Sorry to interrupt but I just had this great idea: How learning about and adapting communication styles can help move group learning forward

When I last wrote to you in March, I asked if you were a constructive or destructive problem-solver in groups.  We do a lot of small group (and larger group) learning in Queen’s UGME and I hoped to give a great framework to help prevent groups from imploding before or while constructive work could be done.

We looked at identifying the types of problem-solving that might occur in a group and some strategies that could help prevent destructive problem-solving.  The ideas came from Team writing:  A guide to working in groups by Joanna Wolfe.  For this article, I wanted to share another set of ideas she has put forward in the same book, about Conversation Styles, and why they’re important to successful group functioning.

Why am I writing about challenges that small group learners can face?  In the research project that was the foundation for Wolfe’s book, she noted that nearly half the teams [she] observed experienced major breakdowns and that instructors responsible for teams were rarely aware of the problems students were facing, mainly because students almost never notified instructors of the problems and instructors had no independent information that could help them anticipate and head off trouble. (Preface, p. v)

I’d like to offer another of Wolfe’s frameworks to help anticipate and head off trouble and prevent implosion in constructive group work.

This framework concerns assumptions we make about communication styles including how we should talk to one another, what constitutes productive behavior and rude behavior.  Wolfe posits we need to understand others’ assumptions about “normal communication” behaviours and preferences in order to modify our own, and adapt to others’.

She provides a sampling of common communication norms (that are mostly extreme ends of a spectrum) and challenges us to self-assess, and also assess others in assumptions of appropriate and effective communication and teamwork.  While Wolfe discusses 3 types of communication styles (Discussion Styles, Presentation Styles and Problem-Solving Styles), I’ll focus on Discussion Style here.

We start with self-assessment and recognition.

In a self-assessment tool about discussion style,  Wolfe asks us to rate how well our behaviour is described in statements such as “When I get a good idea during a team meeting, I say it as soon as possible, even if I have to interrupt to do so.” Or “My teammates accuse me of not listening.” Or When a teammate expresses a new idea my first instinct is to point out the flaws” or “I think it is rude when my teammates never stop to ask me for my opinion,” or “If I need to express criticism, I am always careful to avoid hurting my teammates feelings.” (p. 84)

The outcome of the self-assessment is to place oneself on a spectrum of “norms”.  For example, the “Competitive Norm” is defined as “conversation [which] is a miniature battle over ideas. Speakers tend to be passionate in supporting their ideas and interruptions are frequent.”

 

The “Highly Considerate Norm” features “speakers who acknowledge and support one another’s contributions, and disagreements are often indirect.  Interruptions are rare and the conversation often pauses to allow new people to speak.” (p. 87)

There are pros and cons to each norm:  in the former while this style leads to fast-paced conversation and the often exciting challenge of publicly defending ideas in the face of competition, the most aggressive speaker rather than the best idea often wins out and speakers are more concerned with defending their own ideas than carefully listening to their teammates. In the latter, while there is concern for others, a polite tone and equitable conversations, the conversations may be perceived as slow-moving and even unimportant, and this norm sometimes privileges feelings and emotions over constructive criticism of ideas. (p. 87)

The idea is to recognize that there are values and assumptions to each style first and in this recognition understand the others in the group.  Then you have to learn to work with the others in the group.

So…if you identify yourself more with the “Competitive Norm”, what can you do to adopt a more considerate style? (Note, some of these strategies are from beyond Wolfe’s book.)

  1. Repeat back or restate ideas before disagreeing with them.
  2. Repair interruptions and other competitive behaviours with an apology (“Sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt” or “I’m sorry—you were saying?”)
  3. Check in with the quieter speakers—often a job for a manager or chair of a group, but a person on the competitive norm spectrum could surprise everyone by doing this, asking, “Do you have any thoughts?”
  4. Pay attention to body language…pay attention to others.
  5. Listen.  (LISTEN!)  Write down good ideas.  Affirm non-verbally. 
  6. Write down questions or ideas you have, to save them for after the speaker has finished.
  7. Engage in uncritical brainstorming (all brainstorming is supposed to be non-judgemental but often people jump in with criticisms. Give a limited period for any ideas to be put forward with no judgement (say 10 minutes).  Members can build on another’s ideas and ask questions but do no fault finding.

And if you identify with the “Considerate Norm, how can you adjust to a competitive conversation?

  1. Prevent or forestall interruptions by saying, “I’m not finished yet,” or “One minute please.”
  2. Speak within the first 5 minutes of a meeting, so people don’t ignore you or think you’re peripheral.
  3. Find gentle ways to interrupt in a competitive conversation. Humour, such as waving a hand wildly, or timing interruptions so they don’t seem rude may help. Say (when someone pauses for breath) “May I contribute here?” “Is now a good time to hear from others?”
  4. Ask the chair to institute a round robin (everyone goes around the circle and contributes a set amount of time) or raising of hands or perhaps using the Indigenous strategy of a Talking Stick.
  5. I like these respectful but firm reminders to someone who is holding the floor too long from Sharing the Floor: Some Strategies for Effective Group Facilitation https://www.uua.org/re/adults/group-facilitation
  • “Excuse me, Francois, but I’m concerned about the time.”
  • “I’m going to stop you there, Laila, because I’m concerned that we are moving off our focus.”
  • “Francois, can you summarize your point in 25 words or less, because we need to move on.”
  • “Laila, is this an issue we can put on the Unfinished Business list? We can’t address it now.”

I would like to propose some steps from Wolfe’s discussion, to adapt our communication styles to the needs of a group and a group task:

  1. Self Assess: and be honest about your style
  2. Analyze: What’s positive about your style? How might your style be perceived negatively?
  3. Resolve: Decide what you can do to ameliorate some of the less constructive aspects of your style, while still retaining some of the positives.
  4. Enact: Practice in a group setting. Practice until it becomes habit.
  5. Seek feedback: Ask others:  Am I helping the group along?  Am I listening more? Am I contributing more?

Well! Speaking of communication styles, I apologize. I’ve talked for too long:  It’s your turn now 🙂

Do you think that this discussion about communication styles may be helpful to students? Perhaps helpful to your meetings (communication styles feature heavily in business literature about meetings)?
Let me know if you decide to use these strategies and steps.  I’d really like to see them in action and there are more wonderful ideas in Wolfe’s book!

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