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Working with groups

Here you will find a rich mix of tips from trainers, practitioners and researchers with mixed experiences of group work.

Top tips for group work

In advance of the group work:

  • Fail to plan, plan to fail!
  • When structuring your session plan, build time in for the group to share their background, experiences and expertise
  • When structuring your session plan, remember group work is a two-way process, keep it as interactive as possible
  • When structuring your session plan, build in comfort breaks
  • Recognise there will be a range of learning styles within the group – structure your activities and vary them accordingly
  • Know your group if you can! Find out as much as possible in advance of the session about how the group will be comprised, how many, what backgrounds, volunteers or conscripts etc
  • Know what your aims and objectives for the session are, and the learning outcomes in relation to each of the planned activities
  • Be modest in what you aim to cover, it will always take longer than you think, but have back up material just in case
  • If you are going to split the group down into small teams then plan (and practice) techniques on how you will do this (e.g. counting off alternatively, splitting odd and even numbers, random choice, assigning letters…)
  • Do not assume the technology will work! Have a back up in terms of hand outs

During the group work:

  • Communicate, share and agree the aims, objectives and learning outcomes for the session with the group at the outset, and revisit them at the end. Check if they have been covered or renegotiated
  • Communicate, share and agree the framework for the session, any breaks etc
  • Set ground rules at the outset
  • Get to know your group – check your assumptions and the expectations of the participants, however well prepared your background research was, things can change
  • Remember group work is about the participants, not just about you
  • Keep an eye on the group dynamics, are all equally able to participate if they wish?
  • Don’t rush it! Less is more.
  • Don’t feel you need to know everything – it’s much better to admit to gaps in knowledge and elicit more from the group, or offer to follow up, than to try and bluff it out.
  • You are responsible for the process of the session, not all of the content – the latter is partly the responsibility of the group as a whole
  • Have the self-belief to jettison material rather than rush through the content
  • Learn to manage the physical environment. (arranging chairs and tables in appropriate formats, or determining who works with who when small group activities are needed)
  • Learn to feel comfortable with silence – it creates space for reflection
  • Quieter group members are not necessarily disengaged
  • Encourage and create opportunities for all to contribute, but don’t put anyone ‘on the spot’ in a way that might be uncomfortable and threatening
  • Make a distinction between behaviour that bothers you, and that which interferes with the learning of the group
  • Be open with the group about your knowledge gaps
  • Don’t be self-deprecating about either yourself or your material.
  • You have the power, but you can still negotiate over content, timings and follow-up
  • Take water with you, keeping hydrated aids voice projection
  • Take any resources your group may need – you can’t assume they will have pens, paper and/or something to lean on
  • Value and acknowledge the contributions from participants at whatever level they come
  • Start and finish on time

After the group work:

  • Seek feedback from participants (formal evaluation forms, or ‘what have you learned’ comments)
  • Use the feedback to inform how you might deliver the same, or a similar session in the future
  • Don’t judge your whole performance on one excruciating moment
  • Review your practice, but don’t indulge in too much paranoiac self-criticism. Some things will be beyond your control, try and identify what other influences may affect your delivery and group dynamic
  • Make a note of things that worked and things that didn’t and amend your session plan accordingly

And don’t forget...

  • Managing groups takes time, always allow longer than you think for exercises, and for larger groups build in extra time
  • Consider if your material may be contentious in some way – make sure you are able to follow up any issues that arise but can’t be resolved during the session
  • Don’t be afraid to learn from others – get into the habit of watching colleagues delivering group work sessions whenever you can – and ask others to watch you – peer feedback can be positive
  • Pluck up the courage to get feedback from others – you can learn a lot, and might find it gives you increased confidence as well as new ideas
  • You yourself are part of the group, - you will need to manage the process, but you are not necessarily wholly responsible for the content
  • You are never going to please all of the people all of the time, but you have much more chance of doing so if you check the expectations of a group at the start.
  • At every stage, (before, during and afterwards) try to be sensitive to potential cultural differences (and or hierarchies) that might influence appropriateness of material and content, style of participation, willingness to share views and ideas
  • Nervousness is normal – try not to worry about it
  • If you enjoyed the session the chances are the group did too – well done!
  • Above all else, hang on to your sense of humour!

Group work – 10 handy hints used at the University of Paisley

Group work should be...

  1. Interactive
  2. Participative
  3. Have clear objectives expressed in behavioural terms: ‘By the end of this session you will be able to …’
  4. You are there to facilitate NOT teach
  5. It needs to be a ‘learning event’: something that impacts and will be remembered
  6. It should be constructed in a cycle, from identification of need, to design, to delivery then (always) to evaluation and review
  7. You must consider ‘transfer of learning’ i.e. how participants can transfer what they learn to the real world after the learning event
  8. Needs a facilitator skilled in discussion-leading and flexible to respond to the changing needs of the participants
  9. Content should be based on moving from the known to the unknown, the simple to the complex and from facts to thoughts and feelings
  10. If it’s going wrong … don’t blame the victims!

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Anti-Discriminatory groupwork

Contribution by Jenny Bimrose based on Brown, A., (1992) Groupwork (3rd ed), London: Arena

What is meant by anti-discriminatory practice in group work, and how can this be incorporated into guidance work? This contribution considers these questions and provides some guidelines for practice.

Race and gender

Brown (1992) argues for the need for 'anti-discriminatory group work practice'. This aspect of group work is currently underdeveloped, and so there is little available for use by the practitioner. The challenge is to identify how social discrimination might affect group processes.

Three aspects of anti-discriminatory practice in groupwork

  1. Groups as a social microcosm: Small groups are a mini version of wider society. Despite this, there is a tendency for group leaders to behave as if all members of the group start as equals. If structural inequality is not explicitly addressed, it will be perpetuated and reinforced.
  2. Groups as a source of empowerment: Groups can be used to create conditions in which members are able to regain self-esteem and more control over their own lives. This can take various forms, but usually involve groups drawing on group strength and cohesion to take collective action to try to change conditions.
  3. Groups for those who oppress and dis-empower others: Relates to the need for consciousness-raising and training in anti-oppressive behaviour for people who, whether consciously or unconsciously, at a personal or institutional level, contribute to the disempowerment of others.

Practice guidelines for an anti-discriminatory approach to groupwork

General:

  • For the practitioner, questions about dimensions of inequality should be a routine as questions like 'where will the group meet' or 'what are the aims and objectives'. Policies on group work need to consider what 'equal opportunities' will involve structurally and in resource terms for equality in access to group work is to become a reality.

Planning:

  • Group composition: Should the group be mixed or separate? For example, would it be advantageous for groups to be offered for women/girls and separately for men/boys? Of course, there are many instances when there is no control over the composition of the group. Mixed membership may well disadvantage some group members, but the only alternative may be no provision at all. In these cases, it becomes the responsibility of the group worker to take steps to minimise disadvantage.
  • Style, format, culture of the group: Often, social inequality is not taken into account when planning groups. For example, groups which are designed to prepare participants for job interviews need to recognise that black interviewees have to face racial discriminations as well as all the other general problems when seeking employment.

Working with groups:

  • Putting social inequality on the agenda: Purpose of this is to legitimise issues related to inequality as important ones which group members are encouraged to raise as and when they wish.
  • A proactive approach: Group leaders need to be vigilant about their own group behaviour and make sure that they model inclusion and involvement of all the members on an equal basis. Also, action needs to be taken when a group member is being treated unequally by others (e.g. validate marginalised members; restrain dominant members)
  • Confront discrimination: This requires the group leader to intervene and confront unacceptable behaviour in a way which challenges the behaviour without condemning the perpetrator of it - not easy.
  • Establishing trust: Takes time in any group, and more likely to take longer and more effort in mixed groups. Nevertheless, an important part of the group process.
  • Content, method and style: Great care needs to be taken to ensure that the content, style and methods are appropriate to the particular group membership. All exercises, questionnaires, games, role-plays and other devices need to be checked for gender bias, ethnocentrism, heterosexism, ageism, class bias, disablism and so on. Given that it is very difficult to get this right, openness to critical feedback is an essential basis for constantly improving the quality and appropriateness of group content.

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Facilitative intervention strategies

Contribution by Rose Mortenson (AGCAS)

This contribution considers how to keep a group session 'moving' so it is an active not passive experience for participants.

Encouraging confusion

Learning takes place when we move from a place of confusion to clarity. If we provide too much information and assistance we are limiting their capacity to learn from the experience. However we should respond if a request is made for help, though this should be limited to what is asked for.

Gentle interventions

  • Doing nothing – leaving the group to sort things out for themselves
  • Using silence – essential for reflection; helpful to restore calm; allows space for thinking and problem solving (we often don’t appreciate how much we actually know and silent thinking often releases information from our unconscious mind); can provide an opportunity to explore with individuals or small groups the basis of their fear of silence
  • Support – verbal and non-verbal contributions, which support what is happening or what is being said. This empowers individuals and the group and helps integrate you into the group
  • Clarifying – checking what is happening, checking your understanding of contributions, checking acceptability of process


Persuasive interventions

  • Questions to move the group – can be very gentle e.g. “are you ready to go on now?” or more firm “are you ready to go on yet?”
  • Questions on where next – the move on is assumed and emphasis is on where next e.g. “Ok so where do you want to go now?”
  • Suggesting choices – this will have a direct impact on what happens next so try not to limit choices unnecessarily
  • Suggesting paths – offering various ways the group could proceed if they have lost their way and ask for suggestions
  • Sharing your ideas – giving your view is probably more directive than you intend depending on how much power the group has invested in you as the facilitator
  • Suggesting action – the most persuasive intervention useful if the group is completely at a loss or if the energy is very low but still offer several options

Directive interventions

  • Guiding the group – by suggesting what you would do in their situation, or do something yourself such as write on the flip chart
  • Choosing for the group – you deciding what the group should do next e.g. “I think it would be useful for us to stop at this point and …”
  • Directing the group – telling the group what they will do next

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Facilitation language

Contribution by Rose Mortenson (AGCAS)

This contribution reminds us that, as a facilitator, the language you use can have considerable impact on the group dynamics and on the process. Similarly asking participants to re-phrase their contributions can be an important intervention, empowering them and helping them understand themselves and the group process.

Saying what we mean

  • Think through what we want others to hear
  • Chose simple language and consider how to say it
  • If it comes out ‘wrong’, immediately acknowledge it with ”I’m sorry I didn’t mean that”, and try again

Clarifying understanding

  • Paraphrasing their contribution
  • Stating what their contribution meant to you


Avoiding power language

  • Avoid language that gives no room for manoeuvre e.g. ‘go’ ‘get’ ‘do’
  • Ask for suggestions and volunteer your suggestions

Questions or statements

  • Recognise when questions are really disguised statements e.g. “is anyone feeling cold” means “I am feeling cold”
  • Ask participants to re-frame their questions as statements it is very empowering

Changing de-personalised language into ‘I’ language

  • ‘It’ is used when we don’t want to own a statement e.g. “it is a difficult concept to grasp” actually means “I am finding it hard to understand that concept”
  • ‘You’ is used to project feelings or thoughts on to others e.g. “You haven’t explained what is going to happen today” means “I don’t know what is going to happen today” or even “I feel uncomfortable because I don’t know what is going to happen today”
  • ‘We’ is used to share the blame or claim support e.g. “We are really interested in finding out about…” means “I am really keen to find out about…”
  • ‘One’ is used to imply that everybody thinks that way e.g. “One believes in complete confidentiality” means “I think everyone believes in complete confidentiality

Avoiding Limiting language

  • Replacing ‘can’t’ with ‘won’t’ thus recognising that I am making a choice not to do something e.g. “I can’t do this exercise in front of everyone” becomes “I won’t do this exercise in front of everyone”
  • Replacing ‘need’ with ‘want’ thus recognising the difference between essential and desirable factors e.g. “I need more time” becomes “I want more time”.

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Guidelines for trainers

Contribution by Janet Moffett, University of Paisley

Here you will find a practical guide to working with groups that covers: giving presentations, leading a discussion and some 'do's and don'ts' for trainers.

Presentations

Preparation

  • Set objectives - what should learners be able to do by the end of the presentation
  • Assess entry behaviour - consider the learners’ existing knowledge
  • Plan the content - identify what must, should and could be covered by the session
  • Plan the sequence - move from known to unknown, simple to complex and general to particular
  • Plan for maximum recall - use repetition, notes and handouts; emphasise key points

Structure

  • Introduction - explain why the learners are being asked to attend, the objectives, structure and content of the session, and the finishing time
  • Major points - take each main point in turn; take an OHT for each theme
  • Summary - summarise what you want the learners to remember; restate the purpose and objectives of the session and assess whether these have been met

Leading a discussion

The discussion format is not for teaching new knowledge to learners but for sharing experiences, developing thinking, expressing reserviations or concerns and developing as many ideas as possible.

Key features

  • Everyone contributes.
  • The leader manages the discussion, ensuring the topic is explored by using open and challenging questions. The leader is NOT the centre of attention and should always refer comments and questions addressed to her/him back to the group to consider.
  • The leader challenges assumptions, summarises contributions, ensures full discussion, asks provoking questions, explores disagreement and ensures the objectives of the session are realised.

Preparation

  • Identify and list objectives you want to be met: what the discussion is designed to achieve.
  • Think about the sequence of the discussion, making notes about key points.
  • Organise the setting: circular table, with leader as part of the group; record key questions, points, responses on flip chart, etc.


Structure

  • Brief introduction: explain the topic and relate this to the group’s experience and knowledge.
  • Pose the key question to generate discussion.
  • Allow for open discussion; ensure a challenging and thought-provoking debate.
  • Summarise by restating the agreement that has been reached, noting any areas of disagreement.
  • Additional key questions, discussion and summaries.
  • Conclusion: briefly review the objectives and give a clear summary of the discussion and its outcomes, acknowledging specific contributions and thanking the group as a whole.

Do’s and don’ts for trainers

Do...

  • Show everyone they have a contribution to make.
  • Guide the group using answers and questions.
  • Allow the group to work things out for themselves by giving them time.
  • Get the group to evaluate what is being discussed.

Don’t...

  • Make it too easy by doing it for them
  • Give unrealistic feedback by giving undue praise or over-critical comment or vague and generalised statements.
  • Show impatience or compare them unfavourably with others.
  • Give tasks that are too easy or too hard

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Training the Trainers

Contribution by Rose Mortenson (AGCAS)

Here you will find some practical guidelines for dealing with 'problem incidents' in group work.

Dealing with problem incidents

Below are some suggestions for dealing with problem incidents and they fall into three broad strategic types.

  • Don’t start from here - This is where the problem has occurred because appropriate steps have not been taken at an earlier stage. For example, the participants may not have been introduced to each other, the purpose of the course may not have been made clear, the preparation that was required may have been unclear or impossible, or the ground rules of the session may not have been established appropriately. Until these prerequisites are sorted out you may be repeatedly fire fighting in the course and the incident will keep recurring.
  • Use structures - Unstructured large group discussions are very difficult. Many incidents are an inevitable consequence of lack of structure. Both the process and the content need to be structured. If one structure isn’t working, try the opposite e.g. if a plenary discussion isn’t working, break into small groups.
  • Make leadership interventions - These are the really skillful things experienced tutors learn to say and do which redirect groups, defuse situations, bring in quiet participants and so on. In small groups these interventions can be subtle and discrete. Use of gestures, facial expressions and posture may be sufficient. In larger groups you may need to be less subtle and more assertive about your interventions. You may need to be a great deal explicit about what you are doing and what behaviour you are expecting and you may need the co-operation of the group to tackle the problem. For example, instead of using body language or gestures to shut one participant out and bring in another, you may need to say: "I’ve noticed that some of you have done most of the talking while others have had little opportunity to join in. I’d like everyone to do whatever they can to produce a more balanced pattern of discussion. This may mean keeping a little quieter or asking others to join in by asking them questions.”

Possible solutions to problem incidents

  • The whole group is silent and unresponsive - Use rounds, buzz groups or pyramids to get people talking and energised. Make it clear you really do want them to join in. Be quiet and wait. Ask them in fours to discuss what could be done to make the group more lively and involved and then pool suggestions.
  • Individuals are silent and unresponsive - Use open, exploratory questions. Invite individuals in: “I’d like to hear what Chris thinks about this”. Use buzz groups. Put all the quiet ones together in a small group to discuss
  • Sub-groups start forming with private conversations - Break them up with sub-group tasks. Ask “What is going on?” Self-disclosure: “I find it hard to lead a group where……”
  • The group becomes too deferential towards the trainer - Stay silent, throw questions back, open questions to the whole group. Negotiate decisions about what to do instead of telling them.
  • Discussion goes off the point and becomes irrelevant - Set clear themes or agenda. Keep a visual summary of the topics discussed for everyone to see. Say: “I’m wondering how this related to today’s topic.” Seek agreement on whether the diversion should be followed.
  • A distraction occurs (such as two participant’s arriving late) - Establish group ground rules about behaviour such as late arrivals. Give attention to the distraction. Try to get the distraction shared by whole group – it can then be dealt with and group can move on.
  • Members do not listen to each other - Point out what is happening. Establish ground rules about behaviour.
  • Participants do not answer when you ask a question - Use open questions, leave plenty of time. Use buzz groups.
  • Two participants are very dominant - Use hand signals, gestures and body language. Support and bring in others. Give the dominant participants roles to keep them busy (such as note taker). Use structures that take away their audience e.g put them together when working in pairs.
  • Participants complain about the seminar and the way you are handling it - Ask for constructive suggestions. Ask participants who are being negative to turn their comments into positive suggestions. Ask for written suggestions at the end of the session. Agree to meet in a small group afterwards.
  • The group picks on one participant in an aggressive way - Establish ground rules. Ask “What is going on?”. Break up the group using structures.
  • Discussion focuses on one corner of the group and the rest stop joining in - Use structures. Point out to the group what is happening. Check the layout of the room.

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