Communication in small groups

Communication in small groups

Communication in small groups is interpersonal communication within groups of between 3 and 20 individuals.[1] This generally takes place in a context that mixes interpersonal interactions with social clustering.


Group communication

The first important research study of small group communication was performed by social psychologist Robert Bales and published in a series of books and articles in the early and mid 1950s .[2][3][4] This research entailed the content analysis of discussions within groups making decisions about "human relations" problems (i.e., vignettes about relationship difficulties within families or organizations). Bales made a series of important discoveries. First, group discussion tends to shift back and forth relatively quickly between the discussion of the group task and discussion relevant to the relationship among the members. He believed that this shifting was the product of an implicit attempt to balance the demands of task completion and group cohesion, under the presumption that conflict generated during task discussion causes stress among members, which must be released through positive relational talk. Second, task group discussion shifts from an emphasis on opinion exchange, through an attentiveness to values underlying the decision, to making the decision. This implication that group discussion goes through the same series of stages in the same order for any decision-making group is known as the linear phase model. Third, the most talkative member of a group tends to make between 40 and 50 percent of the comments and the second most talkative member between 25 and 30, no matter the size of the group. As a consequence, large groups tend to be dominated by one or two members to the detriment of the others.

Linear phase model

The most influential of these discoveries has been the latter; the linear phase model. The idea that all groups performing a given type of task go through the same series of stages in the same order was replicated through the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s; with most finding four phases of discussion. For example, communication researcher B. Aubrey Fisher showed groups going sequentially through an orientation stage, a conflict stage, a stage in which a decision emerges and a stage in which that decision is reinforced.[5] Much of this research (although not necessarily Fisher's) had two fundamental flaws. First, all group data was combined before analysis, making it impossible to determine whether there were differences among groups in their sequence of discussion. Second, group discussion content was compared across the same number of stages as the researcher hypothesized, such that if the researcher believed there were four stages to discussion, there was no way to find out if there actually were five or more. In the 1980s, communication researcher Marshall Scott Poole examined a sample of groups without making these errors and noted substantial differences among them in the number and order of stages.[6] He hypothesized that groups finding themselves in some difficulty due to task complexity, an unclear leadership structure or poor cohesion act as if they feel the need to conduct a "complete" discussion and thus are more likely to pass through all stages as the linear phase model implies, whereas groups feeling confident due to task simplicity, a clear leadership structure and cohesion are more likely to skip stages apparently deemed unnecessary.

Idea development

Another milestone in the study of group discussion content was early 1960s work by communication researchers Thomas Scheidel and Laura Crowell regarding the process by which groups examine individual proposed solutions to their problem.[7] They concluded that after a proposal is made, groups discuss it in an implied attempt to determine their "comfort level" with it and then drop it in lieu of a different proposal. In a procedure akin to the survival of the fittest, proposals viewed favorably would emerge later in discussion, whereas those viewed unfavorably would not; the authors referred to this process as "spiraling." Although there are serious methodological problems with this work, other studies have led to similar conclusions. For example, in the 1970s, social psychologist L. Richard Hoffman noted that odds of a proposal's acceptance is strongly associated with the arithmetical difference between the number of utterances supporting versus rejecting that proposal. More recent work has shown that groups differ substantially in the extent to which they spiral.[8]

None of this work has attempted to link discussion content with task output. The most successful attempt at that can be found in a 1980s research program of communication researcher Randy Y. Hirokawa.[9] The implication of this program is that to an extent, depending upon task, the quality of a group's decision appears to be associated with the extent to which the group examines the problem it faces, identifies the requirements of an ideal solution and evaluates the positive and negative features of proposed solutions. Although this reads like Bales's linear phase model, Hirokawa (like Poole at about the same time) demonstrated that these decision functions need not occur in any particular order. Communication researchers Renee Meyers and Dale Brashers have also had some success in correlating group decisions with the pattern of arguments (in the sense of argumentation theory) that occur during discussion.[10]

Social influence in groups

Work relevant to social influence in groups has a long history. Two early examples of social psychological research have been particularly influential. The first of these was by Muzafer Sherif in 1935 using the autokinetic effect. Sherif asked participants to voice their judgments of light movement in the presence of others and noted that these judgments tended to converge.[11] The second of these was a series of studies by Solomon Asch, in which naive participants were asked to voice their judgments of the similarity of the length of lines after hearing the "judgments" of several confederates (research assistants posing as participants) who purposely voiced the same obviously wrong judgment. On about 1/3 of the cases, participants voiced the obviously wrong judgment. When asked why, many of these participants reported that they had originally made the correct judgment but after hearing the confederates, decided the judgments of several others (the confederates) should be trusted over theirs.[12] As a consequence of these and other studies, social psychologists have come to distinguish between two types of social influence; informational and normative (see conformity). Informational influence occurs when group members are persuaded by the content of what they read or hear to accept an opinion; Sherif's study appears to be an example. Normative influence occurs when group members are persuaded by the knowledge that a majority of group members have a view. Normative influence should not be confused with compliance, which occurs when group members are not persuaded but voice the opinions of the group majority. Although some of the participants in the Asch studies who conformed admitted that they had complied, the ones mentioned above who believed the majority to be correct are best considered to have been persuaded through normative influence.

Conflict Resolution

Any group has conflicts, topics that people do not agree on, different points of view on how to move forward with a task and so on. As a result, to be able to overcome any conflict that might arise, a six step conflict resolution will help to overcome the problem.[13]

  • All the group members have to listen carefully to each other
  • Understand the different points of view that were discussed
  • Be respectful and show interest in maintaining a good relationship with the group members regardless of their opinions
  • Try and find a common ground
  • Come up with new solutions to the problem or situation
  • Finally, reach on a fair agreement that will benefit everyone

Group decisions

By the end of the 1950s, studies such as Sherif's led to the reasonable conclusion that social influence in groups leads group members to converge on the average judgment of the individual members. As a consequence, it was a surprise to many social psychologists when in the early 1960s, evidence appeared that group decisions often became more extreme than the average of the individual predisposed judgment.[14] This was originally thought to be a tendency for groups to be riskier than their members would be alone (the risky shift), but later found to be a tendency for extremity in any direction based on which way the members individually tended to lean before discussion (group polarization). Research has clearly demonstrated that group polarization is primarily a product of persuasion not compliance. Two theoretical explanations for group polarization have come to predominate. One is based on social comparison theory, claiming that members look to one another for the "socially correct" side of the issue and if they find themselves deviant in this regard, shift their opinion toward the extreme of the socially correct position.[15] This would be an example of normative influence. The other 'persuasive arguments theory' (PAT), begins with the notion that each group member enters discussion aware of a set of items of information favoring both sides of the issue but lean toward that side that boasts the greater amount of information. Some of these items are shared among the members (all are aware of them), others are unshared (only one member is aware of each). Assuming most or all group members lean in the same direction, during discussion, items of unshared information supporting that direction are voiced, giving members previously unaware of them more reason to lean in that direction.[16] PAT is an example of informational influence. Although PAT has strong empirical support, it would imply that unshared items of information on the opposite side of the favored position would also come up in discussion, canceling the tendency to polarize. Research has shown that when group members all lean in one direction, discussion content is biased toward the side favored by the group, inconsistent with PAT. This finding is consistent with social comparison notions; upon discovering where the group stands, members only voice items of information on the socially correct side. It follows that an explanation for group polarization must include information influence and normative influence.

The possibility exists that the majority of information known to all group members combined, supports one side of an issue but that the majority of information known to each member individually, supports the other side of the issue. For example, imagine that each member of a 4-person group was aware of 3 items of information supporting job candidate A that were only known to that member and 6 items of information supporting job candidate B that were known to all members. There would be 12 items of information supporting candidate A and 6 supporting candidate B but each member would be aware of more information supporting B. Persuasive arguments theory implies that the items of information favoring A should also come up, leading to each member changing their mind but research has indicated that this does not occur. Rather, as predicted by the merging of PAT and social comparison theory, each member would come into discussion favoring B, that discussion would be heavily biased toward B and that the group would choose B for the job. This circumstance, first studied by Stasser and Titus, is known as a "hidden profile" and is more likely to occur as group size increases and as the proportion of shared versus unshared items of information increases.[17]

Many methods may be used in reaching group decisons. The most popular method in Western culture is by majority, but other ways to make team decisions are available. Firstly, voting by majority brings quick decision making, and that is one of the reasons why it is the most widely used. A second method is by consensus. Reaching decisions by consensus is time consuming, but it allows everyone to bring forward their opinion. A third method is by averaging. This method requires all teammates to reach a decision by compromising. Reaching decisions by minority decision calls for a subcommittee getting together and reaching decisions without the whole groupe being involved. A final method is by authority rule. In this method, the group leader listens to individual group member's ideas, and has final say on a decision.[18]

Nonverbal communication

Body language is a form of nonverbal communication, consisting of body pose, gestures, eye movements and paralinguistic cues(i.e. tone of voice and rate of speech). Humans send and interpret such signals unconsciously. It is often said that human communication consists of 93% body language and paralinguistic cues, while only 7% of communication consists of words themselves [19] - however, Albert Mehrabian, the researcher whose 1960s work is the source of these statistics, has stated that this is a misunderstanding of the findings [20] (see Misinterpretation of Mehrabian's rule). Others assert that "Research has suggested that between 60 and 70 percent of all meaning is derived from nonverbal behavior."[21]

Physical expression

Physical expressions like waving, pointing, touching and slouching are all forms of nonverbal communication. The study of body movement and expression is known as kinesics. Humans move their bodies when communicating because as research has shown, it helps "ease the mental effort when communication is difficult." Physical expressions reveal many things about the person using them for example, gestures can emphasize a point or relay a message, posture can reveal boredom or great interest, and touch can convey encouragement or caution.[22]

Examples list

  • Hands on knees: indicates readiness.[23]
  • Hands on hips: indicates impatience.[23]
  • Lock your hands behind your back: indicates self-control.[23]
  • Locked hands behind head: states confidence.[23]
  • Sitting with a leg over the arm of the chair: suggests indifference.[23]
  • Legs and feet pointed in a particular direction: the direction where more interest is felt[23]
  • Crossed arms: indicates submissiveness.[24]

Body language is a form of non-verbal communication involving the use of stylized gestures, postures, and physiologic signs which act as cues to other people. Humans, sometimes unconsciously, send and receive non-verbal signals all the time.

Body language and space

Interpersonal space refers to the psychological "bubble" that we can imagine exists when someone is standing way too close to us. Research has revealed that in North America there are four different zones of interpersonal space. The first zone is called intimate distance and ranges from touching to about eighteen inches apart. Intimate distance is the space around us that we reserve for lovers, children, as well as close family members and friends. The second zone is called personal distance and begins about an arm's length away; starting around eighteen inches from our person and ending about four feet away. We use personal distance in conversations with friends, to chat with associates, and in group discussions. The third zone of interpersonal space is called social distance and is the area that ranges from four to eight feet away from you. Social distance is reserved for strangers, newly formed groups, and new acquaintances. The fourth identified zone of space is public distance and includes anything more than eight feet away from you. This zone is used for speeches, lectures, and theater; essentially, public distance is that range reserved for larger audiences. [25]

Language difficulties

Misunderstandings in communication are common because of the many different ways, that is the way of conveying message; which is done through language. Though there is no right or wrong way to communicate, avoiding language barriers such as jargon, bypassing, and offensive language may prevent misunderstandings in group or interpersonal discussions. One of the more common barriers in communication is the inappropriate use of jargon. Jargon is a fictive language invented by and for the group as a verbal shorthand. It also syllabifies group membership when used properly. The problem with jargon is that it can make words confusing and can be used to conceal the truth. Another barrier to language is bypassing. Bypassing occurs when group members have different meanings for different words and phrases and thus miss each others meanings. To overcome the risk of bypassing it is important to look to what the speaker wants and not always at what the speaker says. The third most common language barrier is offensive language. Offensive language is "any terminology that demeans, excludes, or stereotypes people for any reason. Avoiding sexist, discriminating, or labeling talk will greatly reduce chances of miscommunication. Remember, there is no right or wrong way to communicate. Though language difficulties are common, avoiding barriers like jargon, bypassing, and offensive language, will greatly reduce your chances of being misunderstood. Only through habitual awareness can one begin to truly understand and then be understood.[26]

See also


  1. ^ Beebe, Steven A.; John T. Masterson (2006) (in English). Communicating in Small Groups Principles and Practices (8 ed.). Boston: Pearson Education, Inc.. 
  2. ^ Bales, R. F. (1950). Interaction process analysis. Page 33. Cambridge, MA: Addison-Wesley.
  3. ^ Bales, R. F. (1950). Interaction process analysis. Cambridge, MA: Addison-Wesley.
  4. ^ Bales, R. F., and Strodtbeck, F. L. (1951). Phases in group problem-solving. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 46, 485-495.
  5. ^ Fisher, B. A. (1970). Decision emergence: Phases in group decision making. Speech Monographs, 37, 53-66.
  6. ^ Poole, M. S., & Roth, J. (1989). Decision development in small groups IV: A typology of group decision paths. Human Communication Research, 15, 323-356.
  7. ^ Scheidel, T. M., & Crowell, L. (1964). Idea development in small discussion groups. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 50, 140-145.
  8. ^ Hoffman, L. R. (1979). The group problem-solving process. New York: Praeger.
  9. ^ Hirokawa, R. Y. (1985). Discussion procedures and decision-making performance. Human Communication Research, 12, 203-224.
  10. ^ Meyers, R. & Brashers, D. (1998). Argument in group decision-making: Explicating a process model and investigating the argument-outcome link. Communication Monographs, 65, 261-281.
  11. ^ Sherif, M. (1935). A study of some social factors in perception. Archives of Psychology, 27(187).
  12. ^ Asch, S. E. (1956). Studies of independence and conformity: 1. A minority of one against a unanimous majority. Psychological Monographs, 70(9), Whole #416.
  13. ^ Guffey, Mary E., Kathleen Rhodes and Patricia Rogin. Business Communication: Process and Product. 3rd ed. Toronto: Thomson South-Western, 2010. 32. Print.
  14. ^ Wallach, M. A., Kogan, N., & Bem, D. J. (1962). Group influence on individual risk taking. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 65, 75-86.
  15. ^ Baron, R. S., Dion, K. L., Baron, P. H., & Miller, N. (1971). Group consensus and cultural values as determinants of risk taking. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 20, 446-455.
  16. ^ Vinokur, A., & Burnstein, E. (1974). Effects of partially shared persuasive arguments on group induced shifts: A group problem-solving approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 29, 305-315.
  17. ^ Stasser, G., & Titus, W. (1985). Pooling of unshared information in group decision making: Biased information sampling during discussion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53, 81-93.
  18. ^ Guffey, Mary E., Kathleen Rhodes and Patricia Rogin. Business Communication: Process and Product. 3rd ed. Toronto: Thomson South-Western, 2010. 32. Print.
  19. ^ Borg, John. Body Language: 7 Easy Lessons to Master the Silent Language. Prentice Hall life, 2008
  20. ^ More or Less. BBC Radio 4. 13:30–14:00.
  21. ^ Engleberg,Isa N. Working in Groups: Communication Principles and Strategies. My Communication Kit Series, 2006. page 133
  22. ^ Engleberg,Isa N. Working in Groups: Communication Principles and Strategies. My Communication Kit Series, 2006. page 137
  23. ^ a b c d e f Matthew McKay, Martha Davis, Patrick Fanning [1983] (1995) Messages: The Communication Skills Book, Second Edition, New Harbinger Publications, ISBN 1-57224-592-1, 9781572245921, pp.56-57
  24. ^ Tarnow, E. (2005)
  25. ^ Engleberg,Isa N. Working in Groups: Communication Principles and Strategies. My Communication Kit Series, 2006. page 140-141
  26. ^ Engleberg,Isa N. Working in Groups: Communication Principles and Strategies. My Communication Kit Series, 2006. page 126-129
  • Homans, George Kaspar (1974), Social Behavior: Its Elementary Forms (Rev. ed.), Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

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