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.”


  1. 2 other reasons come to mind:

    In large group meetings with (often hierarchical power dynamics), small groups provide a venue within which people can speak more freely about issues they may be hesitant to raise openly in front of management. A resulting benefit is that when reports are made, individuals are protected by the shelter of 'the group report'

    In meetings where participants speak different languages, and where some may not feel comfortable expressing themselves in the main workshop language, small groups allow people to gather in like-language groups to discuss issues in their mother tongues. While reports are then made in the main workshop language, participants have had the opportunity to engage with the issues and express things they likely would never raise in the large group environment.

  2. Emily M. Passino said:

    In our work with highly diverse groups with potential for the conflict described, we have found it useful to set the stage by having the large group reflect on the distinctions between the terms "advocate," "adversary," and "advisor." We affirm that each role can contribute to the decisions at hand, but that to optimize our decision making it is helpful for people to enter into the discussion with an attitude of inquiry - asking questions for clarity and understanding. We further note that in our experience, the size of the group tends to influence the type of communication, with the "inquiry" mode easier in the give and take of a small group. People get this, it is in line with their experience. So they are more comfortable with the notion of small groups for part of the process, and they are comfortable reminding each other in the small groups that asking and listening can be helpful.

  3. This is a great list and additions. I tend to use small groups for two primary purposes; quality conversation and parallel processing.

  4. An interesting article on this topic from Barbara MacKay addresses: how do we deal with resistance to breaking into small groups, why do we break a larger group into smaller groups, and what are the steps we can take to create successful small group discussions. More


Any comments?