Small Group Dynamics Facilitation

answers to 15 frequently asked questions

These Frequently Asked Questions about small group dynamics have accumulated over more than 30 years from participants and facilitator training classes. The replies are my best experience and that of other facilitators. Some situations may make a reply or comments that do not apply to your situation but these are the results of many different situations. If you have questions not answered, write and I will do my best to answer.

The term small group is used in these questions generically to cover many different kinds of groups, like share groups, ongoing communities, learning community, etc.


QUESTION:

What is the best size for a small group?

REPLY:

In my experience, between 7 and 16, 12 optimum. It may depend on the size of the room you have for meetings.

COMMENTS:

I've had success with up to 28, but this takes more meeting time than a smaller group. When groups are below 6, the diversity in personalities usually is not sufficient to achieve depth in personal growth. I've done as few as 4, but these were not very satisfying to me.

Small groups are formed for many different reasons and in a few cases a group of 2 may work, but I prefer to call this a friend relationship.


QUESTION:

What is the biggest mistake group facilitators / leaders usually make?

REPLY:

  • Being tied to the outcome so much that they may try to manipulate for results.
  • Having specific expectations for a group that are not what the group wants.
  • Being controlling.
  • Talking too much in place of engaging the group.

COMMENTS:

Learn not to do these and be aware of your presence in the group.


QUESTION:

Is there a better day of the week to meet for small groups?

REPLY:

Yes

COMMENTS:

in my experience it goes like this:

Best = Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday

Next = Wednesday, Saturday

Next = Monday

Worst = Friday (people are just too tired after a weeks work)

I facilitated a group on Sunday night for 3 hours that went for nine years.


QUESTION:

Is there a better time of the year to form a group?

REPLY:

Yes.

COMMENTS:

In the September or October is best after school has started for 1-3 weeks. The next best is mid January or February.

The worse time is probably mid May through August. People turn their attention to end if school programs, outdoors activities, vacation and resist meetings. There can be exceptions to this. For example, if a group of people attends a camp or other group activity, it may be best to form the group soon after that experience.


QUESTION:

How long should a small group meeting last?

REPLY:

This depends on the group and how often they decide to meet. If it meets only once a month, the meeting needs to be longer like 6-8 hours, every two weeks, maybe 2-3 hours; or once a week, 1 -3 hours. The group needs to decide this. Also, sometimes a group may have a special meeting that last a full day or several days now and then.

COMMENTS:

I usually start a new group with 90 minute meetings and try to go to 2 hours within several weeks. I found that 3 hours is best for share groups for building trust and respect among people. It is hard to get people to commit for a three hour meeting after working all day or even on weekends. Start with a shorter meetings, then as the group grows, they may commit to longer meeting times. I had one group that met every Sunday night for three hours over nine years. We started with a two hour meeting, and increased it gradually over time. Occasionally, we met on a Saturday or Sunday for a special event and we always had a 4th of July party at a person’s house that had a pool.


QUESTION:

Which kind of group works best, a closed group or an open group?

REPLY:

It depends on the purpose of the group and sometimes on who will attend the group. Either one can be the "best".

COMMENTS:

Two Definitions:

An open group is one in which people are allowed to come and go in the group as they desire with no commitment for regular attendance.

A closed group is one in which the people make a time commitment to attend all meeting and no additional people are allowed in the group once it is formed for a specific period of time (like 6 months) or until the group size decreases to a certain minimum number like 8.

If your purpose is to improve personal or spiritual growth prayer or bible study group or a share group, then the closed group is the best for most people. The reason is that such groups must build trust and respect and love to the point that participants feel they can speak in the group with no reservations. In other words, trust and respect are needed for “deep” sharing and vulnerability.

If your main purpose is a study group, a book review group, a learning group, etc., then an open group may work just as well as a closed group. The trust and respect and vulnerability in such groups may not need to be at a deep level to accomplish the purpose.

Who will attend may make a difference. You may have the purpose of a closed group, but find it difficult to get people to make a time commitment. Then start with an open group and later change to a closed group. Also, there are certain people that need far more time to learn to trust in themselves and build the courage to openly share. For such people, attending an open group may be needed at first before going into a closed group.


QUESTION:

I'm interested in starting a small group in my town and want to know if I should start by having a community building workshop first, or start the group, then have a CB. Is one method better than the other?

REPLY:

Doing a Community Building Workshop has the advantage of giving your group a "kick start." But few groups can do this. See comments.

COMMENTS:

FIRST. In my experience, a 2-3 day (16 - 24 hours) CB under an experienced facilitator will build trust and respect very quickly and clear out many "ego" problems that often develop in a group.

SECOND. You can successfully start a small group without ever attending a community building workshop. It will just take longer and the flow of the group may not be as good because some people may miss meetings where important relationship issues come up. There are a number of books telling how to start groups.


QUESTION:

My small group seems to fall apart in the summer and its hard to get all the members back in the fall. Can I do anything about this?

REPLY:

Yes.

COMMENTS:

Change formats for the summer when schedules are often hard to keep. For example, try to have from 1 to 3 meeting in the summer, but make them different. You could have a 4th of July party, a pool party, a night out to some local place, a cookout, a family cookout, etc. The purpose is to maintain contact during the summer so its easier to get back in the fall.


QUESTION:

I have several people in my group that dominate the conversation to the point that others do not get much time. I can tell the group is getting tired of this and some have stopped coming. What shall I do about this?

REPLY

Such people are called DOMINATORS. You have to stop this one way or another because it can destroy a group.

COMMENTS:

There are a number of reasons for their behavior. The main reasons are high anxiety or a need to control or both. An anxious person will talk for long period of time nonstop, shifting from subject to subject, but the conversation is usually about themselves and it may go in circles. Dominators tend to be self-centered and even narcissistic. They often dominate to avoid talking about a difficult subject or to avoid intimacy. Dominators are often loners and may play the "victim" role too. They usually are not aware of what they are doing and how the impact group process. They are difficult and when stopped, may start in again. It takes firm facilitation to stop them and keep them stopped. In several cases, I've talked to them out of the group to make them aware of what they are doing to the group. Some will not stop with this, others will not and may need to be asked to leave the group. In 30 years of doing groups, I've had to ask two people to leave the group because they could not stop being a dominator. Both understood and got the kind of help they needed. See next item for more about this.


QUESTION:

Should a person ever be ejected from a workshop or an ongoing group.

REPLY:

YES

COMMENTS:

In my 30 years + of facilitating groups of thousands of people, I have “made” six people leave. Three were in small groups and three were in public workshops.

As a facilitator you must always consider the group as a whole when making hard decisions. If an individuals behavior is such that it constantly keeps the group from functioning, then ejection must be considered.

My cases were as follows:

ONGOING SMALL GROUPS

Two cases in ongoing groups were persons that badly needed therapy because of their anxiety levels. In both cases, the individuals completely demanded all group time and no one else got to speak. These people could not listen to anyone else but themselves.

A third case in an ongoing group was where a new person to the group tried through manipulation and other means to completely change the group purpose from a share group to one that did only social activities, like attending concerts, movies, etc. Others in the group complained because they needed a share group where they did not have to “do” but just “be”.

IN PUBLIC WORKSHOPS

Two cases in public workshops where the people self-selected to attend. These two people had extreme mental illness, preventing them from having “normal” behavior. In one case, the individual had a group so scared within 30 minutes of the workshop that it took two hours to calm down the group. In this case it was discovered this person had released themselves from a mental institution against medical advice two days before the workshop.

In a third case, in a public workshop, a person was on drugs which caused them to hallucinate by seeing thing in the room that were not there. They disturbed the group by talking about their “visions”. The last straw came when the person stood up on a chair to speak.

I’ve been called by other facilitators during a workshop for advice about ejecting a person. In each case I advised them to not eject the person because I felt the person they described could be tolerated in a group and the group could learn a great deal about acceptance from the individual.


QUESTION:

How do you eject a person from a group?

REPLY:

With care, compassion, and understanding, but firmly.

COMMENTS:

For the two people in the ongoing groups that needed therapy, I went to their homes and talked with them in a caring way. I explained how they dominated the group where no one else felt they belonged. In one case, I arranged for some free therapy.

In the third case for the ongoing group, I went to the person’s home and asked them if they were getting what they wanted out of the group. The person talked for about an hour and decided they were not getting what they wanted and quit the group. I did not have to ask them to quit, they talked themselves into, which was a big relief to me.

For one case in a workshop, I called an immediate break. I talked with the sponsor and told him I was going to remove the person and wanted them available to refund their money. And, if I was not able to get them to leave peacefully, he was to call the police. I was successful in this case in getting the person to agree to leave because they were not going to get what they needed.

In the case of the hallucinating person, I called a break and confronted the person directly in the workshop in front of all the other people because I felt a need for their support and to let them know I would protect their safety. The group offered me protection from any attempt to harm me. In this case, I stood within one foot of the person and insisted they leave immediately or I would call the police to come get them. They became defensive but did leave.

In the third case, I suggested to the person that they might be far more comfortable doing something else. They agreed and peacefully left.


QUESTION:

Should you allow a “mentally ill” person in a group?

REPLY:

YES and NO.

COMMENTS:

Sometimes the “acceptance” of a mentally ill person in the group can be very beneficial to a group and to the person. You have to make careful judgments that consider the welfare of the person as well as the group. This is often hard to do, but I’ve had good results by allowing a moderately mentally ill person to remain in a workshop or small group. See the last part of the article on Why Use Stories and poems about such a person. (Click)


QUESTION:

Which of Scott Peck’s stages of community development is the most important in a group?

REPLY:

All stages are equally important to the process of building community. These same stages go on in most groups but remain invisible and most people are unaware of the dynamics of group process.

COMMENTS:

Once "community" has been reached in a community the stages of chaos and emptiness may be the most important depending on the depth of community reached. Sometimes a group may need to return to pseudocommunity to build more trust and safety to go on and do more chaos and emptying to let go of what ever is blocking them from "being in community" with themselves.
In an small group, the stage that tends to get overlooked with time is chaos. People come to believe they must always be nice and agreeable with everyone. If this happens and it is not authentic, and if continued, the group will eventually fail.


QUESTION:

What is the difference between groups with different names like: small group, growth group, share group, spiritual group, home groups, bible study groups, a learning community, etc.

REPLY:

All are similar in that groups carry on a communication process and are about relationships one way or anothers. more coming later.


QUESTION:

How do you handle a group when a person leaves the group?

REPLY:

Carefully. This may depend on a number of different things like how long the person was in the group, why they are leaving, etc. In most cases, the person will be grieved to some degree and perhaps to a great degree by some. For example, if a person in the group has done something to cause the person to leave, then that person may associate shame with the event.

COMMENTS:

What you do may depend on what the person left and how long the person was part of the group. The most severe case is when a person suddenly stops coming and gives no reason for leaving the group. This can cause guilt by some members of a group because they may believe they caused the person to leave. Some member of the group needs to contact the person and find out what happened and bring it back to the group.

Sometimes a person will need to move and can't be a member any longer. In this case, celebrate the person and allow them to celebrate themselves in the group. Have a party.

Anohther case is when a person just does not want to be a member of the group any longer for a number of reasons. People do outgrow each other and some people may need a different kind of group. And some people just change groups a lot for the diversity. Again, celebrate the person being in the group.


QUESTION:

How do you measure the success or failure of a community building workshop? An ongoing group?

REPLY:

coming later.


QUESTION:

Should a small group only exist so long and then disband?

REPLY:

YES

COMMENTS:

Most groups have a birth, a life and a death. Some small groups may last a short time for specific reasons or that the personalities needed for the group purpose just are not there. Others may last many years. I've been in groups that lasted only 3 months but others that lasted 9 years.

It is important for a group to assess their "health" perodically (twice a year recommended) and make firm decisions if the group should continue. Sometimes this needs to be done by an outsider because members can not always detect unhealthy behavior.
Too often a group will try to find negative reasons for ending that are often false. A group can outlive its purpose or because of changing members the group takes on a new purpose that is not agreeable to all.
Being honest about what is going on in the group is very important and stating the truth is very powerful for either resolving a problem or disbanding the group. See the next question on how you know if a group should end and then the next question about how to end a group.

An health checkup form is coming later.


QUESTION:

How do you know when a group should end?

REPLY:

  • Membership drops
  • Growth by some members that need to move on to another kind of group.
  • Members start picking fights with each other
  • Attempts to change a format of the group
  • A lack of being authentic with each other and this is suddenly realized.
  • Successful manipulation of the group by a member that is suddenly realized by the group.

COMMENTS:

When attendance falls below certain levels, that tells you people have lost interest. Also, when members start picking small fights with each other, or just "jabbing" with words, this can be an indicator. Another is when people start trying to change the format of the meetings, but can not agree on content. Sometimes a group may not be honest with each other about events within the group and eventually this will come to a head as chaos. If the group is strong enough and will take the time to work out the situation, then can go on. If not, then you need to end the group. If group members suddenly realize they have been manipulated by another member, then the group may explode and many member may leave.

(more coming later in an article titled: What Causes Groups to Fail)


QUESTION:

How should you end a group?

REPLY:

In many cases the best ending is to celebrate the accomplishments of the group in one final "party". It is like having a celebration of life for a person that has died. Each member contributes by telling some of the high points of their experience in the group and paying special tribute to those that have given special gifts. Laugh a little, cry a little and sing a little and finally embrace each other what all the good that has come from a group.

Sometimes a group will not want to "give up" the groups because there is unfinished "business" with some members. I experienced this with an all men's group once when we fell to only 4-5 members attending. I was not ready to give it up but realized that it was giving diminishing returns for all concerned. We discussed this and planned a final party which was built around fun. It was summer time and we had a B- B-Que then a played a game where each of us had a water gun and soaked each other. We ended in a group hug and some tears.

In another group, we had just grown tired of each other and out lives had individually changed considerable and we all agreed that our purpose had been well served. We stopped meeting in May but came together again for a final party at a persons home that had a pool. We talked about what the group had meant to each of us and just had fun around the pool. I still see most of the members of this group now and then are realize we still have very high respect for each other.

Included in all endings should be some expression of grief for the ending, realizing it is like a death and there will be some sorrows that need to be expressed. Again, be honest about this and support each other in the grief expression. Often I like to end in a group hug with people looking in each others eyes. This often brings tears of sorrow and joy at the same time and it can be beautiful.


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