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Group Discussions
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Lesson Objectives:

  • Explain and give examples of the important role of group communication in life today.
  • Describe the various types and forms of group discussion.
  • Describe several factors that affect group discussion.
  • Describe three aspects of group leadership.

Group discussion is rapidly becoming one of the most widely used forms of interpersonal communication in modern society.  In the world of business, managers may spend up to 50% of their time in meetings.  Public meetings may be held to discuss the budget proposed by a school board or a city's new zoning laws.  Students may be asked to carry out assignments in small groups.

The Nature of Group Discussion

Group discussion occurs any time three or more people meet to solve a common problem, arrive at a decision, or answer a question of mutual interest.  The idea of cooperation is basic to discussion.  It means that the members of the group must share a desire to achieve a common goal.  They may not all wish to achieve that goal in exactly the same way, but they must be willing to devote their energies to reaching a group solution, rather than promoting their own individual agendas, solutions, or opinions.  This does not mean that there won't be differences of opinion in the group discussion, rather it means that each member must enter the group with an open mind, genuinely prepared to listen as well as to argue.

Types of Group Discussion

Discussion groups can be classified by their purpose and their audience.  Groups classified by purpose annually meet for one of two reasons, decision-making or enlightenment.  For example, a Board of Directors of a corporation generally meets to decide upon action for the future.

Groups can be classified by their audience, that is whether they are engaged in a closed-group or public discussion.  If the members of a group are communicating only with each other, the discussion is a closed-group discussion.  If they are also communicating with listeners outside the group, the discussion is a public discussion.

Forms of Discussion Groups

Probably the most common form for a closed-group discussion is the committee.  A committee is a small subgroup of a larger organization that has been given a specific task or set of tasks to perform.  The committee is often used for decision-making.

Some committees have only the power to recommend action or policy to the larger body of which they are apart.  Other committees can actually make a decision and carry out a task.

Another form of closed-group discussion if the round table discussion.  The purpose of the round table discussion is to share or enlighten those taking part in the discussion.

A form of public discussion is a panel.  A panel is a group that discusses a topic in front of an audience.  The panel's purpose could be either enlightenment or decision-making.  In either case, they are discussing for the benefit of an audience.

A similar form of public discussion is the symposium.  In a symposium, one group member gives a short, uninterrupted speech, which is followed by a speech from the next member, and so on until all members have spoken.  A symposium then is really a series of short public speeches.

Factors Affecting Group Discussion

  • Size of the group
  • Cliques Within a Group:  A clique consists of a few of the group members who become separate group within the larger group.
  • Personal Goals of Members:  People join groups to achieve some kind of common goal.  This goal may be to make a joint decision, to solve a mutual problem, or to share information.
  • Physical Environment:  Groups should meet in a suitable environment considering temperature, noise, and visual distractions.
  • Seating Arrangement:  Proxemics should be considered when setting up a group discussion. 
  • Time for Discussion:  Avoid setting group discussions just before lunch or at the end of a busy day.

How Groups Behave

Discussion groups experience life cycles just as individuals do.  As each of us develops and matures from infancy through adolescence into adulthood, so groups go through similar stages of progress.

There are four (4) stages in the life cycle of discussion groups.

Forming:  This stage is like infancy.  When members of a new group first come together, each person listens to the others as they state their reasons for being a part of the group, and what they hope the group's goals and accomplishments will be.  In the beginning the individual members are anxious as they try to discover whether they will feel comfortable in this group and will be accepted.  Everyone is typically polite and no one emphasizes differences of opinion during the forming stage.  Members are also looking for leadership and guidance during this first stage. 

Storming:  One a group discovers sufficient similarity of goals and personalities in the first stage, it is ready to move into the adolescent stage that is usually the most difficult stage in the life of the group.  Here, individual members challenge differences of goals and approaches as part of a effort to express their individuality and to wield power and influence over the group.  Leadership is also challenged during this stage.  Order is established during this stage and operating rules for the group's decision making is done.

Norming:  Once the group begins to resolve the conflicts over who is to exert influence and what procedures it will use to accomplish its goals, it moves into the calmer stage called norming.  Here the group becomes a cohesive unit, ready to tackle its task.  Members now begin trusting each other and function more effectively as a group.  They now begin to share leadership

Performing:  In this final stage, trust and even affection among members blossom.  As the group efficiently works out the details of its task, members feel a strong bond of unity, that is, each member feels that he or she is a key part of this unique group. They are now able to work together effectively and harmoniously as they complete their task.

Preparing To Participate In A Group

Group discussions occur in school, government, clubs, and teams.  You should be prepared to participate in a group discussion.  When preparing to participate in a group discussion, do the following:

  • Choose A Topic: The first step in making a discussion a success is to choose a suitable topic.  A topic for group discussion should be interesting, significant, and manageable.
  • Decide What Type of Question to Discuss: After an interesting, significant, and manageable topic has been chosen, it should be worded in the form of a question.
  • Word the Question Carefully: As soon as a question is chosen, someone needs to narrow it down by wording it in clear, concise, and unbiased language.
  • Prepare an Outline: A discussion outline is a necessary guidance to keep the group moving toward its goal.
  • Research A Topic:  All members of a group should prepare for discussion by doing research on the topic.

Leading A Group

In most groups, certain members exercise greater degrees of influence than do others.  Such influence is referred to as group leadership.  Each group possesses a personality, this is called syntality.

Different Forms of Leadership

 In some discussion groups, all the leadership tasks are handled by a single group member.  This is called being the appointed leader.  Usually the appointed leader is a very busy person.

Some discussion experts suggest dividing the functions of the leader among several, or even among all of the group leaders.  One may begin the discussion, another may keep participation balanced and the discussion moving toward its goal.  A third party may tone down arguments that arise.  Another may watch the time limit and conclude the discussion. 

There is another form of leadership where some group members handle each function of leadership as the need for it arises during the discussion.  Their leadership duties aren't necessarily appointed.  This is called emergent leadership.

Leadership Roles

A discussion has three (3) basic parts.  A beginning, a middle, and an end.  Whenever any group member fulfills one of the functions of beginning the discussion, regulating communication, or concluding it, he or she will be acting as a leader at that particular moment.

Beginning the Discussion:  The introduction of group members to each other and to the audience, if the discussion is public, is of primary concern at the beginning of the discussion.  Effective leadership and group cohesiveness depend on members being acquainted with each other. 

After introductions, the next thing to do is to begin the group discussion by introducing the discussion topic.  The topic should be worded, and the question should be repeated to the group to prevent uncertainty.

Regulating Communication:  Keeping participation balanced during discussion is another leadership task.  In any group some members are going to talk more than others.  The leader must make sure no one "monopolizes" the discussion.  A leader must also be prepared to step in when two or more members begin to argue.  Arguments stop progress.  Leaders are also expected to keep the discussion on track.  This can be done by inserting brief summaries for the group after they finish discussing each major part of the outline.

Concluding the Discussion:  There are two major concluding functions of leadership.  First, when leaders feel the group has adequately covered the discussion question or a preset time limit has almost been reached, leaders should summarize the major ideas and outcomes of the discussion.  At the same time they must be careful not to overload the summary with their own ideas.  Second, leaders should save enough time for group members to disagree with the summary or to insert a minority opinion if they wish.

Handling Conflict in Groups

Ideally groups make decisions by members' sharing ideas through calm and reasoned communication.  We all recognize, however, that in the real worlds of business, government, industry, and even the family meetings frequently involve conflict in communication that is sometimes not calm.

When conflict arises in groups, success in handling it depends largely on how well you can apply several communication skills.  Below lists what to do when conflict arises:

  • Identify the Opposition or the Opposing points of view.
  • Explain the Warrants of Your Position
  • Respect Your Opponents' Interests
  • Work for a Reasonable Solution
  • Maintain Dialogue

Outcomes of Discussion

In a decision making group, a problem is solved or a decision reached.  A group can do all of this in one of the following ways.

  • All of the members can agree on a solution or decision called a consensus.  A decision can be reached when the members agree to compromise.  A compromise is when each member or group of members gives up part of the solution or decision they want.  In exchange, they retain another part of the solution they favor.
  • A majority vote is the third way of reaching a decision.  The solution or decision favored by over half of the members becomes the solution or decision for the entire group.

Alternatives To Group Discussion

Brainstorming:  Brainstorming is a technique sometimes used in business when it is desirable to produce a large number of creative ideas in a short period of time.  Brainstorming usually involves three or more people who meet to solve a problem or to share information.  The purpose of brainstorming is for each member's ideas to spark additional ideas in other members.

Nominal Technique:  A group using the nominal technique begins by asking each member to write down a list of possible solutions to the group's problem.  Each member is then asked to state one idea from his or her list, next the ideas are discussed on the board.  The nominal technique reduces the amount of time needed to reach a decision and may prevent members from dominating the whole group.