Saturday, August 14, 2010

Small Group Dynamics (3 Tips)

TITLE: Three Tips on Small Group Dynamics
Written by: Conrade Yap
Date: 14 Aug 2010

To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31b-32)

Sometimes, we take our communities we are in for granted when we pretend we are strong by being nice. We presume we are communicating when we are speaking more than listening. We push for compliance more than attempting to understand one another.

What are good communities made up of?  It is a community that allows truth to be known and freely shared.

1) From Courtesy to Honesty
I remember one of my small group meetings with a group of students training to be pastors. Since our first meeting, we have conscientiously sought to be careful with what we say to each other. The reason is because we do not want to step on one another's tail unnecessarily. After all, we do not have to make enemies out of each other. Besides, it is easier to say positive things to people, rather than to be involved in another tussle over who is more correct than the other. Thus we tip toe gently over each another by careful sharing and reserve our deepest thoughts to ourselves. It is common to see individual people preferring to keep quiet and when in doubt, say the politest things possible. One of the members got increasingly frustrated and at our 6th meeting together, he blurts out:
“The trouble with our group is that we are still trying to be nice. Too nice in fact.”
Bummer! That spurred several of us to start talking the real stuff rather than sitting around the fence and flanking one another. I learned that day that it is one thing to be nice, yet another to be honest. Being nice means that we only say the pleasant things that are easy to mention, rather than the truth which can become ugly at times.

Learning Point: Being honest helps all of us to approach the whole truth better. Like the game of Scrabble. If we only put out all our nice vowels, there will come a time when we will be stuck with high-score letters that cannot form any word at all. Playing only the nice cards leaves us saddled with the rest of the hand, dissatisfied with half-baked solutions and worse, half-truths.

2) From Readiness to Speak to Quick to Listen

I remember one group I was in where meetings range from periods of silence, to times of heated discussions. The latter usually happens when convictions and passions are stoked.

In one particular group, there was once an elderly gentleman who becomes so vocal and insistent on his views that he fails to listen to what the rest of us are saying. When this man was openly stating his views, his convictions, many of us will either stay silent or fiddle with our other digital gadgets while waiting for him to finish his rambling. Outside the meeting, the other members will start to comment about him being condescending on the rest of us. This man has a lot of good things to say, but he fails to be sensitive to the majority. Everyone has a chance to speak, but not everyone should be forced to accept holier-than-thou preachiness. The way to counter any temptation toward condescending behaviors is through the biblical wisdom in James:

My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry,” (James 1:19)

Learning Point: Speaking and listening frequently works in opposite directions. If we are too quick to shoot words off our hip, people will be slow to listen. Our words will rattle off people's ears like water on turtle shells. We become slow to listen especially when we become more self-focused than focusing on others. In other words, the attitude of quick to listen and slow to speak is a classic reminder that we must learn to see and speak from the point of view of OTHERS instead of self. Truth can be heard clearer and louder when we learn to listen to one another more than speaking at one another.

3) From Struggling to Agree → Seeking to Understand
A typical situation in many groups is the desire for consensus. In many cultures, the consensus approach is a long process, compared to the majority vote method, which is faster. Unfortunately, the voting approach results in a winner-versus-loser mentality. Though it helps the group arrives at a result quickly, it can work against the group in terms of unity. Moreover, putting things to a vote can give outsiders the impression that the meeting has resolved some important issues where everyone in the group agrees. What if the winning margin is a mere 0.001%?

There is another problem. When things are put to a vote, what do we do with the equally valid points raised by the dissenters? Personally, I think truth does not discriminate between the majority or the minority. The psychologist, Irving Janis in 1972 puts forth a term called ‘Groupthink.’ This term is used for groups that try to reach a consensus via the path of minimum resistance, even at the expense of truth. An example of Groupthink happened at the infamous Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. Even though some engineers at that time knew about the faulty parts within the spacecraft that ought to halt the launch, they went ahead anyway so as to conform to group expectations throughout NASA. The result is fatal.

Forcing one another to conform to group expectations may have short-term agreement but it has long-term implications. There is a better way. This is the way of understanding. In a clever play of words, the famous poet Helen Keller writes on the importance of right understanding:

"I do not want the peace which passeth understanding, I want the understanding which bringeth peace." (Helen Keller)

Learning Point: Sometimes, we struggle to agree and force one another toward compliance that we smother truths. We cannot straitjacket truth into ready made containers or uniforms. Truth have to be revealed as they are. When we seek more to understand rather than to be understood, we will be surprised how much peace they can bring.

These three quick tips are essentials to ensuring that we all tell the truths, and the truths shall set us free from falsehood, from pretension and from our tendencies to hide. Let us seek truth by being HONEST and not hide under the bushes of niceness and fake courtesy. During meetings, let us be ready to LISTEN to one another. There is no compulsion for us to have to say something. Sometimes, in the silence, we begin to hear ourselves clearer. When somebody speaks, quickly move our ear to listen. Finally, the way toward greater truth revelation lies in our willingness to UNDERSTAND one another more than forcing compliance. In a mode of understanding we allow all views to be heard and appreciated. In a mode of compliance, we force only one particular point of view.  In summary, for good communications among groups, make sure that truth are revealed via:
  • Honesty more than mere courtesy;
  • Listening to more than speaking at;
  • Seek to Understand rather than pushing for Agreement
Let the truth be revealed honestly, listened to earnestly, and understood carefully. These three tips should help groups go a long way to discern truth from among us when we gather.


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