolutely cosy and comfortable, but you want the best you can get from everyone.

Some people really need time to think before they share something and that can be a challenge if the group is fast paced and full of people all sharing and talking at once. Some people may be able to mentally remove themselves from the group to create their own thinking space, but others will find it hard to zone out and give themselves that time. In a 1:1 situation saying “hang on a minute, I need to think” will interrupt the flow somewhat, it is just one thing to think about. Your conversation partner hopefully won’t mind. Needing to pause to assimilate several people’s contributions requires much more effort.

Risk of collusion and groupthink

Groupthink happens when people end up agreeing with each other rather than coming up with novel ideas, or challenging different opinions mostly in a bid to retain group harmony. It’s easy for people to quickly be swayed by the loudest or most loquacious person, or simply not feel like their contribution is as valid as someone else’s. So instead of challenging or suggesting something new, people all start to agree. Part of the beauty of having a group in the first place is tapping into a diversity of brains, so squashing that won’t help.

Building consensus isn’t that easy

When you really want to come to a true consensus, one where everyone has really contributed their thoughts and added their ideas it can be hard work. It’s easier to come to a conclusion, create consensus and make a decision in a 1:1 conversation. The decisions may not be as rich in input and as well thrashed out as they would be in a group. In a group there is the potential for all sorts of ideas coming from different perspectives, a deepening of discussions and a diversity of thought. But if you’re not careful this can take days to get to the bottom of. If you want to move forwards quickly then the 1:1 route may be the way forward. But if you want a good level of consensus (even if that means not 100% agreement, but as good as you can get) then you will probably need to work a bit at it.

Group communication rules

There are all sorts of rules and group norms and these can be a challenge to navigate in a group. Although different across cultures, pragmatics and social communication norms where people need to listen, take turns and stick to the topic for example are part of day to day exchanges. In a 1:1 situation both communicating partners need to follow these rules of conversation for things to run smoothly, although we are not always aware of them until someone deviates from what we perceive as “normal”. They are easy to bend and shape to the context you are in, and if things go wrong, far easier to repair.

But in a group setting sometimes the rules surrounding our use of language may need to be more explicit and expectations outlined. If this is not clear to everyone then the smooth running of the group can be affected and communication misaligned. The shift needed to accommodate three people taking turns in a conversation rather than two for example might be small, but it is still a shift. And for some people this is harder than others. It’s also far more of a challenge to mend conversations when they go wrong, for example when there is a misunderstanding in a fast paced multi person conversation. Or to ensure that everyone gets a turn and a chance to say their thing.

Responsibility and accountability

On the face of it, in a group situation everyone is responsible for taking part, there will be different roles and different levels of responsibility taken on by different people. Making this clear and checking that everyone knows who’s doing what is important. In a 1:1 situation there are just two people to take responsibility for the conversation so it’s often far clearer, or at the very least it’s clear who to go to if it’s not!

What happens after the group has worked together, where they go next, and who holds that information might not be that obvious. Lines of accountability can be blurred and so things may not get done. If there is no follow up strategy communications can get misinterpreted and lost and then the work of the group is wasted.

Let’s not forget the digital

As a group facilitator you are probably thinking that when I talk about group communication I am referring just to face to face workshop style communication. While this is what I know about best, it’s important to recognise that a lot of these communication difficulties are mirrored in digital communication. In some ways many difficulties are reduced, but rarely eliminated and sometimes replaced with a whole different set of problems.

1:1 communication is generally gets easier digitally. You can have a Skype conversation without much difficulty (setting aside for a moment any technical problems that might pop up!), but as soon as you add more people there are different things to consider. Although some great technology exists to enable us to communicate as a group in the digital landscape, it takes a bit of getting used to and requires a different level of effort. There are things that are more difficult to pick up on (for example people’s body language) and group dynamics have a whole different slant added to them which doesn’t exist in person. The rules of communication also change slightly and the need to focus perhaps greater.

It’s also important to think about written digital communication (such as Trello or Basecamp) as well as real time video communication such as Zoom or Skype. These group communication platforms have their own systems and ways of working, and are constantly being honed and changed to make them as user friendly as possible. For many people digital group communication is fare less problematic than having to deal with people face to face! But things like an excess of notifications can cause people to shy away from the system and rather than embracing the tech, it can be off putting.

They add a different dimension to group communication and often exist alongside the more personal approach, providing far more choice. They are also vital for dispersed teams and for all sorts of people who for one reason or another aren’t able to work in a face to face way.

Group Communication

What next?

How do you find group communication?

What are your main gripes and how have you managed to solve them?

In my next blog we’ll be looking at what you can do to make group communication less painful.

If you like this blog then you might want to check out my blog on creating a communication environment that’s right for you and of course feel free to share my blog with anyone who might appreciate it!

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