Summary: People’s varying perspectives and communication skills affect a small group’s ability to fulfill its purpose. There are 3 core communication practices each individual in a small group needs to understand and develop skill in that will help navigate this.
There’s a classic comedy bit that Time magazine named Best Comedy Sketch of the 20th Century. I’m sure most of you have heard of Abbott and Costello’s routine called “Who’s On First?” that takes us into a conversation of what’s happening on a baseball field.
The routine plays on a series of misunderstandings that is carried by rat-a-tat wordplay. One participant in the dialogue cannot grasp why the other’s roster includes a person named “Who” at first base, “What” at second, “I Don’t Know” at third, a pitcher named “Tomorrow” and a catcher named “Today.” Check it out if you haven’t seen it. It’s a classic.
What makes this routine funny is that neither man is listening to the other and each of them is convinced of his perspective.
While this might be funny to the audience, it’s downright frustrating to the participants.
Good conversation requires skill
This is a great (albeit extreme) example of how conversation of any kind, from casual socializing to structured dialogue, requires skill. Whether it be 2 people or a whole group, there are things participants can do that will make discussions more or less healthy and productive.
In a small group setting where there are a number of participants, you’ve got an even bigger mixed bag of perspectives coming together to communicate.
This poses a challenge to how a group understands each other and keeps unity as they work together toward a group’s purpose.
Meeting the challenge doesn’t just come from having good intentions. People usually want relationships and communication to work out. Just like in marriages, people don’t enter small group discussions wanting them to not go very well. But if the participants don’t have the skills it takes, there’s a good chance that’s where you’ll end up.
With that said, there are 3 core communication practices each individual in a small group needs to understand and develop skill in that will help hold a circle, keep the center and fulfill a group’s purpose.
They are all difficult to do in their own way, because they are loving actions. Each of them requires a loss of self and a focus on others and the group as a whole in its execution. Each person is looking to benefit the group and usually that will come at the expense of what would serve each person individually.
#1: Attentive Listening
In order to hold the center and “build the fire” in the middle of a group (i.e. focus on what the Lord is saying), we need to receive everything being contributed by the group. We need to fully receive and process their thoughts, feelings and stories so that we can look for what will “burn” and what should be discarded.
We’re processing through what people are offering to burn while looking for what does burn. We’re constantly looking for the essence of what the group is trying to build in the discussion.
In this way, we don’t react to everything everyone says. Attentive listening means we’re paying attention not only to what is offered, but to how it connects with the group’s purpose for coming together.
When everyone in a group does this, something amazing happens. They turn everything that is brought and laid in the center into one fire that contains their common ground. They take all their different thoughts, feeling and stories and they find the essence of where they connect. Even if and when there’s disagreement, they keep looking until they find their common ground.
Many times people participate in groups by continuously preparing in their minds what they’re going to contribute. Instead of building something together, they withdraw into their own thought processes to prepare what they’re going to share.
It’s not that you can’t have your own thoughts while someone else is sharing. It can be helpful to jot down thoughts for later reflection or reference as you have them. It’s that you’re keeping your energy focused on what others are sharing. You can shift your energy to yourself when the timing is right. The authors of The Circle Way: A Leader In Every Chair describe attentive listening in this way…
…the mind seeks comprehension while the heart seeks connection (with what others are offering).
#2: Intentional Speaking
While a person listens, they also need to be ready to contribute the information they can bring that will be relevant to the discussion. While they’re attentively listening to others and the group, they’re noticing what’s going on inside of them as well in the background.
It’s the difference between focusing on yourself and then contributing what you want to, and focusing on the group and contributing what comes up in you that will help the group accomplish its purpose. It may feel hard to distinguish the difference, but it’s canyon-wide in its effect.
You may have come prepared with things to share or have been jotting notes down during the discussion as you listened attentively, but you’re waiting for the precise moments where what’s going on in the group moves you to contribute.
#3: Attending to the well-being of the group
But while you’re waiting to be moved to contribute, you’re also going to need to exercise some impulse control because we can’t respond to every thought or story that’s activated within us while we’re listening. Just because you have a thought to share doesn’t mean it’s time to share it, or even that it should be shared at all. Making this decision is another skill because each person can get better at it over time.
What it requires is some self-monitoring. The Circle Way says this about this skill…
We practice self-monitoring by looking at the content of our contribution in relationship to the larger conversation, sensing the readiness in ourselves and in the group, and understanding our own motivations or hopes for sharing our comment.
They also offer some self-monitoring questions that can help determine if our impulses to share should be acted upon:
- Is this an appropriate moment of receptivity?
- Am I speaking from competition or collaboration?
- How does what I want to do or say benefit where the group is?
- How do I phrase my contribution in neutral language and still speak my “truth?”
- Can I say this with integrity without disturbing the integrity of the group?
It’s being able to make the connection between what you have to share and it’s relevance to the current discussion. It’s avoiding bunny trails and taking the group off-topic into a side conversation that has nothing to do with why you’re gathered.
It means having a filter that considers whether something should be shared at every particular point in time. It’s leaving room for the possibility that a thought or feeling or story that came into your head may never get shared because it just didn’t fit into where the discussion went.
But, it also means not holding back when what you have to share connects and will be received well. Self-monitoring is not self-censoring.
There’s both measures of patience and intentionality that must be balanced in developing this skill. Depending on each person’s personality, they will have to move more one way than the other. People that tend to talk too much will have to learn to exercise more patience. People that talk too little will have to work on being more intentional and not ignoring when the discussion is calling out for what they have to share.
In both cases, it’s a feeling of the discussion pulling what you have to share out of you as opposed to you forcing it into the open. In the meantime, you’re listening attentively while you wait and watch for the moment that beckons to precisely what you have to share as you’re moved by that moment into intentional speaking.
Switching from competition to collaboration
I’ll end this post with what I believe to be one of the main things that tends to get in the way when it comes to developing and executing on the above practices – competitive behavior. Here’s what the authors of The Circle Way: A Leader In Every Chair point out about this…
We often speak of circle as a process of remembering how to behave differently – switching from acculturated competition to voluntary cooperation. Since we live in an atmosphere dominated by competition, people often come to circle carrying an internalized competitive edge, even if they don’t mean to.
This often plays out in behaviors like talking way too much, arguing and always having the last word – which violate all of the practices listed above. All of these behaviors give off the feeling that one is trying to elevate themselves in comparison to others in the group in some way.
This is just one of the approaches that can derail what could be a healthy small group discussion.
Taking on the nature of a servant
The three practices listed above are discussion behaviors that display love to everyone involved because they take expending your energy on others instead of yourself.
Training a group to use them and then actually practicing them together orients each person in a small group to have the posture of a servant and “look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:4)
The rest of the posts in the Made For Circle series are here.