Well there are a lot of things! But before we can start unravelling a few of the possibilities, it might be good to outline what group communication actually means.
Group communication is any kind of discussion, conversation, dialogue, exchange or interaction between at least 3 people. It involves the usual things you might think about when you are communicating; listening, taking turns, paying attention, speaking, writing, understanding, non verbal communication cues and responses and so on. Group communication may be face to face “live” (think of a workshop or meeting) or using some kind of technology (think of Sykpe or Zoom or Basecamp). The group itself can be informal or highly structured, large or small, hierarchical or flat structured. It can be diverse or quite uniform. It can be made up any how you want it. And the reasons for groups to exist in the first place are almost infinite.
The difference between group communication and 1:1 communication is primarily that there are so many different group dynamics to take into consideration. The social rules of communication shift and change from involving two people to many. For some people this is not big deal and the communication is effective, efficient and purposeful. It is easy to exchange thoughts and ideas, to listen and to feedback. For others communicating in a group can be enormously frustrating and the whole experience rather less than positive.
In my last blog we looked at what can go wrong with group communication so this time we’re going to look at what you can do to make it better.
Working together as a group allows you to explore new ideas together, share thoughts and opinions, and give feedback. It is an effective way of providing updates on projects. It allows you to to share tasks, leverage different skills and tap into different knowledge. A group of people all bring something different to the party, and can give each other support. Being a part of a group also exposes you to a greater diversity of people and quite possibly people you don’t really know. Though initially this may be uncomfortable, perhaps having to talk to people who you may not actually want to talk to, the experience in itself is often a learning opportunity. There’s also the actual content of the discussions, conversations and exchanges that if managed right can be rich and highly valuable. But without effective communication, working together as a group can all go horribly wrong.
So what can you do to improve group communication?
It will depend on what your group is for (the purpose) and the ways that it is set up to work. This includes things like how often the people in the group are communicating with each other and the regularity and frequency of the exchanges. It will also depend on how many people are in the group and what everyone’s roles are. But there are a whole variety of things that you can put some thought into, helping communication in your group shift from not really working, to clear, productive and even enjoyable.
Understand who the group leader is.
In an informal group, this may be no one, or it may evolve organically and that may be fine. It depends on the nature of your group. Sometimes it’s hard to see if there is one person driving the group forward and taking responsibility for the way the group communicates. This can be frustrating for some people so you might need to work on designating someone. In other situations, it’s the team leader, or chair person, or perhaps a group facilitator. Usually there needs to be someone who is responsible for keeping time, managing dynamics, keeping things flowing and ensuring that people are motivated to join in.
The group leader can also ensure that there is some kind of follow up from discussions, and that whatever is agreed actually happens. This may be something like creating clarity through writing up outputs and results of communication, keeping on top of making sure everyone knows what’s going on and that all the members are informed.
Consider what your group’s communication needs and preferences are.
One size does not fit all, so an expectation that everyone will communicate the way you want them to might be ill placed. What does this practically mean?
Ask individuals whether there is anything you need to take into account that will help them to communicate in the group better. This may be something simple like making sure questions are written up to help frame a conversation and serve as a reminder (it’s easy to get lost in conversations sometimes). Or it may be more complex, like making sure that certain relationships between certain individuals are given special attention.
Ask about any additional needs or disabilities and what support is required.
Try to vary the methods you use to support the communication in a group – if it’s just discussion, can you back it up with some written communication, or visa versa. Can you try to create a mix of digital and lo tech. Can you mix up on line and face to face. Can you split the larger group into smaller ones that will then feed into the main group. Having a variety of methods at your disposal will mean that you are more likely to cater for more people.
Create the right time and space for the group to be able to communicate.
This is both on a practical level – a decent room, somewhere to sit, good enough acoustics and a bit of light and air. Maybe throw in some coffee and biscuits for good measure. Sometimes meeting up outside can be really beneficial.
But also at a head level – people need mental as well as physical space. If possible, can you build in an extra few minutes for people to “arrive”, both physically and mentally before jumping into a conversation? If people are stressed they will not be able to give the group the attention it deserves, or worse appear to be engaging but actually not. Having to have a meeting about a meeting because you need to repeat something you’ve just done is never a good idea!
Try to set the scene and prepare people for the group, perhaps doing some ground work in the lead up to any meetings if they are happening will help people to get in the zone. Time will often be the push back on this, so keep it simple- lots of e-mails that people will struggle to unearth from their inboxes aren’t nearly as useful as asking people to do one practical thing before working with the group.
Actively manage the group dynamics
Think about group size and make up. If you are able to influence this, can you try to ensure you have a productive mix of roles, personalities and functions? Creating a task force for example is usually based on skill level, but try to think about the way the group will function and different personalities as well as skills and knowledge.
People will feel much more at ease and be open and honest when they know who they are talking to and what their role is in the group. Spend some time helping people get to know each other. This doesn’t have to involve ice breakers or games, but can be woven into the fabric of the group by learning about common connections and history for example. Bear in mind that the given role (job function), their designated role in the group (what they bring to the group and what they need from it) and how they will actually show up in the group (for example they may be a particularly dominant character) will not always be the same thing.
Manage the pace. This is particularly important when you are employing a number of different technologies as well as the face to face element. Sometimes that extra layer, that not being able to type as fast as everyone else can make life difficult so try to make everyone aware of this. Different people need different amounts of time to think and to process conversations and ideas. Think about what you need from people and whether you are going at a speed that is conducive to involving people. Let people know your expectations and how much time they have for a discussion or to share an idea. If you know that there are a lot of oversharers, ask them to keep their contributions brief.
Give everyone the opportunity to contribute. Of course not everyone will want to speak up, some people may be very fully engaged but don’t feel like they can or want to contribute. Since you may not really know the reason for this, try giving them a prompt, bringing them into the conversation by talking about something positive they did for example. Changing the medium of communication (maybe asking people to write things down rather than saying them out loud) may be a help for some people. Working in pairs first before expanding out to a larger group may also help – it’s hard not to talk to someone when you’re in a pair!
Set out rules and expectations. You don’t have to call them rules, and you don’t have to stipulate what they are – it can be a collaborative affair. Ask people what they think. But if people know where they are and kind of communication, input, effort, contributions are expected then it will make life easier. Discussing what is acceptable, and what is not okay is also a good way to encourage buy in and participation in the first place. Suggesting that people don’t talk all at once on top of each other might help those people who feel concerned about this to feel safer and more able to join in. As the group leader then, part of your role is to stay on top of what has been agreed.
Encourage everyone to listen and to respect each other. You might want to tie this in with the rules, so that on some level this is an individual responsibility. Sometimes though, this may be down to the leader or group facilitator to manage. While you probably don’t want to be laying down the law or teaching people how to listen or behave, you can draw attention to its importance. Spend some time thinking about it when you come together.
There is often a fine line between inviting respect and not stepping around conflict which is where a strong group facilitator can often make all the difference. Some of the best ideas come out of disagreements so managing this rather than avoiding is something to bear in mind and the conflict may seep into the group and become damaging. Preparing and asking the right questions can often help dig deep into something if there appears to be an avoidance of an issue. Also having an understanding of pre-existing conflicts and personality clashes will help to work out at what level the communication problems are arising.
The almost polar opposite of conflict is groupthink where everyone starts saying the same kind of things and colluding with each other so as not to cause disagreements. Often giving people time to think, write down their ideas and then discuss in pairs or smaller groups allows people to feel braver and stronger in their convictions and not so easily swayed by what others think. Let people know that it’s okay to disagree and debate. Sometimes asking some deliberately provocative questions, and playing devils advocate can shake things up a little, and help people to question what they are thinking. Giving people more time to consider options rather than quickly agreeing can also be productive.
Make the reasons for you all coming together as a group meaningful.
Focus on including the people that need to be a part of the group and don’t include people that don’t need to be, or that won’t get something from it. If people are invested in the group they will make more of an effort to communicate effectively, contribute, collaborate and generally join in. Help the group members to understand the purpose of the group and what their part is in the group. This may be something simple like having a remit or statement about the group, perhaps involving the group in creating one. Or may be part of the discussions that you have from time to time to make sure the group is what it needs to be.
Understand at what points the group is focusing on collaborative consensus or a quick best fit decision. Sometimes things need to be explored and debated, and have group buy in, and sometimes not. Question when this is important and when it is superfluous and make sure that the group knows where they stand. This will help the members of the group know when they need to really put their energy into a conversation and when it something has been more of less decided and it is being put to the group for comment or feedback, and explain what will happen to their ideas.
The identity of a group is often shaped over time, but helping the group to forge that identity will help create a sense of belonging, buy in and trust. When people feel more comfortable and know where they are with the group, they are more likely to have more in depth and honest conversations and to support each other. Try finding connections between people (beyond the fact that they are in the group) – maybe it is other people they know, languages they speak, sports they have in common. Establishing some kind of group cohesion is a good basis for good communication as people will develop a shared understanding of each other which will impact on their ability and willingness to take part.
There are so many things that you can do to make group communication better, they don’t have to be large changes and they don’t have to be overwhelming.
If you feel like your group needs help with its communication then take a moment to reflect. Consider all the things that aren’t working and choose 3 things that you can focus on to change. These don’t have to be big things, even making small adjustments mean that you are moving towards making things better. Try implementing them slowly and perhaps not all at once so you don’t confuse people. Then monitor how it goes. Don’t throw in the towel if things don’t instantly get better. Pause and reflect.
When you have written down those things and when you have had a go an making some small changes – let me know, I’d love to hear what you are going to focus on. And if you would like an activity to try then check out the communication vehicle activity in this blog.