Groupwork Institute Blog

Groupness: A facilitator’s guide to helping a group connect

We all need the right conditions to unfurl our potential.

We all LONG to hang out with other people.  We just can’t help it.  It’s locked into our DNA.  We are social animals, and being a part of a group in some way is just a healthy survival imperative.

Naturally, some of us are more gregarious than others, however even if we like to be alone, beneath everything, some part of us longs for connection.

The “longing to belong” as we call it, has at the other end of the spectrum a counter balancing condition we might call “a terror of rejection”.  There is nothing more terrifying than rejection because it taps into a deep fear within us, that over the hundreds of thousands of years of being human, rejection at its essence would mean death.  Without the protection of our tribe we discovered the chances of survival were quite slim.

An internal need to belong causes us to take risks where our vulnerability is exposed so that we can discover whether or not the people in the room will accept us for who we really are.  In an un-facilitated space, taking risks can be a disastrous strategy to employ because everything is so uncertain.  As a result, we are more likely to draw back, to stay silent, to disagree and even to show some levels of aggression, because all of these strategies help us to feel safer.  We’re more isolated, but at least we know we won’t get hurt.  Sadly, this dynamic is a very common one in many workplaces where the agenda is more important than the people.

As facilitators then, we can create risk-taking opportunities

We can help the connection, or “groupness,” to deepen by giving participants the chance to be bold.  But, this will ONLY happen if we ensure that our facilitation keeps people safe when they take those risks.  If people feel safe, then the “terror of rejection” soon abates.

There are many ways to help people take risks and to discover that actually, it wasn’t so bad after all.  Once that’s happened, even for one person, others also begin to take risks having seen that it is apparently safe to do so.  With time, the risk-taking becomes deeper as people learn to trust one another, and a deeper understanding and appreciation for others and their differences improves.  This is the wonderful journey to “Groupness”.  Within a group that has this quality, people will begin to gently challenge each other’s viewpoints and even conflict can become something that people have the capacity to work through constructively.  Great work and amazing outcomes are possible in such groups, which is why it’s so important to create the environment for groupness to emerge

So what are the risk-taking opportunities facilitators need to provide?

And how do we keep people safe?

When a group is new, risk-taking opportunities abound because there are so many unknowns.  Here are a few to consider:

Personal name badges

In our experience, even the act of writing your name on a name badge can create anxiety for people.  The safety here may come from some simple instructions and the very fact that everyone is doing it.  It’s the first connecting group norm.

Put the tables away

Depending on the work you are doing, try removing tables from your gathering space and instead have a circle of chairs.  This is of course another risk for people to take, as they are exposed, unable to ‘protect’ themselves behind the table.  Everyone is looking at each other.  There is nowhere to hide!  People may feel uncomfortable, but that’s normal as you create risk in a group.  Stick with it.  You may name it gently and normalise the situation to help people deal with their reactions.

“Sitting in a circle like this is not something most people do when they meet I suspect.  It can be a bit confronting at first, but we find it’s a really great way to stay focussed and help create connections between us all.”

Get people standing and meeting each other as soon as you can into the workshop.

Say less up front and allow some connection to happen early.  You might ask people to stand up and meet in pairs and discuss a question relevant to the workshop just for a minute or two.  Keep people moving with bells or music so they meet a few people and have discussed a few questions.  You’ll find the energy immediately lifts and there is a “buzz” in the room.

Group Agreements.

One underlying insecurity most people have relates to how others are going to behave during the meeting/workshop.  Will there be people who take over?  Will I get a chance to speak?  Will there be annoying people on mobile phones, etc!  This can create anxiety at a deeply unconscious level if it has been experienced previously.

To deal with this anxiety and to both create a risk-opportunity and safety at the same time, a set of Group Agreements can do wonders.  “What’s going to help us work well together?” is the simple question to ask a group.  As you, the facilitator, encourage people to name their own personal needs, others hear those needs and start to re-consider their own behaviours immediately.  Given permission to name some of their fears, people feel validated and safer to speak up and contribute.

Helping people hear each other

As you get into the workshop, keeping the individuals of a group safe means standing by people’s contributions as they take risks.  Helping people to hear another’s point of view is one way of doing this, particularly when that view point is challenging.  “Gosh I can really hear how important this is for you, Martin.”  (turning to the group) “Does that make sense everyone?  This has been an issue that Martin has experienced over many years and it has really taken its toll…”

Microskills that help people feel safer

Normalising and validating people’s experience really helps to build groupness by helping people to feel safe as they take risks. There is nothing more powerful than feeling heard, because every person wants to know that what they offer is of value. Discovering you add value to a group is the antidote to the fear that you might be rejected.  In these moments we truly feel like we belong.

Why is Groupness so important?

When we belong, we begin to feel committed to whatever the work of the group happens to be.  So even though we may not personally be 100% aligned with a decision, our sense of being a part of the group can help us to remain engaged – because we want the group to do well.   Remarkably, because we have been heard, the purpose of the group has become more important than our individual needs.

.. next time… how to make collaborative decisions work!

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