Small group communication takes many forms, depending on the purpose of the group. Some small groups exist for social reasons, while others form to tackle complex issues. Leadership styles can influence the type and quality of communication a group generates. While a variety of opinions often produces the most positive results, a few disadvantages can affect small group communication, too.
What Is Small Group Communication?
The term “small group communication” refers to communication that occurs within groups of three to 15 people. Typically, an organizer arranges a small group for a specific purpose. Many small groups contain people with common interests or goals.
Communication theorists often do not agree on an ideal number of people for effective small groups. Often, the purpose of a group determines its size. Group sizes may remain the same at every meeting, or they may fluctuate. For example, a class reunion organizer may limit the planning committee to a group of 12 alumni. On the other hand, the number of members who attend book club meetings may fluctuate from week to week.
Typically, small groups are much more complex than they appear to be. Each group member brings her own wealth of knowledge to the forum and connects with other members in different ways. For example, she might find a connection with one member based their common points of view, while she feels kinship with another member based on their common backgrounds or career paths. These complex connections add to the perspectives of group members and can enrich the group dialogue.
As the number of group members increases, the complexity of the dialogue increases, too. This can work as an advantage in some groups, but a disadvantage in others. For instance, complex dialogue may be beneficial for a brainstorming session, but detrimental to a group that needs to quickly resolve a problem.
Small group communication often centers on rallying behind a common goal, but group members express independent opinions. In some cases, group facilitators choose members based on the knowledge they can bring to a task. For example, a company’s chief technology officer might assemble a group of engineers to resolve a network security issue.
Functions of Small Groups
Small groups exist for various reasons. Some form to give their members a forum in which to share their thoughts on a common interest. For example, camera clubs meet to explore their members’ interest photography.
Other small groups exist to accomplish a goal or complete a specific task. For instance, a neighborhood association might form a small group to draft community rules or plan a green space.
Problem-solving groups address issues that individuals cannot tackle alone. In some cases, members join the group voluntarily. For example, an environmental activist might join a group that plants trees in parks.
Other problem-solving groups consist of members assigned to the group to complete a task. For instance, a marketing manager might ask his staff to form a group to explore ideas for a new marketing campaign.
Families are primary groups. Typically, primary groups do not employ a structured type of communication, unless they need to resolve a problem or complete a task. For example, a family might hold a meeting to plan their vacation or decide how to decorate their house for the holidays.
Students often form study groups to explore new ideas about a common educational discipline or to complete a project. For instance, students might work in a small group to create a project for a science fair, or to review topics for an upcoming test.
Therapy groups help individuals work through problems in a collective forum. People often join therapy groups because they find strength in sharing their stories with people who have similar issues. For example, a domestic violence victim might join a survivors’ group to deal with post-traumatic stress issues. Similarly, people in recovery often find strength by attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
Focus groups exist to discuss specific topics. For example, an advertising agency might assemble a focus group to unveil a new product. Group members share their opinions about aspects of the product such as its usability, packaging and design. The company that produces the product can use the group’s input to better understand how the public might respond to it.
Social groups exist to satisfy the social needs of their members. For instance, individuals and couples might form a dinner group to explore the restaurants in their city. Typically, social groups practice casual conversation, but may hold more structured meetings to discuss their experiences or plan events.
How are Small Groups Structured?
Some small groups have a designated leader. For example, a sales manager might serve as the leader of a work group formed to devise a new sales strategy. A designated leader often facilitates the discussion, directing each member to share his or her views in a structured conversation.
In other small groups, a leader emerges during the course of the discussion. Some leaders arise due to expertise in an area, while others emerge based on their leadership abilities. For instance, a biologist may emerge as the leader of a community group focused on contaminated drinking water. In planning committee, the president of a company may appear as the logical leader, due to her experience directing people.
In some cases, someone outside of the group chooses its leader. For example, some trial judges designate a jury foreman to lead deliberations. Other judges may allow the jury members to designate a leader from among their ranks.
Leadership styles can determine the types of group communication that occur. Some leaders take a democratic approach, encouraging each group member to equally share in the discussion.
Some group leaders have a relaxed approach to conducting discussions, allowing members to speak at will, with no structure. Others maintain strict control of the conversation, calling on members to speak one at time.
Small group communication is most effective when the leader and members follow basic ground rules: showing respect for each other, staying on topic and encouraging dialogue from everyone.
Task-oriented small groups achieve results in various ways. In many cases, they reach a consensus about how to accomplish the goal. Some decisions stem from the wishes of an authoritarian leader. Other groups vote on options, allowing the preference with the majority of the vote to prevail. In some small groups, communication breaks down, leading to a default decision. For example, if a group cannot decide on when to hold an event, the event may not take place at all.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Group Communication
Group communication offers advantages and disadvantages. Group discussions generate ideas from numerous perspectives, creating a more valuable knowledge pool. Groups often create more comprehensive solutions than individuals do. Decisions stemming from group discussion often receive greater acceptance than decisions made by an individual do. For example, non-union employees may feel resentment about not receiving a pay raise, while union members might easily accept the results of bargaining between their representatives and company executives.
Group efforts can fail when some members bow to the social pressure of dominate members. For instance, if a manager leads a group of his employees, some members might not express their true opinions, out of fear they may lose their job. Groups can fail if they lose focus of the task, and then shift the discussion to other issues. In other instances, groups of close friends can fall into the group think trap, choosing an outcome that does not explore all available options.