In participatory groups there is tremendous dynamic energy which, if properly recognised and harnessed can help achieve objectives for both the group and the individuals concerned. However, these same forces if uncontrolled can be equally destructive and tear the group apart.

One of the key dynamics relates to process and how the group gets things done. Anyone who has run a workshop will have recognised how people negotiate their roles as a group forms. Classically these roles may include:

  • Initiators
  • Information givers
  • Information seekers
  • Clarifiers
  • Reflectors and summarisers
  • Consensus seekers
  • Mediators and harmonisers
  • Encouragers
  • Gatekeepers

There are also some roles that can be defined as non-group roles which are usually taken by individuals as an indication that their personal objectives are not being met. These include:

  • Dominators
  • Blockers
  • Avoiders

It’s important to understand that individuals can play more than one role. In addition, they are not absolutes but relative roles, negotiated within the group.

One of the dangers is that group members become fixed in their roles which may block their own and the group’s effectiveness. In big groups (over say 12) you will also observe a breaking down into smaller groups each with members negotiating roles and with the groups themselves taking on rles within the workshop.

One of the most effective ways to manage this is work in sessions where the group is broken up into smaller groups, pairs, threes, fours etc. A good facilitator will manage this actively and not allow members to choose their own partners and teams. By this means you can mix the smaller groups, pairing people intelligently to allow them to explore new roles in each encounter and fulfil their objectives.

Active group management also avoids the emergence of in-groups and out-groups, and groups ‘ganging up’ upon or ostracizing difficult or non-conforming individuals. The facilitator can ensure the groups are inclusive.

It’s important to remember that this is a constantly changing landscape. As individuals interact, the roles people play and their relationships change. One of the most useful skills for a facilitator is to watch the body language in these smaller groups. It is usually easy to observe where people are positively engaged or not.

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