Monday, August 9, 2010

Why should we break into small groups?

Working with the planning group for an upcoming meeting, I suggested that for a segment of the agenda we divide the group of 25 participants into smaller break-out groups. One of the planning-group members objected. “Why should we break into small groups? Can’t we just stay together? We all need to hear what everyone is saying.”

As a group facilitator, I hear this question a lot. Below is a modified version of my response. I'd be interested to hear additional reasons for using small groups and any differences with the reasons I gave.

There are a number of advantages in asking the participants to initially hold their discussions in small groups.

  • By using small groups, each group can focus on a different topic. This increases the likelihood that each topic will be explored in some depth. It's akin to "parallel processing."
  • Each person has more time to speak. For example, if we have a 50-person group and a 50-minute time block, on average each person will get only one minute to speak. If we split into ten five-person groups, on average each person will get 10 minutes to speak.
  • Many people tend to participate less actively in a larger group, but more readily in smaller groups. This is true even for groups composed of high-status individuals who are expected to have no reservations about participating.
  • In larger groups, people tend to speak for longer periods, with less interruption. In smaller groups there is more give and take; it is easier for a person to interrupt to gain clarification, ask a question, or pose an alternative point of view. So small groups tend to provide not only more speaking time, but greater exploration, depth, and understanding of ideas.
  • The small-group discussion provides a "dress-rehearsal" for the large-group discussion by providing a more intimate and thorough opportunity for people to work out their ideas and how to present them. So the large-group discussion, which builds on the small-group discussions, is more efficient.
  • In social terms, small groups enable people to connect with each other much more readily. Participants are much more likely to remember the people with whom they worked in their small groups and build ongoing relationships with them. Small group discussions are typically more lively, dynamic, and fun.
  • After a morning-long series of presentations, small group conversations will give people the opportunity to externalize and integrate their own thinking, as well as learn from other's perspectives.

Your thoughts?

An earlier version of this post appeared in the IAF Group Facilitation Forum under the title, “Reasons for breaking into small groups.”