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Small group instruction (8-12 persons) should differ in many ways from traditional instruction in a class of 20 or more students. Note the use of the word "should". An instructor can teach a small group in the same way as a large class. However, to do so is to lose the value of using a small learning group in the first place.

The strength of a small group learning environment is to allow the students to interact with one another during the learning process. This interaction results in synergism - that geometric payoff in learning and retention that comes from student interaction. The problem solving power of the group is much greater than of its individual members. As students help develop one another's ideas, they reach insights that otherwise would not have been possible.

The small group leader (SGL) helps create an environment where learning and synergism can take place for the benefit of the students. He facilitates the process as it occurs to help the group function smoothly and achieve its goals.

To accomplish this, the SGL must be able to perform in a variety of roles. These roles include being an astute analyst of group process and an adept contributor when the situation calls for action.


The roles of the SGL are: subject matter expert, observer, and facilitator of group process.

Subject Matter Expert. Just as in the traditional classroom, the small group leader is a subject matter expert. As such, he/she should have knowledge of the subject matter and experience as an instructor. In this sense, the SGL is a special resource person who contributes to the total learning environment.

Observer. The constant role of the SGL is observer. He must be aware of nonverbal communication and be able to observe it, interpret it, and take action based on it. One of the key abilities of a small group leader is that of accurate observation.

Facilitator of Group Process. The success of a small group depends upon the ability of the SGL to help the small group function effectively. The SGL can do this by applying knowledge of group behavior to the small group he/she is working with. The SGL assists the group with its process to ensure the training objective is met.

Now that the roles of the small group instructor have been briefly explained, let's look at what goes on in small groups. Armed with this and some knowledge of behaviors that will be discussed later, the instructor can correctly diagnose what the group is doing and can decide which of the three roles (subject matter expert, observer, or facilitator) to assume to help the group achieve the learning objective. An important point to note is that the SGL must first diagnose the effectiveness of the group before deciding which role to assume. The SGL should never do anything without a reason.

The Process and the Content5. In a small group there are always two things happening at the same time - something is being talked about (the content), and it is being talked about in a certain way (process). For instance, the students may be discussing the subject of leadership - this is the content of the discussion. During the discussion, perhaps one student is dominating the conversation; another student is leaning far back in his chair; most of the comments being made are addressed directly to the instructor rather than to the group as a whole. These are all elements of the process, that is, the way the group is operating as it discusses the content - leadership.

The SGL can influence both the content and the process dimensions of small group learning. Based on observations, the SGL may decide to influence the content dimension by adopting the subject matter expert role and interjecting some content knowledge. The SGL can adopt the facilitator-of-group process role to influence the process dimension by drawing attention to the inefficient or ineffective methods the students are using in their discussion. The SGL could also decide not to intervene in either dimension and adopt a low-profile, observer role.

The SGL always assumes one of the three possible courses of action available to influence the events taking place in the small group: (1) influence the content, (2) influence the process, or (3) choose to not directly influence either. Remember, he must have a reason for choosing which course of action to take.

Stages of Small Group Development6. Whereas the behavior of an individual may be considered somewhat unpredictable, when individuals get together to form a small group, the behavior of the group has some predictable aspects or stages of development. All small groups go through these stages. The stages are (1) dependent/inclusion/acceptance, (2) independent/control/influence, and (3) interdependent/cohesion/affection. Several names are associated with each stage here because they all are descriptive and all are in common use.

During the dependent/inclusion/acceptance stage of development, the group is characterized as polite and looking for approval and guidance from the SGL. A rough parallel to a group in the dependent stage is the dependency children have on their parents.

During the independent/control/influence stage the group is characterized as openly argumentative. One or two individuals force decisions on the group, and some members challenge the authority of the SGL.

A group in the interdependent/cohesion/affection stage is one that has progressed through the dependent and independent stages to a stage of cooperation, problem solving, and high productivity.

Some general principles to keep in mind about the stages of group development are listed below:

These points are extremely important for the SGL to keep in mind for they clearly indicate what the job as facilitator is: to get the group from the independent to the interdependent stage. They also let the SGL know what to expect along the way.


The stages of small group development give the foundation for the SGL's diagnosis. In other words, he will diagnose what stage of development the group has reached. The SGL can then accurately decide which course of action would be most effective (remember, there are essentially three - influence the content, influence the process, and not intervene at all). At this point we will look at the behavioral dimensions which can be used to make the diagnosis just described. Following that, we will return again to the possible actions the SGL can take and formulate decision criteria for their use.

Behavioral Dimensions

Norms. Norms are the rules of behavior that groups operate by. For the most part they develop without being formally instituted. In that norms are not openly decided on, they can be thought of as developing covertly. They are usually based on custom, observed behavior, and/or assumption. Operating norms that the SGL can identify are valuable clues in determining the group's stage of development.

In the dependent/inclusion/acceptance stage the most prominent norm is that of politeness. Students will take special care not to do or say things they think may hurt another student's feelings. This over-politeness is an indication that the small group is in the dependent/inclusion/ acceptance stage.

Often that over-politeness shows itself in the avoidance of certain issues. The SGL can discover these issues when students nonverbally demonstrate that something in the group's discussion has affected them but say nothing. They have chosen to avoid that issue.

In the independent/control/influence stage of development, the norms of the dependent stage are broken. Politeness is forgotten and disagreement becomes the order of the day. The norm of respect for authority is also likely to fall. This can be a scary time for the SGL.

In the interdependent/cohesion/affection stage of development the norm is openness and a willingness to examine the norms the group is developing. Thus, the norms the group operates by are more overtly developed and are generated by an interest in getting the job done effectively rather than generated by custom, observed behavior, and assumption.

Norms are not easy to isolate and identify, but they are a powerful indicator of the stage of group development. This also is an important area for the SGL to influence as a facilitator of group process to move the group from one stage of development to another.

The following figure relates norms to each stage of group development.

Stages of Development




norms develop covertly
norms broken
norms examined openly by group

Figure 1

The SGL can formally establish some norms when the group initially starts. However, he must carefully observe if these norms are being followed. If not, the instructor must bring this to the group's attention.

Structure. Structure in a group is direction - a procedure to follow to get the job done. This is usually provided by stating objectives for the students and providing a plan on how to proceed to accomplish those objectives. All groups need this type of guidance. The key for the SGL in determining the group's stage of development is knowing where the students look for that structure.

In the dependent/inclusion/acceptance stage of development the students look to the SGL for structure (guidance on how to proceed).

In the independent/control/influence stage of development another student unilaterally imposes a structure on the group.

In the interdependent/cohesion/affection stage of development, structure comes from the group's consensus that a particular procedure is the best one to get the job done. In other words, the students look to themselves in a constructive way for structure.

The following figure relates structure to each stage of group development.

Stages of Development




group looks to instructor
imposed by another student
group looks to themselves

Figure 2

Decision Making. There are several ways to make decisions. The way that the group makes decisions can be a valuable tool for the SGL to use in making the diagnosis. First let's look at the types of decisions.

In the dependent/inclusion/acceptance stage of development the "plop" decision is frequent; students are ignored. Some evidence of autocratic and minority decision is also present.

These three types of decisions are also present in the independent/control/influence stage of group development with emphasis on the autocratic and minority decisions. Majority decisions are also present at this stage.

Decisions by consensus are present in the interdependent/cohesion/affection stage, and this sometimes mistakenly turns into useless attempts at unanimous decisions. Autocratic decisions are also made in this stage but only when the group determines the situation calls for it (usually when time is short and when one student has all the necessary expertise to make a decision). The following figure relates decision making to each stage of group development.

Stages of Development

Decision Making



plop, autocratic, minority
autocratic, minority majority
consensus, attempts at unanimous

Figure 3

Influence. Influence is a valued commodity in a group. Everyone wants it and believes there is only so much to go around, and then it runs out. The SGL must recognize who has influence in the group, how it was gained, and how it is used because influence also indicates the group's stage of development.

Group members gain influence in many ways; here are some of the most popular. (Notice that often influence is the same as controlling what goes on). Some of the listed behaviors can have a positive effect on a group until used to excess. For example, having a special knowledge the group needs is valuable up to the point where the group accepts what that person has to say without discussing it or questioning it. The special knowledge at that point dominates all new thought and independent thinking in the group.

In the dependent/inclusion/acceptance stage of development, a group member's influence attempts are usually subtle and expressed in nonverbal behavior (not listening to others) and trying to get the group to buy his/her ideas (often by referring to authority). However, influence is usually left to the SGL.

In the independent/control/influence stage, the influence attempts are more obvious. Students challenge the authority of the SGL. Verbal disagreements become more frequent and heated. Students are getting answers to the question, "Who will influence them and who will I let influence me?" There is an unspoken belief in this stage that there is only so much influence to go around, and if they don't get some now they never will.

In the interdependent/cohesion/affection stage, the questions in the preceding paragraph have been answered. Also, members no longer see influence as a fixed quantity and, therefore, will share it. The influence goes to the student who can best help the group achieve its goal at that time.

The following figure relates influence to each stage of group development.

Stages of Development




covert and reference to authority
overt argument
shared - goes to most appropriate student for the task at hand

Figure 4

Feedback. Feedback is information offered either to the group (about what it is doing and how effective it is) or to a student (about what he or she is doing and how others react to that behavior). Feedback can occur in both the content and the process dimension; however, the concern here will be with feedback on process.

In the dependent/inclusion/acceptance stage of group development there is little feedback. (This goes along with the developing norm of politeness, "I can't tell John how his constant talking affects me because I may hurt his feelings").

In the independent/control/influence stage there is likely to be feedback but not the type that conforms to the rules of effective feedback. Some rules of effective feedback are listed below.

In the interdependent/cohesion/affection stage the students are willing to give and receive feedback about how (process) they are accomplishing their task. Through this feedback to each other, they make changes in the way they operate as individuals and how the group operates to become more effective and efficient at learning.

The following figure relates feedback to each stage of group development.

Stages of Development

Feedback (in the "willing to process" dimension)



little or none
some but does not conform to rules
conforms to rules, students give and receive

Figure 5

Competition. The attitude a student has about winning (points in a discussion, respect, etc.) varies through the three stages of development. The attitude in the dependent/inclusion/ acceptance stage of group development can be expressed as "can't win." Individuals see most of their competitive attempts as futile. The over-politeness discussed earlier is in part a result of this can't win attitude as it shows an avoidance of competition.

The second stage is characterized by a "must win" competitive attitude. The argumentative atmosphere permeating the group during this stage is a result of students individually rebelling against a "can't win" environment. The product of that rebellion is a "must win" attitude and the belligerent behaviors associated with it - such as not giving in or not conceding a point.

The competitive attitude characteristic of the interdependent/cohesion/affection stage of group development is "all win". As differences are resolved, as influence is shared, and as constructive norms develop, the student realizes that all students can win, and that not to win is not the same as to lose. The resulting behavior is cooperation.

The following figure relates competition to each stage of group development.

Stages of Development




can't win: avoidance of competition
must win: belligerence
all win: cooperation

Figure 6

Stages of Development

Norms norms developed norms broken norms overtly examined as a group
Structure group looks to instructor imposed on group by another student group looks to themselves
Decision Making plop, autocratic and minority autocratic, minority, and majority consensus, other types agreement
Influence covert and reference to authority overt arguments, trying to get as much as possible shared - goes to student for the appropriate task at hand
Feedback little or none some, but does not conform to rules conforms to rules, students willing to give and receive
Competition can't win, avoidance of competition must win, belligerence all win, cooperation

Figure 7

Psychological and Emotional Dimensions

There are other dimensions influencing what goes on in a group besides the behavioral ones. So far we have focused on these behavioral dimensions because behaviors can be observed and discussed as a common experience to all students. However, the psychological and emotional dimensions of human experience are also at work in a group. These psychological and emotional dimensions, although not directly observable, cause the behaviors thus far discussed.

Because they are so powerful, these two dimensions (psychological and emotional) will be addressed here. They explain many behaviors you may see exhibited within the group. It is important to remember, however, that the evidence of psychological or emotional influence in a group is second hand - observable behaviors interpreted by SGL. To assume that a certain observed behavior is caused for a certain reason can be a dangerous and false deduction. The only sure thing is that the behavior itself occurred.

SGLs who understand the emotional and psychological dimensions of groups can anticipate the types of behaviors which are likely to occur within the group. We will address five elements of these dimensions. As with behavior, the discussion will be tied to the stages of group development: (1) dependent/inclusion/acceptance, (2) independent/control/influence, and (3) interdependent/cohesion/ affection.

Attitude. The general attitude of the students corresponds directly to the stages of development. In fact, the stages take their names from the attitudes. The attitude in stage 1 is dependence/inclusion/acceptance. In stage 2 it is independence/control/influence, and in stage 3 the attitude evolves to one of interdependence/cohesion/affection.

Needs. The needs of the students vary directly with each of the stages of group development. In stage 1 the need is acceptance. In stage 2 the need changes to relatedness (how will one student relate to another; who will influence and be influenced). Growth and development is the need in the third stage of group development.

Feelings. The feelings students have in the various stages closely relate to the attitudes just discussed. In stage 1 the feelings are of being in the group or of being out of the group. In other words, students are settling the issue of whether they will accept the group and whether or not they feel the group will accept them. In the second stage the feelings are of being on the top or of being on the bottom. Refer to the Figure 7 behaviors associated with influence and competition to clarify this. In stage 3 the feelings issue is that of how close or how far a student wants to feel to other group members as the group completes its tasks. This is a measure of how friendly the students want to be toward each other.

Focus. The focus for students during stage 1 is to provide information (about themselves), to get information (about others), and to form the group. During stage 2 the focus is on establishing influence patterns, and during stage 3 it is to perform (bring the elements of the group together to effectively and efficiently perform a task).

Self Concept. A student's self-concept within the context of the group changes as he or she participates in the group and movement takes place from one stage of development to another. During stage 1, the individuals seek to establish their significance. That endeavor, of course, is closely related to their feelings of "in" or "out," satisfying their need for acceptance, and their focus of getting and giving information. In stage 2 the students need competence. That issue is largely satisfied by the results of the influence patterns that develop. In stage 3 the students seek a self-concept and a sense of worth. This is a product of close/far decisions and the satisfaction of growth and development needs.

Stages of Development

Psychological and
Emotional Dimensions
acceptance stage
influence stage
affection stage
Attitude dependence independence interdependence
Needs acceptance relatedness development
Feelings in vs. out top vs. bottom close vs. far
Focus inform, form storm perform
Self-Concept significance competence worth

Figure 8

Each of the elements just discussed and each of the behaviors discussed earlier are closely related to each other and are at work in the group all at the same time. A physical analogy is having three separate templates- the stages of group development, dimensions of behavior, and the elements of the emotional/psychological dimension-all superimposed on the group at the same time.

This can be extremely confusing for the instructor. It is important to be aware of the emotional or psychological dimensions for the meaning they can give to what is occurring in the group. However, with rare exceptions, the focus of the instructor and the group must be on the common experience of observed behavior.


Step 1 - Diagnosis

Now that we have tools to help us determine what is going on, we need to make a diagnosis of the group. As the SGL, you must look at what the group is doing (in the process dimension) and when you recognize a behavior in the group from the chart in Figure 7, look for another behavior that could support the stage of development indicated. If the group is in one stage of development, you will be able to observe most of the behaviors listed under that stage in Figure 7.

This diagnosis, like any diagnosis of a human system, is seldom sharply defined. Various students may be exhibiting behavior that would indicate different stages of development. Therefore, you must diagnose the group's stage of development based upon the weight of the available evidence since every single piece of data may not point to the same conclusion. It is a good idea to gather several pieces of evidence about the stage of development of the group (in other words, rely on using more than just one of the tools previously discussed) before deciding on your course of action. Figure 7 shows the relationship of the dimensions of behavior to the stages of group development and to each other to make that evidence-gathering process easier.

Step 2 - The Decision to Action

Now that we can make a diagnosis of the group, it is time to develop some decision criteria about possible courses of action the SGL can take. As discussed earlier, there are three possible courses of action the SGL can take and three roles that the SGL can assume. They match up generally as shown on the chart in Figure 9.


Course of Action



Influence Content

Influence Process

Do Nothing










Figure 9

Although the distinction among the possible roles the SGL can assume is not as clear as indicated in the chart, the picture shown is a fair mental road map to follow. The chart shows that the SGL is always an observer, a facilitator when influencing the process dimension, and a subject matter expert when influencing the content dimension.

The question now is, "How do we know what course of action to take and what role to assume?"

The following chart gives some relevant decision criteria for deciding to influence the content dimension:

When to influence content dimension When not to influence content dimension
When the group is floundering because it does not have the necessary information.

When the class design calls for you to give information to the group.

When you are asked a legitimate question by a student that another student can answer.

When the group can get the necessary information from its own resources.

When you are asked a legitimate question by a student that another student cannot answer.

When your intent is to influence the process dimension.

Figure 10

The following chart gives some relevant decision criteria for work in the process dimension:

When to influence process dimension When not to influence process dimension.
When group will not take its share of responsibility for learning.

When resistance or arguments occur.

When inefficient decision making takes place.

When feedback does not conform to the rules of effective feedback.

When ineffective norms seem to be developing.

When attempts to gain influence in the group become destructive to effective learning.

When you determine that you want to move the group to a higher stage of development.

When smooth, efficient, effective learning is taking place.

When group itself intervenes in its own process (looks at how it is operating).

When your intent is to intervene in the content dimension.

Figure 11

Step 3 - Course of Action

Not acting may sound like the easiest course of action to put into effect because it implies no work or effort. But remember, even when the SGL seemingly does nothing, he or she is in the critical, ever-present role of observer (refer to Figure 9). During these passive periods the SGL must be especially observant, for the students' actions continually lead to new diagnoses that may require active participation from the SGL.

Little space will be taken here discussing SGL actions in the content dimension. (The assumption is made that the reader is already an accomplished instructor, well-versed in content.) If anything, the SGL must hold back. Do not lecture in the small group environment. Instead, provide items of content that serve to stimulate discussion and productivity in the group. (Remember, when you provide content, you are at the same time providing structure. The SGL that lectures keeps the group stagnated in the dependent/inclusion/acceptance stage of development.) Stimulate, don't stagnate. The following are some suggestions on how to begin a content intervention. You, of course, can add to them. The idea is to make the comment as unobtrusive as possible.

To Influence Content

  • Stand and write on the board or chart paper.

  • Say, "Let me add some ideas here...".

  • Say, "Before you start a discussion on the topic, I have some thoughts I want to get out."

Figure 12

When you decide to influence group process, you can use any of the dimensions of behavior discussed earlier (norms, structure, decision making, influence, competition, or feedback). When something in the process dimension is hindering the group's progress (learning), look for the most obvious behavior and start with that. Mention what you observe, and let the group respond to what you say. The effect of your comment will be to focus the group's attention on its process.

To Influence Process

  • Say, "Why is it that (describe the behavior)...?"

  • Say, "What seems to be holding up progress at this point?"

  • Say, "A rule appears to be developing here that says: (state the developing norm). Is that going to be effective?"

  • Say, "You have just decided (state the decision you observed). How was that decision made?"

  • (Use after a task has been completed or at the end of a session.) Say, "What did you do that helped get the job done?"

  • (Address a student directly.) Say, "(Name), you seemed to have an idea about what was going on. Would you tell us?"

Figure 13

When students make process-oriented comments, ensure that they do not lead to destructive arguments. Ensure that the rules of effective feedback are followed. Maintain a problem-solving approach. Focus on what is happening and how it can be improved - not whose fault it is.


The expression, "A camel is a horse put together by a committee," humorously reflects the productivity of many groups. Unfortunately, we tend to think about the results of group activity in terms of our own experience with unproductive groups. We have all been members of groups whose outcomes were less than desirable.

Ordinarily, we form task groups without expending any effort toward building the group into a functioning unit. We can't process how the group gets work done, discuss how members feel about what is happening, nor explore what members are willing to contribute. We assume that individual members know how to be effective group members, and we assume that democratic mechanics (such as voting) result in collective decisions that are satisfactory simply because people participated.

In our culture we value winning, being number one, and beating out someone else. As a result, we are highly competitive in group situations. We assume that competition gets better results. Because we have overlearned this competitive behavior, we are likely to be competitive in many group situations. We rationalize this tendency in statements such as, "It's a dog-eat-dog world" and "Free enterprise is the answer".

Closely related to competition is the cognitive style of either/or thinking. We tend to oversimplify situations by reducing them to dichotomies, to discrete, mutually-exclusive categories, and to polar opposites. We translate this way of looking at the world into human relations in win-lose, all-or-nothing terms. "Either you're with me or against me," "Who's in charge?," "If she gets an A, that hurts my chances," "If I give it all away, I won't have anything left," "More of this means less of that". We often are impatient with paradoxes, such as "Giving is receiving," "Good and evil can coexist," and "Being unselfish is selfish."

To achieve synergy, we must look at what appears to be opposite or paradoxical in terms of commonalties rather than differences. We look for meaningful relationships between what seem to be dichotomous elements of a situation. We must attempt to break out of the either/or mentality and look for wholes rather than parts. We are thinking synergistically when we fuse such opposites as work and play, sensuality and spirituality, now and not-now, aggression and kindness, etc.

Applied to groups, the concept of synergy means not looking at outcomes in an all-or- nothing way. Collaboration in planning, problem-solving, etc., generates products that are often better than those of any individual members or subgroup. On the other hand, competition often means creating not only winners but also powerful losers who can make the price of winning high. We can view collaboration and competition as meaningfully-related processes. Both can result in productive outcomes owing to group interactions. When a group validates the individual viewpoints of its members, the outcome exceeds what would have happened if the members had acted independently. A synergistic outcome results from the groupness that is greater than the sum of the parts of the group.

Work groups can obtain synergistic results when the process of working together increases sharing and competition. Instead of making decisions by majority rule or striving for unanimity, the group tries to achieve consensus (group members reach substantial agreement for the good of the group). Conflict becomes an asset rather than something to avoid. Winning becomes a group effort rather than an individual quest. Individuals who do not go along are catalysts for improved production rather than blockers. Group members begin to consider the values in opposite points of view rather than trying to win each other over to their own viewpoints.

Consensus-seeking is harder work than other modes of decision-making, but this hard work can have a dramatic payoff. Following is a list of suggestions to help achieve consensus:

A sculptor viewing a block of granite can see a figure surrounded by stone. Likewise, the best decision is inside group effort, if we can find ways of chipping away the excess. Consensus-seeking is a way of helping group resources produce synergistic outcomes without denying the individuality of its members.


Five interpersonal components offer clear distinctions between good communicators and poor communicators. They are: Self-concept, Listening, Clarity of Expression, Coping with Angry Feelings, and Self-disclosure.


The most important single factor affecting our communication with others is our self-concept - how we see ourselves and our situations. While situations may change from moment to moment or place to place, our beliefs about ourselves are always determining factors in our communicative behavior. The self is the star in every act of communication.

We have literally thousands of concepts about ourselves; who we are, what we stand for, where we live, what we do and do not do, what we value, what we believe. These self-perceptions vary in clarity, precision, and importance from person to person.

Importance of Self-concept

Our self-concept is who we are. It is the center of our universe, our frame of reference, our personal reality, our special vantage point. It is a screen through which we see, hear, evaluate, and understand everything else. It is our own filter on the world around us.

A Weak Self-concept

Our self-concept affects our way of communicating with others. A strong self-concept is necessary for healthy and satisfying interaction. A weak self-concept, on the other hand, often distorts our perception of how others see us, generating feelings of insecurity when relating to other people.

If we have a poor view of ourselves, we may have difficulty conversing with others, admitting that we are wrong, expressing our feelings, accepting constructive criticism from others, or voicing ideas different from those of other people. Because of this insecurity, we are afraid that others may not like us if we disagree with them.

A weak self-concept makes us feel unworthy, inadequate, and inferior. It makes us lack confidence and think that our ideas are uninteresting to others and not worth communicating. We may become secretive and guarded in our communication, even contradicting our own ideas.

Forming the Self-concept

Just as our self-concept affects our ability to communicate, our communication with others shapes our self-concept. We derive most crucial concepts of self from our experiences with other human beings.

We learn who we are from the ways important people in our lives ("significant others") treat us. From verbal and nonverbal communication with these significant others, we learn whether we are liked or disliked, acceptable or unacceptable, worthy of respect or disdain, a success or a failure. If we are to have a strong self-concept, we need love, respect, and acceptance from significant others in our lives.


Most people under-emphasize the importance of listening in their daily communication activities, yet we need information that we can only acquire through the process of listening.

Listening, of course, is much more intricate and complicated than the physical process of hearing. Listening is an intellectual and emotional process that integrates physical, emotional, and intellectual inputs in a search for meaning and understanding. Effective listening occurs when the listener discerns and understands the sender's meaning. They achieve the goal of communication.

The "Third" Ear

An effective listener listens not only to words but to the meanings behind the words. A listener's third ear hears what the speaker is saying between and without words, what he or she is expressing soundlessly, what he or she feels and thinks.

Effective listening is not a passive process. It plays an active role in communication. The effective listener interacts with the speaker in developing meaning and reaching understanding.

Several principles can help increase essential listening skills:

    1.   The listener should have a reason or purpose for listening.

    2.   The listener should suspend judgment initially.

    3.   The listener should resist distractions - noises, views, people and focus on the speaker.

    4.   The listener should wait before responding to the speaker. Too prompt a response reduces listening effectiveness.

    5.   The listener should repeat word-for-word what the speaker says.

    6.   The listener should rephrase the content and feeling of what the speaker says to the speaker's satisfaction.

    7.   The listener should seek the important themes of what the speaker says by listening past the words for the real meaning.

    8.   The listener should use the time differential between the rate of speech (100-150 words per minute) and the rate of thought (400-500 words per minute) to reflect upon content and to search for meaning.

    9.   The listener should be ready to respond to the speaker's comments.

Clarity Of Expression

Many people find it difficult to say what they mean or to express what they feel. They often simply assume that the other person understands what they mean, even if they are careless or unclear in their speech. They seem to think that people should be able to read each other's minds. "If it is clear to me, it must be clear to you also." This assumption is one of the most difficult barriers to successful human communication.

Poor communicators leave the listener guessing what they mean while they operate on the assumption that they are, in fact, communicating. The listener, in turn, proceeds on the basis of what he or she guesses. Mutual misunderstanding is an obvious result.

People who can communicate their meaning effectively to others have a clear picture in their minds of what they are trying to express. At the same time, they can clarify and elaborate what they say. They are receptive to the feedback that they get and use it to guide their efforts at communication.

Coping With Angry Feelings

A person's inability to deal with anger frequently results in communication breakdowns.


Some people handle their anger by suppressing it, fearing that the other person would respond adversely. Such people tend to think that communicating an unfavorable emotional reaction will be divisive. They become upset even when others merely disagree with them.

I may, for example, keep my irritation at you inside myself. And each time you do whatever it is that irritates me, my stomach keeps score...2...3...6...8...until one day the doctor pronounces that I have a bleeding ulcer or until one day you do the same thing that you have always done, and my secret hatred of you erupts in one great emotional avalanche.

You, of course, will not understand. You will feel that this kind of overcharged reaction is totally unjustified. You will react angrily to my buried emotional hostility. Such a failure to cope with anger can end unproductively.


Expression of emotions is important to building good relationships with others. People need to express their feelings in such a manner that they influence, affirm, reshape, and change themselves and others. They need to learn to express angry feelings constructively rather than destructively.

The following guidelines can be helpful:

We cannot repress our emotions. We should identify, observe, report, and integrate them. We can then instinctively make the necessary adjustments in the light of our own ideas of growth. We can change and move on with life.


Sidney Jourard, author of Transparent Self and Self Disclosure, says that self-disclosure - the ability to talk truthfully and fully about oneself - is necessary to effective communication. Jourard contends that an individual cannot really communicate with another person or get to know that person unless he or she can engage in self-disclosure. Indeed, this is a mutual process. The more we know about each other, the more effective and efficient our communication will be. A person's ability to engage in self-revelation is a symptom of a healthy personality; Powell puts it this way:

I have to be free and able to say my thoughts to you, to tell you about my judgements and values, to expose to you my fears and frustrations, to admit to you my failures and shames, to share my triumphs before I can really be sure what it is that I am and can become. I must be able to tell you who I am before I can know who I am. And I must know who I am before I can act truly, that is, in accordance with my true self.

Perhaps people will understand only as much of themselves as they have been willing to communicate to another person.

Blocks to Self-revelation

To know themselves and to have satisfying interpersonal relationships, people must reveal themselves to others. Yet many people block self-revelation. For example:

Powell: "I am writing a booklet, to be called Why Am I Afraid to Tell Who I Am?
Other: "Do you want an answer to that question?"
Powell: "That is the purpose of the booklet, to answer the question."
Other: "But do you want my answer?"
Powell: "Yes, of course I do."
Other: "I am afraid to tell you who I am, because if I tell you who I am, you may not like who I am, and it's all that I have."

This conversation from real life reflects the fears and doubts that many people have: that they are not totally acceptable to others, that parts of themselves are unlovable, that they are unworthy. Cautious, ritualized communication is the result.

Dynamics of Trust

We can exchange the dynamics of fear for the dynamics of trust. No one is likely to engage in much self-disclosure in a threatening situation. We can only make self-disclosure in an atmosphere of good will. Sometimes it takes one person's risk of self-disclosure to stimulate good will in other people. Trust begets trust; self-disclosure generates self-disclosure. The effective communicator is one who can create a climate of trust in which mutual self-disclosure will occur.

Being an effective communicator, then, depends on these five basic components: an adequate self-concept, the ability to be a good listener; the skill of expressing one's thoughts and ideas clearly; being able to cope with emotions, such as anger, in a functional manner; and the willingness to disclose oneself to others.


Effectiveness of management personnel of all grades is very dependent upon the ability to communicate orally. Research shows that, by and large, the better supervisors (better in terms of getting the work done) are those who are more sensitive to their communication responsibilities. They tend to be those, for example, who give clear instructions, who listen with empathy, who are accessible for questions or suggestions, and who always properly inform their subordinates.

Research also shows that there is a positive correlation between effective communication and each of the following factors: worker productivity, personal satisfaction, rewarding relationships, and effective problem solving. Two major components of effective communication are sending and receiving messages. Techniques of listening and verbalizing help in both these dimensions.

Factors Affecting The Sender


In any communicating situation, the sender's feelings about self will affect how he or she encodes the message. The following questions are conscious and subconscious thoughts that affect the effectiveness of the message: "Do I feel worthwhile in this situation?"; "Am I safe in offering suggestions?"; "Is this the right time (place)?"; Am I the subordinate or the boss in this situation?" Or in every day jargon, "Am I OK?"; "Do I count?" Usually the more comfortable or positive the self-concept, the more effective the sender is in communicating.

Belief in Assertive Rights

Linked to self-concept is the belief that we have some rights, such as the right to change our minds, the right to say, "I do not understand" or "I do not know," the right to follow a "gut feeling" without justifying reasons for it, the right to make mistakes and be responsible for them, and the right to say, "I am not sure now, but let me work on it." Believing in such rights can help strengthen the sender's self-concept and avoid the defensive maneuvering that hinders communication. We must remember that with assertive rights come responsibility. For example, we have the right to say, "I do not know," but we also have the responsibility to find out.

The Sender's Perception of the Message

Do I feel the information I have is valuable? Is it something I want to say or do not want to say? How do I feel it will be received? Is the topic interesting or not interesting to me? Do I understand the information correctly, at least well enough to describe it to others, and do I know the best way to say it?

The Sender's Feelings about the Receiver

The probability for effective communication increases if the sender feels positive or respectful toward the receiver. Positive or respectful feelings usually carry a built-in commitment and/or desire to share communication. Negative or disrespectful feelings require conscious effort to communicate effectively. The sender must realize that it is all right not to like everyone or to like some persons less than others. The sender must also realize that not everyone is going to like or respect him.

Suggestions for the Sender

In order to communicate messages effectively, the sender should consider the following points:

Points For The Listener

Effective listening is as important to communication as effective sending. Effective listening is an active process in which the listener interacts with the speaker. It requires mental and verbal paraphrasing and attention to nonverbal cues like tones, gestures, and facial expressions. It is a process of listening not to every word, but to main thoughts and references.

Deterrents to Effective Listening

  • Assuming in advance that the subject is uninteresting and unimportant.

  • Mentally criticizing the speaker's delivery.

  • Getting overstimulated when questioning or opposing an idea.

  • Listening only for facts, wanting to skip the details.

  • Outlining everything.

  • Pretending to be attentive.

  • Permitting the speaker to be inaudible or incomplete.

  • Avoiding technical messages.

  • Overreacting to certain words and phrases.

  • Withdrawing attention, daydreaming.

The feelings and attitudes of the listener can affect what he or she perceives. The listener's self-concept, perception of the message, and feelings about the person sending the message affect how well the listener listens. The listener should keep in mind the following suggestions:

Responses That Can Block Effective Communication

Evaluation Response. The phrases "You should...," "Your duty...," "You are wrong," "You should know better," "You are bad," and "You are such a good person," create blocks to communication. There is a time for evaluation, but if the listener gives it too soon, the speaker usually becomes defensive.

Advice-Giving Response. "Why don't you try...," "You'll feel better if...," "It would be best for you to...," "My advise is...," are phrases that give advice. You should give advice at the conclusion of conversations and generally only when the speaker asks for it.

Topping Response. "That's nothing, you should have seen...," "When that happened to me, I...," "When I was child...," and "You think you have it bad..." are phrases of "one-upmanship". This approach shifts attention from the speaker and leaves him or her feeling unimportant.

Diagnosing, Psychoanalytic Response. "What you need is...," "The reason you feel the way you do...," "You don't really mean that," and "Your problem is..." are phrases that tell others what they feel. Telling people how they feel or why they feel the way they do can be a two-edged sword. If the diagnoser is wrong, the speaker feels pressed; if the diagnoser is right, the speaker may feel exposed or captured. Most people do not want to be told how to feel and would rather volunteer their feelings than to have someone expose them.

Prying-Questioning Response. "Why," "who," "where," "when," "how," and "what," are responses common to us all. But such responses tend to make the speaker feel on the spot and, therefore, resist the interrogation. At times, however, a questioning response is helpful for clarification, and in emergencies it is necessary.

Warning, Admonishing, Commanding Response. "You had better," "If you don't," "You have to," "You will," and "You must" occur constantly in the everyday work environment. Usually such responses produce resentment, resistance, and rebellion. There are times, of course, when this response is necessary, such as in an emergency situation when the information being given is critical to human welfare.

Logical, Lecturing Response. "Don't you realize ...," "Here is where you are wrong...," "The facts are...," "Yes, but..." occur in any discussion with two people of differing opinions. Such responses tend to make the other person feel inferior or defensive. Of course, persuasion is part of the world we live in. In general, however, we need to trust that when people have correct and full data, they will make logical decisions for themselves.

Devaluation Response. "It's not so bad," "Don't worry," "You'll get over it," and "Oh, you don't feel that way" are familiar phrases we've heard as responses to another's emotions. A listener should recognize the sender's feelings and should not try to take away the feelings or deny them to the owner. In our desire to alleviate emotional pain, we apply bandages too soon and possibly in the wrong place. Whenever a listener's responses convey nonacceptance of the speaker's feelings, the desire to change the speaker, a lack of trust, or the sense that the speaker is inferior, at fault, or being bad, communication blocks will occur.


The communication process is complex but vital to effective problem solving and meaningful personal relationships. It is a process that we can never really master, but one we can continually improve. It requires certain attitudes, knowledge, techniques, common sense, and a willingness to try. Effective communication happens when we have achieved sufficient clarity or accuracy to handle each situation adequately.


What is Active or Nonjudgmental Listening?

It is a listening technique that allows you to see the world as the other person sees it and involves risk taking because you may hear what you don't want to hear. This listening technique neither threatens the other person nor puts the other person on the defensive. It does not assume you know what the other person is going to say next. This technique takes time and patience.

How to Listen Actively, Positively, or Nonjudgmentally


"Snap supporting," interrogation, analyzing, and moral judging may lead to avoidance behavior. The other person may feel you haven't really been listening at all.

Snap supporting makes light of another person's feelings or troubles. You snap support when you say things such as "Oh, don't worry about it, everything will be all right," or "Things will work out OK for you, I'm sure, in the long run." You are telling others that you do not accept their feelings or you think there is no reason to feel that way.

Interrogating makes a person feel trapped, especially when questions appear in rapid fire order. You interrogate when you ask questions such as: "What time did you do it? Who saw you do it? Are you going to tell the boss? What if you get into trouble?"

Use open-ended questions to fill in information you need. If you ask, "How do you see the events which led to the signal line being cut?", you also leave room for the person to give you more information. If you interrogate by asking, "At what time did you cut the signal line?", you may send the message, "You cut the signal line too early, you dummy, and spoiled the whole field exercise!"

Remember to paraphrase the answer to your open-ended question!

Analyzing tries to find out why another person is feeling, saying, or doing things. You analyze when you say things such as "What's bothering you is that you have no confidence in yourself; what you are really feeling is anger at your coworker" or "I'll bet you did it because you hate Tim, and Sam looks like Tim."

You attribute thoughts and motives that may or may not be there. Try analyzing in a tentative way, such as, "Do you think you might have done it because Sam looks like Tim?"

Moral judging implies, or makes an evaluation. An action was either right or wrong, good or bad. Statements such as, "I wouldn't do that if I were you" or "With that attitude, you're bound to get into trouble" exemplify moral judging.

Is Active/Nonjudgmental Listening The Answer?

Active listening is not appropriate in all situations. Sometimes a person wants help. Sometimes people are simply looking for information or advice and are not trying to work out their feelings. For these two functions, active listening is inappropriate. For instance, if you wanted to know on what day the stationery order was due in, it would be exasperating to hear, "You're interested in knowing when our office supplies are going to be here?" Consider the situation before you apply a listening technique.

Communication Effectiveness:
Active Listening and Sending Feeling Messages 10

"I know you believe that you understand what you think I said, but I am not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant."

When a person communicates a message to another person, the message usually contains two elements: content and feeling. These two important elements combine to give the message meaning. However, we often do not understand other people's messages or are misunderstood by others because we forget that meanings are in people, not in words.

The Risk of Communicating Nonacceptance

The communication of mutual acceptance is vital to developing and maintaining work and personal relationships. However, various ways of responding to situations run the risk of communicating nonacceptance. To understand another person's point of view effectively, you must show your openness to that communication. According to author Gordon, most people, during a listening situation, commonly respond in one or more of the following 12 ways:

These response modes may communicate to the sender that it is unacceptable to feel the way that person does. If the sender perceives one of these messages as indicating unacceptance, a risk exists that the person will become defensive about new ideas. The person may be resistant to changing behavior, tend to justify certain feelings, or will turn silent because the listener is perceived as only passively interested in the sender.

Active Listening

A more effective way to respond to a listening situation is called "active listening." Gordon defines active listening as a communication skill to help people solve their own problems. In active listening, the listener is involved with the sender's need to communicate. To be effective, the listener can respond with a statement explaining the meaning of the sender's message.

Read the following example:

To understand the sender's meaning, the listener must understand the sender's point of view. The listener uses this feedback to check personal skills in accurately listening and understanding.

Active Listening Benefits

Active listening creates an open communication climate for understanding. The listener learns what another's meaning and feelings are about situations and problems. Skillful, active listening can communicate acceptance and increase interpersonal trust among people. It can facilitate problem solving. The appropriate use of active listening increases the communication effectiveness of people.

Active Listening Pitfalls

Active listening is a skill for improved communication. As with most skills, the tendency to misuse this tool exists. Listeners must avoid trying to manipulate people to behave or think the way others think they should. Listeners should avoid "parroting" someone's message by repeating the same words. A good listener is people-oriented. Along with manipulating and parroting, timing is another active listening pitfall. Active listening is inappropriate when there is no time to deal with the situation or when someone is asking only for factual information. Choosing the right time to stop giving feedback comes with experience and sensitivity to nonverbal messages of the sender. Avoiding these common pitfalls makes active listening a more effective communication skill.

Principle of Problem Ownership

Active listening is most appropriate when a person expresses feelings about a problem; that is the time to ask who owns the problem. The principle of problem ownership can be demonstrated in the following situations:

Communicating Ones Needs

Ineffective Approaches

The person owning the problem must know how to confront it and communicate personal needs so that other people will listen. However, people frequently confront problems in ways that tend to stimulate defensiveness and resistance. The two most common approaches appear below:

A More Effective Approach

Problems can be confronted and personal needs made known without making other people feel defensive. An effectively communicating message involves three components:

Ownership of feelings focuses on who owns the problem. The sender of a message needs to accept responsibility for personal feelings. Messages that own the sender's feeling usually begin with or contain "I".

Sometimes communicating feelings is viewed as a weakness, but the value of sending feelings is communicating honesty and openness by focusing on the problem and not evaluating the person.

Describing behavior concentrates on what one person sees, hears, and feels about another person's behavior as it affects the observer's feeling and behavior. The focus is on specific situations that relate to specific times and places.

It is useful to distinguish between descriptions and evaluations of behavior. The underlined parts of the next statements illustrate evaluations of behavior.

"I can't finish this report if you are so inconsiderate as to interrupt me." "

You're a loudmouth."

The underlined parts of the next statements describe behavior.

"I can't finish this job if you keep interrupting me."

"I feel you talked considerably during the meetings."

A design for sending feeling messages can be portrayed as follows:

Several factors cause the effectiveness of feeling messages.


The skills of sending feeling messages and listening actively can be applied to work, family, and personal relationships.

No one is wrong; at most, someone is uninformed. If you think someone is wrong, one of you (you or the other person) is unaware of something. Avoid playing "superiority" games, and find out more about the message and the sender.


Feedback is a way of making a person/group personally aware of a behavior you see and how that behavior affects you or affects task accomplishment. When we use this skill correctly, we open communication channels. Dr. Ken Blanchard, a well-known management consultant, describes feedback as the "breakfast of champions." He views it as "the last little bit that the superstar looks for," because it represents information that tells the superstar exactly what is needed to reach the goal.

To make the most effective use of feedback, follow the guidelines listed below.

Should Be

Should Not Be

Descriptive Evaluative
Specific General
Clear Vague
Concerned with changeable behavior Concerned with uncontrollable qualities
Well timed Delayed or after the fact
Small doses Overloaded
Directed to Directed about
Owned by me Owned by others
Checked out for clarity/understanding Railroaded
Asked for (solicited) Force fed
Well-intended Hurtful

1.   Feedback should be DESCRIPTIVE, not EVALUATIVE. Describe the behavior you see and its effect upon you. Don't try to evaluate or imagine the reason for the behavior.

2.   Feedback should be SPECIFIC, not GENERAL. Making general statements often leaves people wondering what you mean.

3.   Feedback which is CLEAR and precise in its presentation has a greater chance of being understood than feedback that is VAGUE.

4.   Feedback should be DIRECTED TOWARD A CHANGEABLE BEHAVIOR, a behavior that a person can do something about, NOT toward a behavior a person cannot control. For example, to be angry with a person who stutters or who speaks with a heavy accent, and you have difficulty understanding, is unproductive. It is something the person cannot control.

5.   Feedback should be WELL-TIMED, NOT DELAYED or AFTER-THE-FACT. Provide it soon after a given event has occurred, while the general situation following the noticeable behavior is still fresh in the person's mind.

6.   Give feedback in SMALL DOSES. Don't save up and OVERLOAD a person with large amounts of data all at one time. It is much easier for a person to accept and deal with a few items than to be bombarded with a lot of feedback all at once. Large amounts of feedback, given all at one time, may be seen as punishing and cause the person to become defensive.

7.   Feedback should be DIRECTED TO, not DIRECTED ABOUT a person. Talk to and look at the person when giving feedback. Don't talk around a person or behind someone's back.

8.   OWN your feedback by saying I, not WE. Let others speak for themselves; don't speak for them.

9.   Check for CLARITY AND UNDERSTANDING. When giving feedback, check with the person to ensure that what you have said is clear and that he or she understands your message. Have the person repeat what you said. Also, the person may wish to compare your perceptions with the perceptions of others in the group. You represent only one view; others may disagree.

10.   People more readily accept feedback that they ASK FOR and find it more useful than feedback that is FORCE-FED. In the absence of a request, it is acceptable to say, "Fred, I have some feedback for you. Would you like to hear it?" This lets the person know you have information to give and also allows the person the option to ask for it.

11.   Finally, feedback should be WELL-INTENDED and NOT HURTFUL. Do not give feedback to punish or get even. Give feedback in a caring way to help the person be more effective. When you give feedback to someone, you should be willing to spend time with that person to ensure clarity and understanding and to offer any assistance that the person may desire.

When people give feedback, they often assume two things. The first assumption is that feedback is, by its nature, negative. That is, it usually involves undesirable behaviors, negatively-toned reactions, and desires for behavior change. In our culture, this is generally true; most feedback is indeed negative. In fact, it is fair to say that we live in an economy of plenty with regard to negative feedback. There's plenty to go around.

The second common assumption is that people are most likely to change their behavior in response to negative feedback. On the contrary, people very seldom change their behavior in response to negative feedback (especially in the way it's usually given). If people changed so readily, there would be a lot less need for negative feedback. This assumption is probably false.

In fact, POSITIVE feedback is more likely to lead to desirable behavior change than negative feedback. When we give positive feedback - and we give it genuinely and honestly - we give the person a solid platform from which he or she can view some of his or her other common behaviors and decide, out of a sense of security, to make changes in those behaviors. People usually know a lot about what's wrong with them - what they would change if they could. People are more likely to be able to make changes from a positive view of themselves than from the anxiety, insecurity, and even fear involved in a negative self-view.

We live in an economy of extreme scarcity with respect to positive feedback. Others seldom give it to us, and we are rather starved for it. Try out some positive feedback to others. Give some careful feedback when you see something you appreciate in someone. It will be interesting to see what happens.

This is not to say that negative feedback - correctly delivered - is not useful to people. The point here is that we should use positive feedback as well.

As we deliver positive feedback to people, we are prone to fall into a common trap, what we might call the "yes, but" phenomenon. We deliver positive feedback all right but feel we must link it to negative feedback - as if undiluted positive feedback were too dangerous or that it might go to the person's head, so to speak. So, we temper our positive feedback with negative feedback - "You did a fantastic job on this problem, Joe, BUT you were three days behind schedule." The positive feedback delivered this way sounds like a set-up to the receiver or a way of softening the blow. The listener comes to listen for the negative feedback that is coming and doesn't even notice the content of the positive feedback at the beginning. The positive part doesn't seem the slightest bit real but only ritual politeness. Don't fall into this trap.

Two responses to feedback are useful and almost always indicated. First, listen actively to it. Be sure you understand where the giver is "coming from" - what is his or her frame of reference? Acknowledge or thank the person who was willing to give the feedback. You're more likely to get further useful information if you do that.

Respond to feedback in two ways. First, listen to it with an open mind. Be prepared to learn something. Resist the temptation to explain away and justify your behavior. Second, acknowledge the person who is willing to give the feedback; you're more likely to get useful information in the future if you show appreciation.


The process of giving and asking for feedback is a critical dimension of small group instruction. Feedback enables us to see ourselves as others see us. This, of course, is not an easy task. Effectively giving and receiving feedback implies certain key ingredients: trust, acceptance, openness, and a concern for the needs of others. Just how helpful feedback is may finally depend upon the personal philosophy of the people involved. In any case, giving feedback is a skill that we can learn and develop.

The term "feedback" was borrowed from rocket engineering by Kurt Lewin, a founder of laboratory education. A rocket sent into space contains a mechanism that sends signals back to earth. On earth, a steering apparatus receives these signals, makes adjustments if the rocket is off target, and corrects its course. The small group is like this steering mechanism, sending signals when group members are off target in terms of their goals. An individual can then use these signals - or feedback - to correct his or her course.

For example, George's goal may be to learn how his behavior affects others. He can use information from the group to check his progress toward this goal. However, if George reacts to criticism of his behavior by getting angry, leaving the room, or otherwise acting defensively, he will not reach his goal. Group members may help him by saying, "George, every time we give you feedback, you do something that keeps us from giving you further information. If you continue this kind of behavior, you will not reach your goal." If George responds to this steering of the group by adjusting his direction, he can again move toward his target. Feedback is a technique that helps members of a group achieve their goals. It is also a means of comparing one's own perceptions of ones behavior with the perceptions of others.

Giving feedback is a verbal or nonverbal process through which a person communicates his or her perceptions and feelings about the behavior of others. When soliciting feedback, a person asks others for their perceptions of his or her behavior. Most people give and receive feedback daily without being aware of doing so. One purpose of small group instruction is to practice giving and soliciting feedback so that leaders will intentionally make use of this process.

Information-Exchange Process

Between two people, the information-exchange process goes something like this: The sender's intention is to act in relation to the receiver. However, the receiver sees only the sender's behavior. The sender uses an encoding process to select a behavior that communicates his or her intention. The receiver decodes an intention from the responding behavior of the receiver.

If either person's encoding or decoding process is ineffective, either party may react in a way that confuses the other. A person's intentions are private. If they are not explained, others can only guess at what those intentions are. The feedback process focuses on behaviors since we cannot see someone's intentions. Problems arise when we give feedback about other people's intentions instead of their behavior. Often times people perceive behavior as being negatively intended when in fact it was not. It can be difficult to realize that the sender's intentions were not what you thought they were.

Responsibility For Feedback

In many feedback exchanges, the question of ownership frequently arises: How much responsibility should the giver assume for his or her behavior and how much responsibility should the receiver assume for his or her response? If person A's behavior evokes negative feedback from person B, how much ownership should each assume? Some people are willing to assume more responsibility than others.

For example, Joan may be habitually late for group meetings and may receive feedback from others who react negatively to her behavior. Joan's response may be to say to the others that the real problem is their lack of tolerance for individual differences. She might say that they are attempting to limit her freedom. She might claim that they are investing too much responsibility in her for the group's effectiveness. Joan states that she wants to be involved in the group, but she does not understand why they need her to be on time. Joan is refusing ownership.

This situation presents a value dilemma to the group. Joan's observations are accurate, but her behavior is irritating to other group members. One clarification of this dilemma is to point out that while Joan "owns" only her behavior, the reactions of others to her behavior will inevitably affect her. She must consider the responses of others if she cares about her relationship with them.

Concern for the needs of others as well as one's own needs is a critical dimension in the exchange of feedback. Ownership or responsibility for one's behavior and the consequences of that behavior overlap between the giver and receiver of feedback. The problem lies in reaching some mutual agreement concerning where one person's responsibility ends and the other's begins.

Guidelines For Using Feedback

Regardless of how accurate feedback may be, if a person cannot accept the information because he or she is defensive, then feedback is useless. Always give feedback so that the person receiving it can hear it in the most objective and least distorted way possible, understand it, and choose to use it or to use a decoding process to decide what intention the sender's behavior communicates. This pattern continues as the sender then chooses not to use it. Consider this scenario as you read the guidelines for using feedback.

George intends to compliment Marie by saying to her, "I wish I could be more selfish, like you." Marie responds with "Why, you insensitive boor; what do you mean by saying I'm selfish?" George then gets defensive and retaliates, and both people then become involved in the game of "who-can-hurt-whom-the-most." Instead, Marie could have stated her position another way by saying "When you said 'I wish I could be more selfish, like you,' I felt angry and degraded." This second method of giving feedback contains positive elements that the first did not.

Indirect Vs Direct Expression Of Feelings

When Marie stated that George was an insensitive boor, she was expressing her feelings indirectly. That statement might imply that she was feeling angry or irritated but one could not be certain. On the other hand, Marie expressed her feelings directly when she said, "I felt angry and degraded." She committed herself, and there was no need to guess her feelings.

If Tom says to Andy, "I like you," he is expressing his feelings directly, risking rejection. However, if he says, "You are a likeable person," the risk is less. Indirect expression of feelings is safer because it is ambiguous. Andy might guess that Tom likes him, but Tom can always deny it. If Andy rejects Tom by saying, "I am happy to hear that I am likeable but I do not like you," Tom can counter, "You are a likeable person, but I do not like you." Indirect expression of feelings offers an escape from commitment.

"You are driving too fast" is an indirect expression of feelings. "I am anxious because you are driving too fast" is a direct expression of feelings. Indirect statements often begin with "I feel that..." and finish with a perception or opinion. For example, "I feel that you are angry." Instead, "I am anxious because you look angry" expresses the speaker's feelings directly and also states a perception. People frequently assume that they are expressing their feelings directly when they state opinions and perceptions starting with "I feel that..." but they are not.

Interpretation Vs Description Of Behavior

In the original example in which Marie said to George, "When you said, 'I wish I could be more selfish like you' I felt angry and degraded, "Marie was describing the behavior to which she was reacting. She was not attributing a motive to George's behavior, such as "You are hostile" or "You do not like me." When one attributes a motive to a person's behavior, one is interpreting that person's intention. Since a person's intention is private and not available to anyone else, it is easy to misinterpret someone's intention.

If William is fidgeting in his chair and Walter says, "You are anxious," Walter is interpreting William's behavior. If instead, Walter describes William's behavior, William may interpret his own behavior by saying, "I need to go to the bathroom."

In any event, interpreting another person's behavior or ascribing motives to it tends to put that person on the defensive. The feedback, regardless of how much insight it contains, cannot be used.

Evaluative Vs Nonevaluative Feedback

When Marie called George an "insensitive boor," she was evaluating him as a person. This feedback was not effective. Respond to the person's behavior and not to the person's personal worth. If George is told that he is stupid or insensitive, he is not likely to respond objectively. He may sometimes act stupidly or behave in an insensitive way, but that does not mean that he is a stupid or insensitive person. Evaluative feedback casts the people in the roles of the judge and the person being judged. The person giving evaluative feedback is imposing a set of values that may not be applicable or others may not share.

Response To Evaluative Feedback

Evaluative feedback usually offends a person's feelings of self-esteem, so it is difficult for anyone to respond to it. We all have core concepts about ourselves that feedback cannot easily change. We are likely to become defensive when our self-esteem is attacked and not even consider the feedback. Therefore, always respond to an observable behavior when giving feedback; do not attack a person's sense of self-esteem.

General Vs Specific Feedback

When Marie responded to George by saying, "When you said, 'I wish I could be more selfish,' I felt angry and degraded," she was describing a specific behavior. If she would have said "You are hostile," she would have been giving feedback in general terms and George might not have known to which behavior she was reacting. The term "hostile" does not specify what evoked a response in Marie. If George wanted to change, he would not know what behavior to change. When the sender is specific, the receiver knows to what behavior the receiver is responding. The receiver can then change or modify that behavior. Feedback expressed in general terms, such as "You are a warm person" does not allow the receiver to know what specific behavior is perceived as warm. The person cannot expand or build upon this feedback without knowing which behavior evoked the response "warm."

Pressure To Change Vs Freedom of Choice To Change

When Marie told George that she felt angry and degraded by George's statement, she did not tell him he had to change his behavior. If she or the feedback were important to George, he would probably change. If she were not important to him, he might decide not to change. A person should have the freedom to use feedback in any meaningful way without being required to change. When the giver of feedback tells a person to change, the assumption is that he or she knows the correct standards for right and wrong or good and bad behavior. The receiver is then supposed to adopt the standards of the sender for his or her own good (or to save the sender the trouble of changing). Imposing standards on another person and expecting that person to conform to those standards arouses resistance and resentment. The sender assumes that his or her standards are superior. A major problem in marriages arises when spouses tell each other that they must change their behaviors and attitudes to conform with one or the other partner's expectations and demands. These pressures to change can be very direct or very subtle, creating a win-lose relationship.

Expression Of Disappointment As Feedback

Sometimes feedback reflects the sender's disappointment that the receiver did not meet the sender's expectations and hopes. For example, a group leader may be disappointed that a student did not assume a leadership role within the group or did not perform well on an assignment. These situations represent dilemmas. An important part of the sender's feedback is the sender's own feelings. If the sender withholds these feelings of disappointment, the receiver may get a false impression regarding his or her progress. If, on the other hand, the sender expresses the feelings of disappointment, the receiver may experience this feedback as an indication of personal failure instead of as an incentive to change.

Persistent Behavior

Sometimes a group member will persist in a behavior even after receiving feedback that others find this behavior irritating. The most that the group can do is to continue to confront the member with its feelings. While the person has the freedom to change, he or she will also have to accept the consequences of that decision, namely, other people's continuing irritation at the behavior and their probable negative reactions. The person cannot reasonably expect a positive reaction from other group members if the irritating behavior continues. However, the only person you can change is yourself. As a by-product of this change, others may change in relationship to you. As you change, others will adjust their behavior to yours. No one should be forced to change. Such pressure may produce not only superficial conformity but also underlying resentment and anger.

Delayed Vs Immediate Timing

Feedback is most effective when given immediately after the event. In the initial example of the exchange between George and Marie, if Marie had waited until the next day to give feedback, George might have responded with "I don't remember saying that." If Marie had asked the other group members later, they might have responded with only a vague recollection; the event had not been significant to them, although it was significant to Marie.

When you give immediate feedback, the event is fresh in everyone's mind. Feedback is like a mirror by which people see their behaviors reflected back to them. Other group members can also contribute their observations about the interaction. People often delay feedback because they fear losing control of their feelings, hurting the other person's feelings, or exposing themselves to criticisms of others in the group.

Although it can be threatening to give immediate, honest feedback to a person, feedback is necessary for the group to develop into a team.


Feedback sessions may be planned to keep communication channels open. You may wish to set aside specific times for feedback sessions. Students may discuss events occurring since their last feedback session or may evaluate the progress of the group to date.

External Vs Group Shared Feedback

When feedback is given immediately after the event, it is usually group-shared so that other members can look at the interaction as it occurs. For example, if group members had reacted to George's statement ("I wish I could be more selfish, like you") by saying "If I were in your shoes, Marie, I wouldn't have felt degraded" or "I did not perceive it as degrading," then Marie would have to look at her behavior and its appropriateness. If, on the other hand, group members had supported Marie's feelings and perceptions (consensual validation), her feedback would have had more potency.

Events that occur outside the group (there-and-then) may be known to only one or two group members and, consequently, other participants cannot react to or discuss them meaningfully. In addition, other group members may feel left out during these discussions. For example, if John discusses a private argument he had with Jane, group members can only conjecture what happened, using John's behavior within the group as a reference point for that conjecture. John's description of the event will be colored by his own bias and emotional involvement. The group members will, therefore, receive a distorted picture of what happened. If the argument had occurred within the group, group members could have been helpful since they would have shared the event. They would have been able to comment on whether or not their perceptions of what happened agreed with the way John perceived the interaction.

Events that occur within the group can be processed by all group members who witness the interaction. They can then share their perceptions and feelings about what occurred. Although a group member may get some value from describing an event external to the group, he or she is not as likely to get an objective evaluation of that event.

Consistent Perceptions

Shared perceptions of what happens in here-and-now events is a major value of the small group. All members must participate to realize this benefit. A person may get feedback from one group member and assume that the rest of the group feels the same way. Sometimes feedback from one member presents a distorted picture because that person's perceptions differ from those of the rest of the group. However, when everyone's reactions are given, the receiver has a much better view of his or her behavior.

If the group members are consistent in their perceptions of the receiver of the feedback, and this feedback disagrees with the receiver's personal view, then the receiver needs to examine the validity of these self-perceptions. The fact that people perceive an individual's behavior differently is useful information in itself. Each group member needs to solicit feedback from members who have not yet provided any feedback to him or her because it represents information that is needed to reach the goal.

It is legitimate to impose feedback in some situations. You may give unsolicited feedback as the group leader in order to role model how to give feedback correctly. A norm may exist within the group that it's o.k. to give unsolicited feedback and this is appropriate if the group is functioning as a team. However, feedback is usually more helpful to the individual if he or she solicits it. Asking for feedback may indicate that the receiver is prepared to listen and is genuinely interested in the perceptions of others.

Some of the same guidelines for giving feedback also apply to asking for feedback. For example, a person should be specific about the subject on which he or she wants feedback. The person who says to the group, "I would like the group members to tell me what they think about me," may receive more feedback than desired. Other members should ask the person to be more specific if he or she requests general feedback. Feedback is a reciprocal process; both senders and receivers can help each other in soliciting and in giving it. Sometimes you must give feedback on how a person is giving feedback. If the sender upsets the receiver, the sender needs to learn to give feedback without attacking someone's self-esteem.

Some group members will be afraid to solicit feedback; others will be afraid to give honest feedback. As the group members begin to develop feelings of trust for one another, feedback will be more readily solicited and given.

Unmodifiable Vs Modifiable Behavior

Feedback is not useful if it is aimed at behavior that cannot be changed. Some individual's behaviors are habitual and may have been developed over a period of several years. Feedback on this kind of behavior is frustrating because the behavior would be very difficult to change.

Feedback on behaviors that are difficult to change can make the person self-conscious and anxious. For example, if the spouse of a chain smoker gives feedback (using all of the appropriate guidelines) about the smoking behavior, it is unlikely that the smoking behavior will change. In fact, such feedback may increase the smoker's tension level, resulting in even more smoking.

Many behaviors can be easily changed through feedback and the person's conscious desire to change the behavior. However, before giving feedback, consider whether or not the behavior can be easily changed.

Motivation To Hurt Vs Motivation To Help

One outcome of small group instruction is that some students learn to help themselves and others develop more effective interpersonal communication skills. However, if a group member is angry, the motivation for feedback may be to hurt the other person. The goal of the interaction is to degrade the other person. Therefore, angry feedback is often useless, even when the information is potentially helpful, because the receiver must reject the feedback to protect his or her integrity.

Coping With Anger

People cope with anger in various ways. Some people engage in verbal or physical attacks; others suppress it. A better strategy is to talk about personal feelings of anger without assigning responsibility for them to the other person. Focusing on personal feelings encourages other group members to help. In this way anger dissipates without either viciousness or suppression. Anger and conflict are not themselves "bad." In fact, they are necessary for the growth of any group. Negative consequences do not arise from conflict in and of itself; they arise from conflict being handled poorly within the group. Conflict within the group presents an opportunity for students to learn to express anger and to resolve conflicts in constructive, problem-solving ways. If conflicts never surfaced, students would not be able to develop competence and confidence in effectively dealing with them.


As a team or small group leader, you will need to enforce some of the feedback guidelines more often than others. You will most likely have to remind students to be specific, descriptive, and nonevaluative. You can also use these guidelines diagnostically. For example, if a person reacts defensively to feedback, some of the guidelines were probably violated. The group members can then ask the receiver how he or she interpreted the feedback, and they can help the giver assess how he or she gave the feedback.


5 "Content and Process" adapted from Jones and Pfieffer, Editors, The 1972 Annual Handbook for Group Facilitators, San Diego, CA: Pfieffer and Co., 1972.

6 "Stages of Group Development" is adapted from the Handbook for Staff Group Instructors published by the Center for Army Leadership.

7 "Consensus Seeking and Synergy," adapted from Jones and Pfieffer, Editors, The 1973 Annual Handbook for Group Facilitators, San Diego, CA: Pfieffer and Co., 1973.

8 "Five Components Contributing to Effective Interpersonal Communications" adapted from Jones and Pfieffer, Editors, The 1974 Annual Handbook for Group Facilitators, San Diego, CA: Pfieffer and Co., 1974.

9 "Communicating Communication," adapted from Jones and Pfieffer, Editors, The 1978 Annual Handbook for Group Facilitators, San Diego, CA: Pfieffer and Co., 1978.

10 "Communication Effectiveness: Active Listening and Sending Feeling Messages," adapted from Jones and Pfieffer, Editors, The 1978 Annual Handbook for Group Facilitators, San Diego, CA: Pfieffer and Co., which is adapted from Dr. Thomas Gordon's, Parent Effectiveness Training P.E.T., published by Wyden Books, 1970.

11 "Giving Feedback: An Interpersonal Skill," adapted from Jones and Pfieffer, Editors, The 1975 Annual Handbook for Group Facilitators, San Diego, CA: Pfieffer and Co., 1975.

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