Small Group Communication


Sometimes, how things happen amazes me. “Things” – that word is about as vague as possible, yes? Yet, the diction is also the most broad: there is such extreme unpredictability about conversation, and yet – if one steps back a bit, just far enough to perceive the current, then the contours of dialogue (technically, an interweaving of discourses) do become apparent.

This morning I logged in to class to assess the progress of five teams on their “midterm” projects. (The course officially ends in four days, but there will be a separate “final,” and a few more assignments related to the major Team Projects – links posted below.) There are dynamics I recognize from the usual stages of group development, including the increasing challenge I face in drawing connections between theory and practice, and continuing to provide opportunities for skills enhancement and new comprehension right up until the end. I sit down to type with an idea in mind to weave

  1. student responses to the most recent individual assignment (selecting which chapter/topic to read for our last unit), with
  2. some kind of explanatory context for the Replies (comments) that the students will add to this entry later today (a summary of their Team Project and links to the Project on each of their individual weblogs), and
  3. the basis for what will become the final self-evaluation of cumulative learning about interpersonal communication.

My routine with this course is to check the logistics folder and respond to the group-level concerns first, since these apply to all of us. Today, I discovered a message from one of the students about an assignment I had apparently not graded. Indeed, upon checking, it seems I neglected to evaluate Johnnie Drama’s post about the role of emotion in IPC. (It seems I started the process, as a few submissions are graded, but I must have gotten distracted (!) and never returned to complete the task.) Call this co-incidence what you will (serendipity, fate, synchrony, other), but the relevance of Johnnie Drama’s comments to this moment in our course is beyond words. For one thing, it is one of the first indications of what the Team Projects could accomplish (without links – darn! – and the instances (the evidence) are not presented as communicationally linked with each other, however the potential (!) is all there.) Second, JD took to heart the assignment’s requirement to “Develop the habit of reading to situate your “turn” in the conversation – read whatever has been written (Steph’s original, and any comments) and edit (revise or add to) what you’ve written so that it flows with the logic of a conversation.”

Language shows more than it can tell.

JD writes:

“…in terms of deciphering the nature of a group-mate’s emotion and nexting that emotion, I do have a bit of a concern. Using this online format, it makes our listening and nexting skills infinitely more important due to the possible miscommunications that might occur. A lot of times, especially at a large university like UMass, people of several different backgrounds are attracted to the diversity that is offered, and this will create diversity in classes. Usually, in a “normal” class, diversity can be seen (via people’s appearances), sometimes even heard (through people’s voices/accents), but not here. When reading a comment or a weblog or a discussion post, the way it is written is now more important than ever. The slightest type-o or grammatical error can throw off the reader, and make the reader think that the writer is of a different background than the reader – whether culturally, religiously, socioeconomically, or mentally.”

One of the choices for our last textbook reading is the topic of “Bridging Cultural Differences.” There were two votes for this topic, and three statements against it. SA Boy wrote: “everyone in one point in time has experienced difficulty communicating with people due to cultural differences”, while Memphis Burns argued that there is

a certain gravity to the readings when the

overall goal of the thought process is

a common good that adheres to

no superficial or cultural separations.”

Outer Body Boi is ambivalent: “I’m not sure about chapter 11 either, because the focus is on cultural differences, and although we all do have cultural differences, I believe we changed our words so that it would be a more universal line of communication. From my memory, we didn’t really discuss much cultural difference other than it should be respected.” Johnnie Drama is convinced that even though “intercultural communication difference resolution is more and more a pertinent topic in this day and age, there are simply more pressing issues at hand that should be covered before this topic.” Grant2U agrees, “The only chapter I feel that has any relevance to where we are at is chapter 12…”

To be fair, you need to know that I asked the students to make their selections specifically based on what they felt would most benefit their own Team, given the status of IPC within the Teams as they prepped for the Projects. (Also, most of the quotes are from comments to the previous lecture, “conversing toward team projects,” but I have provided the links to each student’s individual weblog.) Some students kept the “team criterion” in mind while others either did not register it or preferred to make their argument on the basis of individual criteria – such as what they would personally find most useful or interesting. Grant2U’s vote for chapter 12, “Promoting Dialogue,” is echoed by four classmates, and countered by Johnnie Drama, who thinks “It’s too soon.” The temporal reference intrigues me, as if “dialogue” is a steadystate that can be reached in some progressive fashion and . . . then maintained? Lost? Grant2U thinks it “seem[s] like there was more dialogue in the beginning of the class,” and I certainly got excited at the moment earlier in the course when I thought the standard monologic structure was breached.

In supporting the topic of dialogue, OhNOTheCakeisALie “would have just expected more conversation and interaction recently.” Outer Body Boi also seems disappointed, ““we are holding back for many different reasons;” while Beaver asserts a criterion of “be[ing] able to communicate with each with out having some type of argument.” Ninjacook agrees: “my team has been losing steam.” She continues: “our class, particularly myself and my group, has some significant “walls” to “bridge” in terms of opening up meaningful dialogue for the group projects. We seem, my team at least, to be lacking the fundamental “push-pull” dynamic in our conversations when we tend to agree with each other and the material.”

Seven students want to read about “Managing Conflict by Turning Walls into Bridges“, although Outer Body Boi states conflict “doesn’t really summarize our participation.” Deliver Me Summer, The Gymnasium, and Oo Love Shoo are both attracted to the notion of framing conflict as positive and productive, while President Makalele is intrigued by “the concept of realistic and nonrealistic conflicts.” Interestingly – as a juxtaposition of different perceptions – Johnnie Drama says, “What we have learned so far – listening, nexting, inhaling, exhaling, consequentiality, assertiveness, self-disclosure, tensionality, letting others happen to you, standing your own ground – none of it has covered what we should do when we encounter interpersonal communication conflicts.” Spicey Noodle Soup, however, argues that “we should read this chapter because it is about conflict management, which is something I have been learning throughout the class by being more conscious of what I exhale and inhale and why.” Speaking of exhaling, I am fascinated by President Makalele’s assertion: “There is no place for hostility in our class and therefore conflicts with the goal of defeat or hurt are not prevalent. It is all productive conflict for this project from deciding on a topic, to organizing individual work and finally right down to determining a team representative to compile the project for everyone.” On the one hand, I can inhale from this statement the viewpoint expressed by Bridge of Ideas, “our approach to the situation [is what] defines the outcome,” with which I completely agree. On the other hand, what does it mean to ban hostility? Please understand, I am not inviting violence, but what of all those negative emotions that contribute to the expression of harmful exhales and warp the filters of our inhales?

Recognizing Communication Walls” was the preferred topic for five students, several of whom singled out a particular article by on Deception, Betrayal, and Aggression (Stewart, Zediker, & Witteborn). Reasons against this topic were provided by Outer Body Boi (“it doesn’t completely relate to our group”) and Johnnie Drama, who says the chapter “appears to merely give the readers insight into how to discover a problem.” Masr thinks this chapter is “the most interesting” of the choices, and Sports says,

“The reason we have to understand this is because typically this ‘hurtful’ type of communication is that brings about problems in arguments… Especially so we can relate this to our personal experiences with those people who are closest to us.”

Jimi Garcia cites a classmate: “I agree with TennisFan when they talks about how our communication will be like turning bridges into walls. They say, “I think this chapter is important for all of us because we’re all going to have trouble communicating in certain situations.” I appreciate TennisFan’s emphasis on the mutual, co-constructed meaning of lying (for instance): that it is a mutual behavior just like all interpersonal communication. Finally, Top Of The Morn paraphrased the authors’ point that those messages which harm us the most tend to be the exhales to which we are least able to respond. I am reminded, reading these comments, about the use of my authority as teacher to compel our group to conform to my expectations for the enactment of this course. Emotions about the structure and process of this class have definitely been experienced, and some of them have even been expressed. 🙂

“All of this stuff plays into itself.”

So wrote Spicey Noodle Soup.

Now we know why this course is billed as an introduction to interpersonal communication! Oo Love Shoo notes how we have been “slowly learning the otherness of each others,” and Top Of The Morn articulates that we have been “exploring how [IPC] effects real word situations.” Over the remaining assignments, we will do our best with these topics. Now, an odd tangent: remember how I wrote recently about us always being in the position of joining conversations that are already in progress? What about when someone tries to join us in the middle of our conversation?! Here’s an extra credit chance: let Sunrise know what you think of her proposal by replying to her on her weblog – fast! Meanwhile, how about that external audience? We have at least one fan. Thanks Alex!

Ok folks – time to shine! 🙂 I know I will be proud of your work.

Back in the unit on “exhaling” (1/2 of a breathing metaphor for interpersonal communication), we began to talk about ideas for the Team Projects. As I wrote individual feedback to each of you, a process of negotiation began – a dialogue, if you will – about how to craft the criteria for this project in ways that make the expectations clear and the content suitable to the course objectives.

Here is one of my first explanations of the project: “If you/your Team can select a topic and trace its development across many examples and instances you might be able to show how one thing leads to the next. For instance, if you took “assertiveness” and found examples and analyzed each example for evidence of “listening, nexting, and consequentiality,” in the end you might be able to say something about longer-term effects (of repetition, or context, or accumulation, or who knows what but something that makes sense in the context of interpersonal relating).”

The examples are to come from our course and the public archives of the Group Dynamics course that I taught last spring. The evidence are the actual words, phrases, turns and developments in conversation that justify the example. The relational connections are what makes the subject matter real. Outerbodyboi wrote something that resonated with my vision for this Team Project:

“. . . we are communicating about communicating too much. People seem to be at a stand still, and are just continually repeating ourselves over and over again. I first felt that I was learning a lot, now I am not so sure. It’s not very fun to listen about listening or communicating about communicating. I think we should start discussing real issues, then analyze how we went about the communication flow, and what we could have done better. I feel that the discussions are almost becoming too abstract and without substance.”

Now that you have seen the Group Dynamics course archive, and you’ve been through most of a semester with me, you realize that what you leave behind (your accumulated “exhales” for this course) are a resource for the future. (As you may recall, you can delete your WordPress weblog after the course is done, although I – quite selfishly, I admit! – hope that you will not. Even more ambitiously, I hope you might return! “Fat chance of that,” do I sense a grumble…?) 😉 The point is, your communication has an existence: in cyberspace the evidence can be obscured, but the consequentiality persists.

Jumping ahead a few units to the initial data collection from the Group Dynamics course, several of you generated some excellent models. Ninjacook invites us to take a little journey down the path of anticipation. She takes us through a series of entries, starting with what I wrote about different kinds of anticipation, to King’s House, who mused, “…you can say what you feel and what you want to achieve, but that is not the same as communicating it.” Ninjacook loops back then, to something else I said about the link between anticipation and consequentiality, before moving on to AP1115’s comment that going through stuff together is part of what generates relational bonds. Finally, Ninjacook’s trip down consequentiality lane ends with a corroborating statement from ontherecliner. The path involves five people (three people cited once, one person returned to twice, and the author) who are saying something that – taken in isolation, by which I mean, read separately later, by someone not involved in the conversation – can be shown to have some interpersonal communication principles in common. Here’s what I wrote back to Ninjacook:

“If you can trace some kind of turn-taking or exchange among several people over a period of time that illustrates the theme – THAT is the ultimate goal!”

Does that make sense? If the team that includes Ninjacook decided to study the anticipation-consequentiality dynamic, for instance, the ideal would be to identify four or five people and track their actual dialogue over time, pulling out the quotes that show evidence of (in this case) anticipation in the exhale and evidence of (in this case) consequentiality in the inhale. Then, do this two to three times with our class material, and two to three times with material from the Group Dynamics course. In other words, a total of 4-6 examples, 2-3 each from our course and the Group Dynamics course, with each example as developed as possible from the beginning to the end of the whole conversation/interaction. (This is not the whole Project, but we are becoming increasingly clear on its core substance, yes?)

I gave similar feedback to President Makalele (on a variety of ways to approach self-disclosure), emphasizing that “the evidence and example has to come from people “exhales”. Meaning, don’t just find a bunch of random instances of a particular phenomena – we’re actually after the structure of our interpersonal communication. Jaggerbunny picks on me (!) and my expression of emotion; I replied with a nudge for elaboration. “Another way to think about this might be, what “nexts” follow from mine (in that particular case, and you’ll have to find others).” JimiGarcia actually wrote this exact prescription:

” . . . use the ideas of listening incorporated with how we have progressively been responding to each other . . . If we study through each response made to each other how we have learned to “listen” to each other and use the other terms learned from class to complete our midterm I think we will find success.”

Gym goes deeper into the flow of our communication, as OuterBodyBoi suggested, in terms of self-analyzing her journey along the path of open-mindedness. This allowed me to explain

“. . . how I am using your specific words to show a kind of logic… That logic is what you are to make plain with the team project. One of the beautiful things you’ve done is make a personal reference: you could go back (as an example rife with evidence for the presentation) to the exact quotes you made before and show the evolution in your responses as you have changed during the course of our “confusing” continual complex interpersonal communication process . . . does that make sense? Do you see what I’m getting at?”

Now, I would add that the influences inhaled would need to be part of the chain: you need to lay out all sides of the interaction.

I mentioned, above, that the potential legacy of your work here is not only as a learner, but also as a teacher and a reference for others. OuterBodyBoi found the informed consent process in last semester’s Group Dynamics course – I would like to ask the same of all of you, too. Would you let me try to publish something about the teaching and learning that has been accomplished in this class? (Oh, and I have a note here – for Outer Body Boi and your team, if you’re interested, and vice-versa – that Deliver Me Summer wrote along the lines of time and the development of relationships.)

Finally, I was excited to discover that Spicey Noodle Soup located my colleague’s exceptional explanation of How Words Create Reality. It is a different assignment than our Team Projects, but the notion of “unpacking a simple word” is a related activity. The description explains the process of making a piece or part of lived experience (something normal and taken-for-granted) appear strange or problematic. You might relate this specifically to some of the comments I have made about diction.  The process of deconstruction is similar to the analysis and critique that is required for our Team Projects.

For your replies, please double-check the assignment criteria in the course website. I’ll be looking for questions and insights about what we’re trying to accomplish, and also your advice as to what reading assignments to use for the individual FINAL (which will be done after the Team Project).  Please look in Part IV of our text and make an argument as to which section (not which particular author or article selection) but which entire Chapter, seems to you (today) most indicated as the best reading for us to end with: “Recognizing Communication Walls,” “Managing Conflict by Turning Walls into Bridges,” “Bridging Cultural Differences,” or more from “Promoting Dialogue”?  Give your reasons and include at least one quote from that chapter’s 1-2 page introduction!

We will end next week (finals) but today is officially the last day of class. You could enter the wikicreation of our class through the homepage, or you can come in through the lens of any number of individual characters who composed the group. All I can tell you is that our group is full of “functional people“!

“…being confused or having vagueness constantly only forces us to do more. We don’t need a teacher or boss telling us what to do, we actually have the skills to take the initiative ourselves.” (moses84)

Peers introduce each other in the comments that follow.

I want to introduce a new concept used in sophisticated group relations analysis. Valence is a term borrowed from chemistry, it serves as a metaphor for what we can witness happening relationally among members of a group. “The electrons in the outermost shell are the valence electrons--the electrons on an atom that can be gained or lost in a chemical reaction.”

Bear with me (I’ll draw on the board during class): valence electrons are the ones that establish bonds between atoms – so, just imagine “yourself as an atom.” Like an atom, you have certain (chemical) properties which draw you into relationship with certain other kinds of atoms while repeling you from forming bonds with certain other kinds of atoms. The thing about these attractive and repulsive forces is that they are – to an extent – outside of your control; they are tendencies or proclivities that draw you into particular configurations. We’ve been using the term “role” to label the tendencies and proclivities each of you has demonstrated within our class/group-as-a-whole.

As you have been reflecting on the feedback from your peers, and comparing what they witness of you with what you experience of yourself (remember the Johari Window) – one kind of conclusion you might draw is if you have a valence for reacting to particular circumstances in a group’s dynamic in a characteristic or habitual way. For instance, take the label I gave myself and nearly half of you confirmed in my Johari Window: complex. I am always drawn to the knotty place in a group’s process, to the moment of conflict when differences and disagreement are most salient.

Perfect example? When Mike objected to the Group Assessment Worksheet, arguing that (I paraphrase), “it would have been better if we had done this all along, week-by-week, rather than now, looking back.” I asked what was happening, Aly identified storming….do you remember how we returned to that topic? I brought it up again! Eric would probably argue that if I was a better leader I would know NOT to revisit the sore point, instead I would guide you around it somehow, so that we wouldn’t lose the time and energy of working things out. Instead, I – possibly like a moth to a flame, a dog to a bone? – sensed the percolation of discontent and chose to engage it. Got a bit tweaked in the process, too (!) but, in the end, we made some more progress: some of you decided to embrace the option of completing the final three assignments (well) in order to guarantee yourselves an “A” in the course. The rest of you remain subject to a decision-making process among yourselves: although I would also suggest that you clarified these stakes some more as well. Several proposals are now on the floor, including:

  • everyone gets the same grade
  • everyone present gets an A
  • 50% peer evaluations and 50% teacher evaluations
  • certain assignments are credited and others are forgiven

Notice how you orient yourself to this debate, be aware of the role you fill, of the bonds you are being pulled toward (those that feel ‘natural’ or ‘commonsense’) and also notice those ideas or emotions that you reject out of hand. Anything ‘automatic’ at this stage is worth interrogating. Are you being a functional or dysfunctional member of the class/group-as-a-whole right now? What functional roles are you contributing? Are these the ones we need, right now? What is the task that needs to be completed?

The test assigned last week, to which students are now posting commentary and expansions, was predominantly a self-assessment, however embedded among the True/False questions based on “Functional Roles of Group Members” by Kenneth D. Benne and Paul Sheats were a few that have scientific authority rather than simply being a matter of opinion. These are numbers 1, 6, 8, 9, 13, 16, and 17 (all the T/F are posted in Online Portion B).

Not surprisingly (given our US cultural context and its particular hierarchy of values), but somewhat discouraging from a teacher’s point-of-view :-(, the item which most students marked incorrectly was #6: “Members are more important to groups than leaders.” Eleven of twenty indicated that this statement is false. Does this mean they did not read Benne and Sheats’ carefully? Have they not been paying adequate attention to their own behaviors and experiences with each other in class? Or is the value system so deeply embedded that the answer is reactionary: from the gut without consideration?

“The functions to be performed both in building and maintaining group-centered activity and in effective production by the group are primarily member roles.” p. 53

In other words, the students who answered this question incorrectly are still caught up in the fallacy that ‘membership’ equals ‘followership’ (in which following is given a negative value). The next most commonly missed question was #17: “My personality and the role(s) I play in groups are the same thing.” This is false. Six of twenty students indicate that they have not yet learned to separate their personality from their roles.

“…trainees are inclined to make little or no distinction between the roles they perform in a group and their personalities. Criticism of the role a group member plays is perceived as criticism of ‘himself.'” p. 59

The matter of separating self/identity/personality from role is particularly crucial because it is one of the most common sites of resistance in a group. Resistance itself can either serve the group productively – for instance, in the storming stage – or can impede the group, being entirely self-serving. Someone who is caught up in self-serving behavior can become a functional member of the group by addressing and altering their behavior. Sometimes there are dynamics in the group that elicit self-serving behaviors; if these root dynamics can be addressed (e.g, see the various dimensions in the stages of group development) then these particular members can play absolutely vital functional roles for the group-as-a-whole.

Next, there was some confusion concerning #9: “If I am in a group, I am either a functional member or an un- or dys-functional member.” Only three of twenty students still (apparently) believe that there is an opt-out option of non-presence or no influence, but this is patently false. If you are there, you matter, whether you want to or not. You can matter for good or ill, but presuming that your presence (or absence, when you are expected to be present) makes no difference at all is selfish thinking. Likewise, two students indicated that that they do not have to take on multiple roles if they are a member in a group (#8). I suppose it is possible for an individual to only have one role in a group, but I don’t think anyone in this group (nor most human beings) are so limited as to only be able to fulfill or offer one role alone. In fact, the concept of role flexibility should inspire a dedicated group member to develop as much range in role as he or she can, and to practice switching roles as situations and developments demand.

A few items that I am interested in for assessment that have no necessarily ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers are numbers 14, 19, 21, and 22. The word “sensitive” was used ambiguously, with a negative connotation in #19 (too much sensitivity to criticism about your functional role performance leans toward the self-serving agenda) and a positive connotation in #21 (being “sensitive to the operation of member roles in our class/group and …sub-group teams” – which is desirable). The ambiguity may have confused some students’ responses. Seven students admit that they are still “unsure how to diagnose role requirements needed by my sub-group team” (#14), and (possibly the most honest answer), one student confessed that only sometimes is she/he “aware of and conscious about my own proficiency in different functional roles” (#22). I would suggest that these two skills not only belong together, but they are the subject of lifelong learning.

In the replies that follow, students are to reflect on how their test results illuminate or otherwise enable them to add more insight to the blogposts they’ve written about the mass of peer feedback received in Class #13, the second to the last official class of the semester.

The first meeting of the Informed Consent/Study Team was a brainstorming session about what to select as the focus for a formal study of the group dynamics that have occurred among class members (students, teacher, and visitors) over the course of this semester. Steph has already been collecting data (via the peer evaluation rating forms) to test an hypothesis about the stages of group development, but that information is insufficient by itself.

We agreed that it is time (now) to pose a study question. If we could wind back the clock, what would be interesting to have paid close attention to from the beginning?

Ideas (in no order, roughly in the sequence in which they came up):

  • Having no instructions compared with lots of instructions and how this ties to leadership, for instance, the progress of the group on a given day. (Example: “today given a task and a standard, which increased the rate of success on this day in comparison with other days.”)
  • The whole underlying thing of the group dynamic – come to work with Steph – who’s writing on the board…
  • Use of Johari Window, Peer Evaluations
  • The variation of feedback over time…
  • A group of strangers working together…how we view each other over time – perhaps shown in the quality of what people write (as feedback) over time…what they write…how they view their peers.
  • Strangers: only a few knew each other prior to this class, now friends and know many
  • How do you get together 30 kids….the wiki is an arbitrary task..
  • The success rate of fishbowls: “I really like them!” said one team member. They have
  • Flexible content (how this goes down)
  • Want to accomplish
  • A lot of control
  • positive
  • Just arguing with each other – no one wanted to
  • Avoid hurting people’s feelings “weak” = negative
  • Getting into it…..what do…..problem of agreeing – then uphill since
  • Most people hate group work
  • We do the group work in class
  • Homework done at home, no dependence
  • There are choices, people feel bad about not pulling their own weight
  • Are the peer evals biased? Towards the beginning – who chosen to rate? Now friends with them….

Benne and Sheats argue that member roles receive very little attention in groups because most of the limelight goes to so-called leaders. Please

  1. characterize the function/purpose of the true/false section of the Functional Group Roles exam and
  2. summarize what you’ve learned from the experiential methodology of our class/group to date.

Be sure to include a link to your detailed “If statement” expansions on the True/False questions that you’ve written in your own Weblog!

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