Discussion skills in groups To be human is to interact with other people, to relate to others, often in groups. In groups a whole series of dynamics occur. People will have different reasons for being in a group, will want differing things out of it, may not get on equally well with everyone in that group. Many of the groups we are in have a social purpose, meeting friends, going on holiday, working on a task. Whilst we may not think about it consciously we need a range of personal/social skills to relate well with others, to come to agreements, to achieve group goals.
This is particularly the case when we have to co-operate with others in order to achieve a specific work goal. In particular this occurs when working in small discussion groups, when having to make a presentation or when involved in social, political or environmental action. This document is about what you need to know and the skills that you need to develop in order to do that well.
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What comes up I wonder what comes up for you when you find yourself in a group? Some of the feelings will probably be: Who are these people? Will I like them? Will they like me?
What if someone criticizes me? Or it could be: This should be fun. I’m looking forward to this. I might learn something new here. I might make new friends. Probably it will be a mix of the two. But notice that in each case what comes up are quite strong feelings. This is normal - for everyone. The important thing is to pay attention to them, to listen to them, to see what they tell you about yourself. The affective (feeling) domain is equally as important as the cognitive (thinking) domain in social experience. Some of the feelings you will have when first in a group will be to do with safety.
Does it feel OK to be here? Are these people I want to be with? If you have chosen who you are with this may partly be on the basis of how safe you feel with them, supported and respected by them. Remember other people will be having similar feelings to your own. 1 Ground rules It is difficult to work well with others in a group if you are feeling insecure, setting up a framework which helps give a sense of security to the group is thus essential. This involves agreement on what are called ‘ground rules’. Ground rules should be agreed by the group members themselves.
Here are five essential ones. Speaking – only one person speaks at a time, this could be as a result of putting a hand up or agreeing to take turns to speak. Listening – it is important to really listen to what the other person is saying without interrupting them. Not judging – it is really important to listen without making judgements about the other person, this is where they are coming from, respect that. Sharing – no one person should dominate the discussion, no person should be left out, everyone should be encouraged to contribute.
Voice – it’s not about saying the right thing or having an answer, it’s about ‘finding your voice’, which may be just to say what you’re feeling. The group task The most important thing in a task orientated group is to reach agreement on the goal and how best to achieve it. There is always a tension between individual/group needs that has to be resolved. You may thus have to put some of your own needs aside in order to achieve the set task. This does not mean ignoring them. You might want to take it in turns at the beginning just to say how you feel about being in the group before getting down to the task.
Q: Is there anything you need to do before you can be really present to what we’ve got to do?
Sharing feelings It often really helps the group dynamic to periodically check-in with how you are feeling about the task. You might therefore make observations such as: “I feel really excited about working together on this”; “I feel really daunted about the task we have to do”; “I feel nervous about having anything valuable to contribute”. Such statements don’t necessarily require an answer but they do reveal what is going on for you.
Others know where you’re at and can then take this into account. Feelings are kept out in the open which, if not 2 expressed, might hinder achievement of the task. They may also often strike a chord of sympathy with others. Sharing opinions For a group to achieve its task everyone needs to contribute, this means everybody needs to share their thoughts and opinions in the group. Two things may happen at first: i) you may feel you don’t have anything to say; ii) you may be nervous about sharing your ideas with others.
Firstly, whatever the topic you will have some responses to it, so spend a moment or two jotting down any questions, ideas, experiences which you feel may be relevant. Secondly, it is quite alright to be tentative about what you first say. It is often only in the process of discussion that your ideas will begin to become clear. Remember to hold your certainties lightly, i. e. whilst stating your opinion about a particular issue you may still find you want to refine or alter it later. Similarly other people’s starting points may not be where they finish up. Active listening
Don’t be afraid to remind the group of the ground rules for by remembering these the group will feel a safer place in which to experiment and try out ideas. Everyone has a shared responsibility here. Active listening means really listening to what someone is saying whether you agree with them or not. It means not interrupting or spending the time thinking about your answer. It is also really helpful to check out with the speaker that you have understood correctly what they are saying. This can best be done by paraphrasing what you feel they have said and reflecting that back to them. What I heard you say was…” The speaker then knows she has really been heard or can clarify any points if she needs to. When everyone feels really listened to and respected achievement of the group’s task will be much easier and more fun.
Working co-operatively If your group is following all of these strategies – and it does take practice – you are well on the way to good co-operative working. Co-operative working involves considering different ways to set about the task and 3 agreeing on the best one. If you feel safe in the group you are less likely to mind about making compromises sometimes.
Working co-operatively does not mean that everyone has to agree. You may work co-operatively and supportively to identify the main differences of opinion on an issue and to really clarify the arguments for and against different opinions. Co-operative working also means working to bring out the best in others. Difficulties and disagreements However well a group gets on there will still be difficulties and disagreements. If someone’s behavior upsets you what should you do? First, remember the ground rules! Second, you need to share how you are feeling.
There is a crucial difference between saying “You really annoy me when you play around in the group” (blaming) and “I find it difficult to focus on the task when you play around” (ownership of your own feelings). On some issues discussion may get heated and someone may need to use the ground rules to cool things down. You might say “Let’s take a few minutes out to reflect on what’s happening here. Is there a more constructive way in which we could move this forward, I wonder? ” It is also fine to disagree! No one is suggesting that everyone in the group must have the same opinion on how best to do something.
However, if it is a collective task, e. g. a seminar presentation, everyone will need to agree on how to share this out and work effectively together. Staying on task It always helps to stand back occasionally and watch what is going on in a group. Is someone dominating conversation, is someone staying quiet, is the group getting off task? It is always important and helpful to feed your observations back to the group. ‘Keeping on task’ can have both a narrow and a broad interpretation. You may feel that conversation is straying from the task and topic under discussion and decide to draw attention to this.
You might be right, but what appears to be straying off course can sometimes lead to fruitful insights and a sharpened perception of the issue. Developing these skills will take time, you will make mistakes that you can learn from, and you will try again. Gradually you will find that working in a group is less daunting than you may have thought, that you do have something to contribute, and that ‘synergy’ begins to occur – this is when 4 the insight and output of the group begins to feel more than the sum of its individual parts.
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