Communication about Group Interaction

Three people with microphones on a stageJust say the two words separately “group” and “presentation.” Note which word comes first—group (the process) and not presentation (the product). In group presentations, there is often a tendency to put the focus on “presentation.” Thus, the group interaction often falls short to only include exchanging contact information and schedules before diving straight into the presentation assignment. Successful group work begins with something more than simply exchanging contact information. It begins with acknowledging the layers of “group interaction.” Small group interaction is “the process by which three or more members of a group exchange verbal and nonverbal messages in an attempt to influence one another” (Tubbs, 1995, p. 5). Notice that the definition includes both verbal and nonverbal messages. Thus, all your individual actions and words, including silence or no response, communicate something to others. This is why group members are disappointed when other members do not attend group meetings. Their absence from the group communicates a nonverbal message.

Although “group” and “team” are often used interchangeably, the process of interaction between the two is different. Beebe & Mottet (2010) suggest that we think of groups and teams as existing on a continuum. On one end, a small group consists of three to fifteen people who share a common purpose, feel a sense of belonging to the group, and exert influence on each other (Beebe & Masterson, 2009). On the other end, a team is a coordinated group of people organized to work together to achieve a specific, common goal (Beebe & Masterson, 2009). Many—perhaps even most—vocational and avocational group members and size are determined by those who requested the group presentation. Whereas, vocational and avocational teams are guided by defined responsibilities for team members. For example, a public relations campaign team typically includes an account executive, research director, creative director, media planner and copywriter/copy editor. This chapter will not use the two terms interchangeably. It will focus on the interaction process of a group.

You may be most familiar with casual groups and social groups such as your fraternity or sorority or even your neighborhood. However, there are many types of groups formed everyday including committees, educational groups, problem-solving groups, task forces, work groups, and even virtual groups. In presentational speaking it is important to view the group as a speaking group , which is a collection of three or more speakers who come together to accomplish message content goals. The emphasis on “speakers” is critical because audience members come to a presentation for the speaker content and not necessarily the group’s relationship. Speaking groups require all members to discuss and gain an understanding of one another’s basic speaking skills related to preparation, organization, and delivery. In short, all groups require individuals to build harmony and rapport with one another but successful speaking groups are known more for their message continuity between speakers not the harmony between group members.

Five people sitting in chairs on a stage with microphonesGroup coordination is key in building message continuity. At its most basic level, group coordination focuses on group communication, “the process of creating meanings in the minds of others” (Tubbs, 1995, p. 186). Such coordination requires establishing shared meanings about interaction roles, the decision-making process, and conflict resolution. In short, the purpose of group coordination is to assist you in establishing a communication plan.

For many people, the mental image that forms when they hear they have been assigned to a group features some of their worst experiences or a quick private slideshow of their best group experience. Whether a negative or positive mental image, the image may be accurate of the past, but may have nothing to do with the current assignment. So when you first meet in your group, begin by coordinating an icebreaking conversation about each other’s past experiences working in groups and more specifically experiences of working on previous group presentations of the same nature. This icebreaking conversation can play a powerful role in your group, establishing a communication plan for cohesiveness, or the tendency for a group to stick together and remain unified in the pursuit of its instrumental objectives (Carron, Brawley, & Widmeyer, 1998) and minimizing social loafing, the decreased effort of each individual member as the number of a group increases (Tubbs, 1995, p. 103). The conversation also will aid your group in a discussion concerning what communication vehicles and content will have priority for this speaking group.

Review your work. You will find, if you are honest, that 90% of the trouble is traceable to loafing. – Ford Frick

Interaction Roles

Next, remember that groups are cooperative and require each member to participate in different interactions. Benne and Sheats (1948) proposed a classification of roles in three broad categories: (1) task roles, (2) group-building and maintenance roles, and (3) individual roles. Your group will need to discuss how they will communicate about and assign tasks related to preparation, organization and delivery (POD).

Task roles deal with a variety of logistics. Communication related to preparation include such things as guidelines for electronic information retrieval, sharing research information and visual aid content, and the scheduling of milestone appointments such as draft due dates and rehearsal times. Task roles emphasizing organization focus on script development—cohesive language, transitions, and consistent graphics. It is important that your group commits to not developing content independently. A group presentation is not an individual narrative. It is one master presentation. Therefore, the group must plan on how they will identify and close gaps in content and support material. Finally, task roles at the level of delivery necessitates that the group communicate about assumptions, such as every individual is familiar with presentation software like PowerPoint or every individual is a regular user of the videosharing website YouTube. Other logistical challenges associated with delivery include planning the introduction of the group, where to stand, and equipment set up.

Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality. – Warren G. Bennis

Table 18.1 Leaders’ Responsibilities in Group Presentations
Preparation Help build and maintain group communication about:

  • Familiarity with the topic
  • Comfort level with research in this specific content area
  • Language and terminology barriers
Organization Assist members in solidifying commitments to:

  • A group meeting schedule
  • Rehearsals
  • Honest status updates (establish a group atmosphere where members can indicate when they are behind; do not understand how to do something, or simply need a deadline extension)
Delivery Let members self-disclose about:

  • What types of presentations each member has done in the past
  • Individual anxiety levels
  • Successes, failures, and no experience in group presentations in a similar setting (this may be related to different majors, topics, or modes of delivery)

A microphone in the foreground, and an audience in the backgroundIn addition to task roles, group maintenance roles also play a vital role in the group’s progress. Relationships within a group must be built and maintained simply because they are composed of individuals with different personalities, work styles, expertise, and availability. Your job as a group is to determine the best communication strategies for this speaking group. The strategies should support and enhance learning about and working with the differences. Although time restraints may limit the sophistication and quantity of your strategies, a communication plan for interaction roles should not be skipped. The best place to start is by selecting a group leader with the most appropriate leadership style to help the group maintain credibility within the group, among the audience, in the assignment and its assessment, and during the delivery. Selection success hinges on everyone being familiar with leadership styles. Thus, all group members should be aware of three small-group leadership styles—highly directive, participatory, and negligent (Brilhart, Galanes & Adams, 2001). A highly directive leadership style is where a leader uses an authoritarian method of dealing with group members. The participatory leadership style centers around a designated leader who offers guidance, suggestions, listening, and concern for members while also showing concern for completing the task. A negligent (or laissez-faire) leadership style is characterized by a leader who offers little guidance or direction. The group leader may guide the communication planning by first initiating a conversation about what communication media are accessible to group members. Some group members may not have access to a smartphone, text capability or all social networking sites such as Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook; and may not have consistent access to email or the Internet. For example, it is not uncommon for a student in a class to have Internet access only during open lab or library hours. You should not assume everyone wants to use text messaging or email. Finally, keep in mind that some individual schedules or user-styles do not allow them to check email at the same daily frequency or dictate the same response style. All members should be careful not to criticize, judge or insult nonusers, limited users, and even overusers of technology. The focus of the conversation should be about commitment, that is, for this speaking group which communication vehicle(s) will each group member commit to using with some frequency in order to meet the group’s assignment. The gathering of contact information may be accomplished within the context of this conversation. The group leader can facilitate communication about member experience in the areas of presentation planning, organization, and delivery (see Table 18.1).

Table 18.2 Group Member Responsibilities in Presentations
Preparation Individually address questions such as:

  • How do I prepare as an individual?
  • What is my experience with group work (limited, excessive, etc.)?
  • What is my familiarity with participatory communication modes in this setting?
Organization Keep the focus on yourself by asking:

  • What is my knowledge related to the specific assignment?
  • What expertise do I have that can help the group within the time constraints?
Delivery Clearly think about:

  • What degree of confidence do I need to develop about my own abilities?
  • What do I need to do to develop an interesting presentation?
  • What do I need to know about the audience to assess my comfort level?
  • What increases or decreases speech anxiety?
  • What do I need to do to forego a lengthy presentation and integrate simplicity?
  • What might I need to do in terms of dress?

Four students with a poster and a microphoneAlthough a group leader is beneficial, each group member has a responsibility for his/her part of all interactions (refer to Table 18.2). See yourself as a co-equal partner in the group experience. Kelley (1992) suggests individuals be “skilled followers” who engage in two critical activities: (1) they are independent and critical thinkers, and (2) they actively engage in the work, rather than waiting to be told what to do.

You can contribute best by being aware of and monitoring your strengths and weakness and the effect they have on group members. You will always have to apply and modify your individual knowledge, skills, and techniques to be appropriate for the different stages of group presentations.

Further, you will need to maintain ethical relationship boundaries with group members as appropriate to your interaction roles. Thus, when interacting as a member of a new or returning group it is important to think about your familiarity with and use of participatory communication modes such as a preparedness to listen, assertiveness, clear verbal and nonverbal communication, confidence and empathy.

The great gift of human beings is that we have the power of empathy. – Meryl Streep


Decision-making is not dictatorship. Plus, decision -making isn’t the sole responsibility of a group leader. Decision-making is a group process of making choices among alternatives. In an individual presentation you made a lot of decisions on your own. Now it is time to come together as a group to make decisions (see Table 18.3). When you think about group coordination, decision-making is primarily about setting protocols—mutually agreed upon ways of interacting. As a group be very clear about how you will procedurally make decisions within this speaking group; and how the group will make decisions that require assimilating large amounts of information, exploring different ideas, or drawing on the many strands of experience represented among group members.

Table 18.3 Most Common Types of Decisions
Yes/No & Focus on whether a group should do something or not:


Should we have handouts?

  • Should we pay for color copying?


This-or-That: Deciding between options:

  • Should we use this inductive argument or that deductive argument?
  • Should we use an operational definition or a logical definition to define this concept?
Contingency: Decisions put on hold until after certain decisions are met:

  • Should we wait to determine visual aids until after we decide on how much technical language we use?
  • Should we wait to determine the binding for the written document until after we know how many people will attend?

The group may have to make decisions about the flow of information among members, proposed solutions, the quality of work, or even interpersonal relations among members. The goal is not to anticipate every possible decision your group may encounter. The goal is to know how this speaking group will make decisions. Successful principles to employ include group decisions always providing (1) a process for every group member’s opinion to be heard within an explicit and articulated time period (deadlines are important); (2) a face-to-face voting method (rather than electronic); and (3) a procedure for prioritizing a set of options, ranking them, and choosing the best fit.

Table 18.4 DOs and DON’Ts of CONFLICT
  • Be open to compromise
  • Be willing to cooperate with others on their ideas
  • Be willing to discuss both strengths and weaknesses
  • Be willing to vote on disagreements
  • Avoid unpleasant or undesirable group activities
  • Dominate group conversation and/or assignments
  • Sidetrack group meetings off the task at hand
  • Fail to complete agreed upon tasks
  • Destroy group harmony with attitudes about previous group experiences

Finally, each group member should remain flexible and learn how to accept newness, incompleteness, and how not to blame others. Thus, choose to be aware of three things. First, some decisions come in increments. Second, the amount of knowledge, understanding, and quality underlying a decision varies. Third, some things are discovered en route to the group’s final outcome.

Too many problem-solving sessions become battlegrounds where decisions are made based on power rather than intelligence. – Margaret J. Wheatley

Conflict Resolution

Perhaps the greatest interpersonal skill needed is the ability to work compatibly with others, regardless of whether or not you like them personally (Lahiff & Penrose 1997). Just because you have worked in groups before does not guarantee you have experienced all types of conflict. The conflict of ideas and conflict of feeling (personality conflict) are most common among members. The causes of conflict are many. They include incompatible personalities or value systems; competition for limited resources especially in a harsh economic climate; inadequate communication; interdependent tasks (where one person cannot complete his or her task until others have completed their work); organizational complexity and departmentalization; unreasonable or unclear policies, standards or rules; time pressure; role ambiguity; change; and inequitable treatment (Kreitner & Kinicki 1995): Foundational to successful group communication is each person’s willingness to abide by some simple do’s and don’ts of conflict (see Table 18.4). Successful conflict resolution also involves developing a sound negotiating strategy, which involves the overall approach you take when you exchange proposals and counterproposals with another person when discussing a settlement to a conflict (Beebe & Mottet, 2010, p. 195). By articulating a specific plan that addresses both conflict categories appropriately for this speaking group, group members gain a feel for what it will mean to balance between actively listening, doing his/her fair share, and soliciting comments throughout the process. The communication plan also may help your group reach consensus rather than engage in groupthink, which refers to a faulty sense of agreement that occurs when group members seemingly agree but they primarily want to avoid conflict (Beebe & Mottet, 2010, p. 239).

If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking. – George S. Patton

Three people sitting at a table having a discussion on a stageEffective conflict management requires interpersonal and communication competence and draws on group members’ active listening, assertiveness, empathy and clear communication skills. Keep in mind that any conflict is easier to create than resolve (deVito 1992). Overall group coordination will play a role in helping you reflect on group dynamics, plan for communication during group work, reinforce relationships, and establish a unified commitment and collaborative climate.