How to Rock a Group Discussion

Most adults have had the experience of going to a meeting for work or church or a volunteer group or any gathering of more than just a few friends, and feeling as if the decisions made by the group or even the meeting process itself actually set the group back rather than moving it forward. Ever wondered how all the great ideas that came out in the beginning were eventually compromised for the mediocre one that seemed to have the greatest consensus? Seen a group of twenty people resign themselves to ninety minutes of boredom at a compliance or safety presentation that missed the real issues of compliance and safety?

When we have the talking stick with young learners in our charge, we are sometimes the ones guilty of perpetrating the same poor practices of group facilitation we experience in our adult meetings – even in some of the most collaborative and innovative classrooms. There are psychosocial reasons for this folly. Every group takes on some universal norms. Included among these is the emergence of dominant individuals. Even in a Harvard Business School study section full of Wall Street Wolves, a dominant individual or two are likely to emerge. In a group with loose facilitation, lacking in democratic norms, the dominant individuals will, well, dominate, and most of the group will follow in the direction of the alpha wolf with brain at half mast.

Lest you think that the teacher or coach or youth group leader guiding a lesson or discussion is by default always the alpha wolf, consider the teachers and coaches of your past who were easily bird-walked by your ne’er do well buddy from the back of the room – who is now a smashingly successful lawyer, incidentally. Or remember the eager young learner, usually near the front, who was always loaded with six clips of fully automatic questions on the most inane details related to the topic of focus. And for those of us who can claim strong classroom or group management skills, consider how many of your learners regularly participate without your prompting.

Deep collaboration and group work can generate products and ideas that are at the height of our capabilities as a species, but highly functioning groups are rare. Google recently commissioned a multi-year study on the dynamics of effective teams. They used all the tech and financial resources at their disposal to discover how to create powerhouse groups that could not only get stuff done, but get the best stuff done. In the end, they discovered that there were many routes to success, but there were two basic behavioral characteristics of the most successful groups:

  1. The team members had a high overall emotional intelligence.
  2. Team members gave each other roughly equal talking time in meetings.

Hmm… We can orchestrate number two with young learners most of the time, but number one? Young learners are in the process of developing their emotional intelligence, and in most of our teams, classrooms, and other youth groups, we are not intentionally selecting for Google employees. Unfortunately, Google did not reveal how to create such teams; trade secret, I guess?

The good news is that there are some fairly simple techniques we can use to build any group into a highly functioning team. Many classroom teachers will be familiar with the process called think-pair-share in which students in a brainstorming session will individually gather their thoughts and questions on a topic, then float those ideas in the relatively safe setting of a pair discussion, and finally bring the pair-modified ideas to a larger group. This process is similar to one employed by Wharton School of Management Professor, and author of Originals: How Non-conformists Move the World, Adam Grant. Grant calls his process brain writing.

Brain writing is similar to brainstorming with one very crucial difference. Like the think-pair-share, a brain write engages learners in a safe ideation exercise individually before the group process is started. This allows for the alpha wolves and the rest of the pack to safely create without any conformist threat. When the group process is engaged, pre-meditated ideas are much more likely to emerge from non-dominant personalities, and the group aspect of the exercise can be spent mostly on evaluating and analyzing the plethora of ideas.

Pre-thinking alone will not promote equal talking time, particularly amongst young people who are at different places along the emotional intelligence spectrum. Strong facilitation, however, can enforce group norms that will provide young learners the structure they need to practice the behaviors and actions that we read as emotional intelligence. Techniques will vary according to age and maturity, but a good place to start is Robert’s Rules of Order.

Robert’s Rules of Order is a constitution that governs a process of parliamentary decision making. A strict adherence to these rules in a learning setting would be inappropriate, but many of the elements can be adapted to just about any group. Below I have re-framed some of the structures that help promote equal talking time amongst members and prompt young people to model emotionally intelligent behavior.

Individual expectations:

  • One person speaks at a time (unless you are really excited – then apologize for your interruption, and don’t do it again in the near future)
  • Attempt to rephrase or encapsulate what someone else has already said if it inspired your own thinking (unless you have not been inspired – don’t force it)
  • Criticize ideas not people (unless the idea you wish to critique emerged from a group member who rarely contributes – be a good big brother or sister)
  • Be mindful of your own talking time in relation to others and do not speak twice before everyone has had the chance to speak once (unless you have a visceral reaction to someone else’s ideas – again, apologize for your interruptions and keep them limited)

Facilitation responsibilities:

  • Enforce individual expectations
  • Keep a list of those who wish to speak so that they do not have to spend listening energy on raising their hands or otherwise competing for position
  • Read the list of those who wish to speak in order after each person has spoken
  • Use skill to frame the direction of the conversation at various junctures in the process
  • Clearly circumscribe any decision making as early as possible to clearly define boundaries.
  • When closing a discussion read out all the remaining people on the list who will speak and say who gets the last word.

Fortunately, young people do not have to sit through safety or compliance meetings like we do. A group discussion on a topic that may be exciting to us, however, can be just as miserable for a young person without any hand holds to grab onto. The next time you have the privilege of leading a group of young people in a discussion, give them some tools to help them behave like a Google team that gets stuff done! And if you happen to be the one running my next compliance meeting, well, just don’t make it any worse than it needs to be by making jokes about why nobody is asking questions.

Photo Credit: VirtualWolf In Discussion CC2.0

About Jack West

Consultant, writer, analyst, teacher, coach, maker.

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