Basic group techniques
IntroductionGet simple ideas to help your group work more effectively.
This section provides some simple ideas to help groups work more effectively.
On this page:
- Using and creating maps
- On-site and small group discussions
- Mind mapping
Icebreakers are activities that can be used at the start of a meeting or workshop to help people get to know others, to feel at ease, and start to build a sense of trust in a group. Simple icebreaker techniques include asking people to:
- Find five people they haven’t met before and introduce themselves – ‘Hi, I’m ... and my favourite colour/game/pastime/previous job is...’
- Share with the group one thing they may not already know about you.
- Tell everyone something they want to gain from the meeting or event and something they bring (such as experience or skills).
Careful recording of the discussion and meeting outcomes is important. To ensure your records are fair and accurate:
- Record points up the front where everyone can see – on a whiteboard or flipchart.
- Use the words the person suggesting the ideas has used. If you need to paraphrase or summarise, ask the person ‘how could we say that in a sentence?’ or have a go and check with that person that you’ve got it right. When the note-taker is different to the facilitator, get the facilitator to check accuracy with the group.
- Sort data as you go – if one point relates to another up on the board, put them together or use a symbol to show they’re related.
- Don’t assume lists are the best way of setting out the data – a mind map (or spider map) may be more effective for the issue at hand.
- Use large clear letters in thick pen so everyone can see. Encourage those who can’t see to come closer to the front.
- Read through, or allow participants to read through the notes, to make sure all the points have been accurately covered.
- Put up completed paper alongside the board you’re working on, so people can see what’s been covered. If you’re using a printing whiteboard, circulate printed copies.
- Circulate minutes afterwards, emphasising action points in bold.
Maps are a great visual tool for sharing information and history, creating visions, and making plans. They always generate interest and people often ask for copies to take home. Maps can be topographical and to-scale or you can use aerial photos. Historical photos are helpful to show changes over time.
You can also get participants to draw maps (either individually or in small groups) to show their representations of where they live or where the project is. Having large paper and coloured pens on hand helps people be creative. After drawing or displaying a map, you can use sticky notes for people to write comments about things they like, dislike or want to improve about this site – use different colours for each question. This helps everyone to make a comment and can generate large amounts of information quickly.
Field days are a practical way for a group to share ideas, experience or demonstrate practical conservation skills or techniques, show the achievements of a project and/or increase public awareness of the issue. On-site visits or hikoi (walking a site together) can help people share their knowledge and perspectives and also foster personal relationships.
See organising meetings and groups for tips on running field days.
Small group discussion
Small group discussion is invaluable for allowing more participation at a large event. Break people into groups to discuss particular points, generate ideas, or to try to come to an agreed position. Each group can record its points on large paper, then report back to the larger group or put its paper on the wall. I
t’s helpful to have clear written instructions, either given to each group or on a whiteboard at the front, and to set clear timeframes. It can also be a good idea for each small group to appoint a facilitator, a recorder and a timekeeper.
A group brainstorm is ideal for generating a range of creative ideas quickly. The idea is for people to put forward ideas without others interrupting or challenging. You can then follow up with some sort of analysis, refinement of ideas and selection of priorities.
A basic brainstorm uses the following steps:
- Put a large sheet of paper in full view of all participants.
- Remind everyone that the goal of the brainstorm is to be creative, that way-out ideas are allowed and not to edit or censor anyone else’s ideas although they can build on them.
- Write up the question being brainstormed on the top of the page or in the middle in large letters. For a bigger group, you may need two sheets of paper and two scribes.
- Ask people to call out their ideas for you to write up, either in a list or randomly on the page.
- Keep going until the ideas run out. If people seem shy about calling out their ideas, remind them that anything goes.
- At the end, check if there are any ideas needing clarification.
If you find that not everyone is contributing during a brainstorm, you may need to use a round or a workshop with sticky notes to achieve more even participation. See workshopping with 'sticky notes' below.
A round is a useful technique for equal participation, although it can become drawn out with large numbers of people. Basically, each person in turn gets to make a comment or give an opinion, though they may choose to pass. Nobody is allowed to interrupt.
Rounds are a good tool to start participation and as an icebreaker for people to introduce themselves. They are also a good way to test for agreement, especially when you think there may be a false consensus (people assuming everyone agrees but not checking).
Mind mapping is a technique for recording that involves using pictures, key words and symbols organised like a tree diagram. The technique takes a little practice, but it has the potential to be a lot quicker and more effective than notes taken in the traditional linear fashion. The rules for mind mapping are:
- Define your subject.
- Write or draw a symbol for it in the middle of the paper (laid lengthways or landscape). Draw lines from the starting point and write one word on each.
- Add new words to the existing branches by drawing out ‘twigs’ after the subheading. By choosing the right word, and using only a limited number, you will be able to remember more. Each word should contain a lot of the associations and facts you need when you talk about the subject (try and choose nouns wherever possible).
Materials: Blu-tack, scrap paper (A5 size) or large sticky notes, marker pens, large board or wall to stick ideas on.
This technique is a powerful way to get everyone’s input to things like a vision, goal, plan, decision or group agreement. It has three stages – generation, grouping and naming. To introduce the process, confirm the topic or question with people – for example, ‘We need to generate ideas on what we could do to deal with ...’
Get people to work individually or in pairs to write down their ideas on the A5 paper or sticky notes – one idea for each piece of paper. Hand out enough paper for people to record as many ideas as they want.
Ask people to use a felt pen and write in large clear letters so everyone can see it when it goes on the wall. Stick ideas up on the front wall or board. As each idea goes up, allow questions to clarify but no further discussion.
Group similar ideas
The next step is grouping similar ideas – this can be done by the group or by people telling the facilitator where to group ideas. Before moving an idea, check that its author agrees. If not, ask them to explain what was behind that idea and whether they can see it linking to anything else. Keep going until all the natural groups have been formed, but don’t force any outliers – leave them separate.
Name the groups of ideas
Taking each group of ideas in turn, ask a question that gets people to analyse all the ideas and decide what the overall idea (or underlying theme) is – for example, ‘What concept best represents all of these ideas?’ Get suggestions for a word or phrase that captures this and make sure everyone agrees.
Taking the next steps
At this point you’re ready to use what you have come up with for the next stage in your workshop process. Ideally you will build in some reflection at this point – the facilitator can lead a brief discussion to recap on what was done, how participants felt (any high or low points), what was achieved, and where to from here.
Prioritising and reaching agreement
Getting agreement in a group can sometimes be easy but more often than not, it takes considerable discussion. In some situations, a group may agree to disagree for a period, before taking up the matter again at a later date.
Decisions by majority or consensus
In conventional meetings, voting is used to reach decisions. This approach should be used with care as it creates a win/lose dynamic where the ‘majority rules’ – those who didn’t support the decision may feel excluded and lack commitment to the outcome.
Consensus decision-making can be a useful alternative, where options are canvassed until one is found that either everyone supports, or those who don’t support agree that they can live with. Consensus is more inclusive but can take time.
Voting can be used to get an indication of people’s feelings, and is particularly useful when there are a large number of ideas to prioritise (see techniques below). However, voting should be treated as a step towards decisionmaking, rather than the final decision in itself. Voting can be followed with a reflective discussion, to consider:
- How people feel whose priorities are not among the most popular.
- Whether popular options can be modified to take other ideas into account.
- Whether some of the lower ranked ideas can still be pursued (e.g. by a sub-group).
At its simplest, voting involves ‘everyone in favour say aye’ or a show of hands but this doesn’t give people much time to think. Other methods include:
- Draw up a list of ideas (using a round, brainstorm or workshop with sticky notes) and place it on a wall or table.
- People put a tick beside the idea they most favour; or
- everyone is allowed three ticks to place wherever they wish (all on one idea, or spread around); or
- everyone is given a set number of tokens (e.g. sticky dots or beans) to distribute on their favoured options. This creates a visual effect and ensures each vote is represented by the same symbol.
- Votes are tallied and a discussion takes place on what to do next.
Listening for agreement
Purpose: To use the power of listening to hear agreement.
The facilitator encourages the group to listen for agreement, and does the same during a series of rounds or free flowing discussion.
Eventually, there will be moments when agreement happens – when everyone aligns on a solution. Often there will be a noticeable shift – people relax slightly or everyone suddenly nods and says ‘that’s it’. This is the time for the facilitator (or group member) to intervene – ‘I think we have agreement. Let’s check it out.’ If true agreement has been reached, record it. If not,
continue the round or discussion.
Sometimes partial agreement can be captured. Record this, and then continue – sometimes a series of partial agreements can lead to a final group decision.
Using break-out groups to reach agreement
This basic technique uses small groups to maximise debate and participation, while allowing the larger group to move forwards. It is suitable for groups in conflict or needing to redefine their role or direction. Follow the steps below:
- Clarify the required decision with the group.
- Form small groups to explore options and discuss their merits.
- After a set period of time, get each group to report back. Collate the options in the wider group, then put participants back into the same small groups to try to agree on their preferred option.
- Reconvene the large group, so the facilitator can draw out areas of agreement on certain points and record them.
- If there is still no clear agreement within and between groups, get people to break into small groups again and repeat the process.
- Each time people are brought back together, the aim is to progress forward, note points of agreement, and narrow down the focus for the next small group discussion.