Communicating Well As a Group

by Siobhan Soraghan

Dialogue and playing your part

Dialogue happens in the interplay between people in groups. How each person plays their part and the choices they make in doing so is key to making it work well. If we are self-aware, each of us can choose in each moment what stance to take, the behaviours to demonstrate and the mindsets to hold. This page is designed to help you with that self-awareness by offering some models and frameworks for understanding your choices.

Mindset: ‘systems thinking’

A systems thinker has a mindset that perceives elements of an issue as interconnected and part of a complex, bigger system. They understand that the observable ‘symptoms’ may originate in a cause or set of causes further upstream, both in time and in a sequential process. They know that the consequences of intervention in the system may take a while to manifest, and (without good understanding of the relationships within the system) the consequences may be other than intended. They also know that investment of any effort to change the system will generate a different payback from different parts of the system.  For example, opening a door by its handle takes less effort than applying pressure closer to the hinge.  In other words, system thinkers explore the best leverage points when considering the potential for change.

A systems thinker will try to construct a model that, as much as possible, approximates the reality of a situation, issue, organisation and so on. The intention of such modelling is to better understand how a system behaves, so as to inform decisions about improvement. The closer the model approximates reality, the more useful it is in helping identify opportunities for improvement and for predicting likely consequences of any changes.

Having such a mindset means that you will look for a greater whole into which the issues fit. You will seek to understand the interdependencies between the components of the issues and you will understand that the symptoms which present themselves have their roots in underlying causes that may not be immediately obvious and may need careful study.

You will welcome hearing other versions of the system described by others, as these will enrich your own understanding. You will be aware that however good your model of the system may be it will always be incomplete. This requires an open mind, a willingness to see all perspectives, and the ability to question underlying assumptions – and to get the input from as many people with different views of the system as possible. All of this is essential for dialogue.

During dialogue, everyone’s unconscious internal model is challenged, stretched and developed. Together the group can create a far more comprehensive and robust model of the system than any individual alone. It is very useful if the group is taught the principles of systems thinking, as a common understanding of these makes it much easier. With some facilitation, they can create a model together, which can be a fascinating and powerful bonding experience. See the topic on Systems Thinking.

Playing appropriate roles

Kantor was a clinician in family therapy and observed that people adopt one of four roles during interactions, moving from one to another over time. He believed that, in a healthy conversation, each of these will be represented in balance.

  • Movers: this describes a person when they initiate an action.
  • Followers: whoever responds and agrees is at that moment a follower.
  • Opposers: someone who steps in to challenge would be acting as an opposer.
  • Bystanders: observing the entire interaction, this would be someone who for a while has watched and then shared their perceptions, adding something from a broader perspective. They are not necessarily silent at all.

As individuals we may each have a ‘home base’. Yet to engage in healthy dialogue with one another we need to be able to move with ease between each role rather than have one dominate our contribution. This is especially true when we are in small groups and there is insufficient diversity to represent the four roles, were individuals to stick to their preferences. Imagine a dialogue with four opposers!

Ideally, in dialogue, all the four dynamics are present. There may be a dominant interaction between a mover and an opposer, but the contribution of followers and bystanders can raise the quality to another level. This, however, takes courage and the practice of the behaviours below.

Behaviours that support dialogue

William Isaacs (1999) talks about four ‘new’ behaviours that are essential for quality dialogue: listening, respecting, suspending and voicing. They are not really new, but perhaps labelling them in this manner helps us think about them differently, so we can be more conscious about applying them effectively.

Listening

This sounds so easy, yet it is so much more than just hearing another’s words. It is about being aware of our internal reaction and choosing to accept what is being heard before what might be an otherwise knee-jerk impulse to counter or judge what we are hearing.

This type of listening is like having a neutral observer on your shoulder, observing your personal reactions while choosing to focus on the original input and accepting it at a deeper level, without giving in to your own ideas, projections, opinions and impulses. This way, you’re in a better position to choose an appropriate response, rather than to simply react. Isaacs (1999) describes creating a space within us in which listening can occur, a space that needs to be cultivated.

Key point

Skilled listeners are careful not to listen only to the things that reinforce their theories, but also to what disproves their theories.

So, despite the apparent lack of physical activity, listeners who really listen are participating very actively. They are paying exquisite attention to their feelings as well as their thoughts as they occur in the dialogue environment. Active listeners remember that what they see is not in fact all that is really there. They are motivated to listen because they know that by doing so they will see and understand more of what is there.

When people begin to practise this level of listening as a group, they take a step out from themselves and look at things from the perspective of the group and the web of relationships the group represents. This listening as part of a larger whole has a different quality to that of simple listening. Collective beliefs can be surfaced and explored in a way that allows real shifts and freeing up of obstacles to resolution.

Respecting

The word comes from the Latin ‘respecere’, meaning to look at or observe again. So respecting is about perceiving more facets of the person than we appreciated at first glance. It’s about legitimising the other person – validating both their presence and who they are. Respect is apparent when aggrieved parties are able to interact without accusation or attempts at convincing the others that they are wrong. It requires rising above one’s instant likes or dislikes of others. It is about looking for what is best in the person and keeping in mind that if you had the privilege to know their personal history in full, more than likely you would find it possible to both understand and empathise with them.

In the absence of that privilege, you take a short cut and offer that acceptance – after all, given enough time you would bestow it upon them anyway.

A great reframe is to consider that the most difficult people in our lives are potentially our greatest teachers, inviting us to a higher level of wisdom and maturity.  Suddenly those we struggle to respect become valuable to us.  They are part of the whole to which we all belong. This appreciation helps us recognise that we are all part of something bigger.  Within us, under certain circumstances, is the potential to manifest the same behaviours, both good and bad.

The opposite of respect, according to Isaacs (1999), is conversational violence – a desire to change or impose change upon the other.

Suspending

This is about putting our thinking out there into the group in such a way that others can understand it. We attempt to make transparent our underlying logic and assumptions for others to see. This includes what we are not sure of, despite how embarrassing our ignorance might be for us. The absence of suspension is certainty. Certainty can be the enemy of taking a chance to look with new eyes, to see with a new perspective. Suspending is even about becoming aware of the impulses behind our thoughts – having and sharing that level of self-observation. It’s also about developing skills around asking good questions rather than having smart answers. Stepping back to look at what is happening in the group itself takes suspending to another level.

Voicing

This is about what we choose to express in group dialogue. Isaacs (1999) encourages us to find our voice by asking ourselves what we believe needs to be expressed now, if anything. It is about being in tune with ourselves and having the courage to reveal what is going on within us – to speak our own voice authentically. It requires being still first and refraining from the pressure we might feel to speak – letting what is inside take shape. And then taking a step into the unknown, not really knowing what we are going to say or how it will be received. Sometimes what we will express is not what is within us, but what is within the group. Adopting an improvisational spirit facilitates feeling less inhibited. In this way, the group creates new meaning together.