Best Praxis is a regular feature is dedicated to providing people with useful information on how to engage in effective advocacy, organizing, and protest.
This first installment addresses the most basic and most vital skill — effective communication in groups, especially groups with a diverse mix of people.
Tips for Effective Communication in Groups
Steve Kasner • 4 September 2015
What follows is a list of tips for effective and respectful communication by individuals in groups.
In many ways, these are simply guidelines for good manners.
But with good distribution and consistent practice (particularly by group leaders), these simple guidelines could go a long way toward eliminating micro-aggressions in groups.
This collection of tips was inspired by the article, “Overcoming Masculine Oppression in Mixed Groups,” by Bill Moyer, originally published in WIN Magazine (War Resisters League, November 1977).
Since its original publication, the Moyer article has been adapted and reprinted in activist handbooks for numerous protest campaigns, including nonviolent direct action campaigns at the Diablo Canyon Power Plant, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and the Nevada Test Site. More recently, Moyer’s article was translated to French and widely distributed during the 2005 Quebec student uprising.
Moyer’s article also provided the basis for Joel Pomerantz’s 1998 online article, “Improving Interactive Technique in Groups: A Quick Reference.” Both articles influenced the new collection of guidelines below.
The Do’s & Don’ts
The following tips, or guidelines, are written to help people in group meetings to maximize their individual effectiveness and the effectiveness of the groups.
View ideas apart from identities. Strive to detach yourself from the ideas you present in meetings. Try to view all input — your contributions, and the contributions of others — as belonging to the group, and thus free to be accepted, or rejected, or modified, for the good of the collective whole. (Doing this can prevent many of the problems identified below.)
Pay attention to your word economy. Be succinct, do not belabor any point. Talk just long enough to convey your point. Then stop, or move on to your next point. This is critically important in consensus-based meetings, or any meeting with a long agenda and limited time.
Don’t restate what another person just said perfectly clearly. Some men might need to make a special effort to avoid doing this, especially in regard to women.
Note: summary restatement is a method used by facilitators, but facilitators should use care not apply this method unfairly, unnecessarily, or inaccurately. Indeed, clarifying questions might be a better way to go.
Don’t nitpick. Avoid pointing out inconsequential errors in other people’s statements. Refrain from pointing out exceptions to generalizations or predictions unless the exceptions are of consequence to the proposal or issue under discussion. Groups need critical thinkers willing to act as devil’s advocates, but this role must be performed judiciously.
Don’t be dogmatic or intransigent. Always be open to changing your mind, or compromising, to reach agreement with the rest of the group. If you find that you are a minority of one in a group of diverse and opinionated people, then consider kindly standing aside to avoid blocking progress or consensus.
Don’t be defensive. Do not react to contrary opinions as if they were personal attacks. And do not assume that every contrary opinion is evidence that someone has not understood what you have been saying.
Do express unease or confusion when appropriate. Perhaps you sense that a decision was rushed, or you feel than an approach that the group is taking might be ill-informed. If you voice your doubts, you might find that you are not alone in your concern, and this might prompt some much-needed clarification, or lead to new, more creative lines of thought within the group.
Share your feelings when asked to do so, even when you expect it to be embarrassing or uncomfortable. If you try to resist by making jokes or intellectualizing, then you might embarrass yourself more (or worse: others will be embarrassed for you).
Don’t be a distraction. Refrain from constant fidgeting, foot tapping, etc. Whenever possible, turn off your mobile phone during meetings. Come to meetings prepared so you won’t be busy outlining your statement while other people are talking.
Don’t use meetings to flirt or to try to impress the object of your desire.
Disclose and share all relevant information at meetings, even if keeping it to yourself might provide you with added leverage or power later. (Such behavior is unlikely in organizations with strong, clearly-defined democratic structures for sharing power & knowledge.)
Don’t be a know-it-all. Refrain from repeatedly answering questions, or suggesting solutions to problems, before others have the opportunity to do so. Avoid presenting your answers or solutions as the final word on subjects that are not questions of fact.
Give the quieter members a chance to speak and to volunteer. If you are among the most outspoken and active members of a group, then avoid quickly answering questions, or volunteering for responsibilities, before quieter members have a chance to do so.
Don’t be conspicuously silent. Even if you are painfully shy, make yourself speak up at least once during a meeting if you have a chance to do so.
Always make newcomers feel welcome. Regardless of your role or position in the group, be sure to introduce yourself to new people before meetings. After the meeting, let them know you look forward to seeing them again.
Please do not hesitate to suggest additional tips or revisions. Contact the author via email@example.com or USPS mail: Steve Kasner, Changeworks Press, 2010 SE Sherman St, Suite 5, Portland OR 97214.