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Effectively Mediating Group Conversations

Dear Emily,

I lead a support group for single/widowed/divorced individuals for people aged forty to eighty. Meetings are informal and focused on sharing, so an agenda is not usually necessary. However, lately we have had a problem with sidebar conversations. One member in particular, who has little or nothing to say when it is her turn, will make a statement to the person speaking that has nothing to do with the topic. Or she will have a sidebar with her neighbor during another person’s turn. This being an informal support group, I don’t want to establish a lot of rules that would harm our purpose of listening to each other and to offer suggestions when needed. How can I address this without offending the “offenders”?

Fed Up

Dear Fed Up,

As your question demonstrates, leading informal groups is often far more challenging than holding a formal leadership position. It’s often difficult to strike the delicate balance between leading and participating.

In a situation like this, I would first consider whether this should be a public or a private conversation. If the problem is pervasive and many people are having sidebar conversations, it may be best to hold the conversation as a group. If the problem is limited to one or two members, it may be better to simply address your concern with those individuals. A couple of suggestions for both situations:

Group Conversation

If you decide to hold the conversation with the entire group, consider carefully what your intent is and make sure to clarify that up front. Then, describe the behavior you are noticing and its impact without identifying specific people by name. Calling someone out specifically will damage your efforts for building safety. Finally, ask the group for their perspective. For example, you may consider starting with something like this: “When we started this group, our goal was to provide a safe and respectful place where we could listen and learn from one another. Over the past few months, I have noticed that our group has started a pattern of side conversations that may distract from the person speaking. I am wondering if others have noticed this and felt the same impact that I have. What do you think?”

With that, you have successfully handled the easy part of the conversation. Now comes the hard part: waiting for, listening to, and discussing the meaning that others share. At this point, the conversation could go in many different directions. Everyone could remain stoically silent, unwilling to speak up and address the behavior. Some could become defensive, thinking you are publicly criticizing them. Others, who agree with you, could start calling people out by name for having sidebars, destroying safety.

So, what is your role at this point? You have initiated the topic and it is up to the group to add meaning. Your responsibility will be to maintain the conditions of safety that will lead to a productive discussion. If others become defensive, make sure to point out that this is not about specific people, it is about a group pattern and ultimately about how the group wants to interact. If others don’t see it as a problem, accept that you may be alone in your feelings and be grateful that the group is still working well and serving its purpose for the members. Above all, remember that your intent is to start a dialogue and maintain the safety people need in order to add their perspective.

Individual Conversation

Should you decide that the issue is only with one or two individuals, you may choose to discuss this privately with them. Doing so naturally creates more safety for the other person. Not surprisingly, the approach is similar: focus on your good intent, share your observations about the behavior and what you see as the impact on the group, then ask for their perspective and be open to hearing their point of view.

Two cautions with this type of conversation:

1. Don’t overrepresent what you have heard from others. Your focus should be on sharing what you have noticed. For example, “I noticed last week that you were talking with Todd while it was Suzie’s turn to speak. Ann and other members of the group seemed distracted by your conversation and weren’t able to fully listen to Suzie.” What you don’t want to say is, “Lots of people have talked to me about this and are concerned about how distracting it was when you were talking to Todd last week.” Share your perspective and leave it at that.

2. Consider both what is occurring and what is not occurring. Sometimes we get over-focused on the impact of the behavior—in this case, that group members are distracted and feel disrespected—and fail to understand what is not happening because of the behavior. Here, the group is neither hearing from this person, nor gaining the benefit of her experience and perspective. When she shares comments primarily in sidebar, everyone is losing out on her insights. Make sure to point out not only what is happening but what is not happening as well, and how that impacts the group.

Whichever way you choose to hold the conversation, with the group or with the individual, let us know how it goes!

Best Regards,

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10 thoughts on “Effectively Mediating Group Conversations”

  1. Lanis Kuyzin

    Since the group has members who are 80 years old, I wonder if the woman who does not participate fully is hard of hearing or perhaps cognitively impaired.

    1. Rebecca

      Good point. Anothe reason to discuss one on one instead of in a group.

  2. Dawn

    Just following up on this discussion. The advise in this column is always good. So much applies to the workplace as well as handling our personal lives. And I do appreciate how the conversations are directed to take people’s perception and feelings into consideration. Having said that, one point that was missing today. The pont is how the person sharing with the group preceives the side conversations. Do they feel what they are sharing and contributing is not important? The side conversation can be preceived as rude, talking out of turn. The side conversation may be adding something to the point being discussed but is not shared with all the group. This can all come out when the topic is brought up by the leader, but as you said, someone’s feelings may be hurt and they will not add to the discussion of side conversations. I may not have worded this correctly, but I hope you see where I am going with this point. I have been the person talking when someone else is doing a side conversation and it makes me feel what I am contributing is not important or is insignificant. But I also would not be confident enough to say so. Thank you for letting me share.

  3. sandrashill

    I’ve been thinking about your first point, Don’t overrepresent what you have heard from others”…. While I agree with it to a certain extent, I think that taking the approach of only sharing your own observations has its downside, too. This downside is that the person might think that your observations are somehow “wrong,” or it’s just “your problem” or “you’re being overly sensitive,” or “I think you’re misinterpreting your observations in terms of how other people really feel.”

    I have to admit, at least a couple of times over my work career I’ve had this reaction when being given feedback like this and it wasn’t until the person made it clear that other people were saying the same thing about me, too, that I was fully able to accept that the problem was all mine.

    Perhaps the solution is leading with the kind of approach that you suggested, but then, if the person seems hesitant to accept what you’re saying, to then back it up with a general report of what others have said (without getting into who said what or the specific wording, especially if it was expressed in a way that could be more hurtful than necessary).

  4. Rebecca

    I strongly caution on a group converstation. Talk to each person who is doing sidebars. Discussion in a group has potential for to go so wrong the group dynamic can be damaged beyond repair and not fixed the problem. Those who don’t do sidebars may rightly be offended at being lumped in with the offenders, and some offenders may not even recognize that they are who you are talking about. Lastly the leader of the support group is the one responsible for the problem getting out of hand. When sidebars starting occurring the leader either have told the person right then to stop doing it, “Teri, it’s Susan’s turn to speak. Please wait until it’s your turn to share your comments with the group.” Or talk to the offender alone right after the meeting.

  5. Jenny M

    Another thing to consider – I observed this behavior with my Grandfather right before we realized he was having issues hearing the conversation. He was embarrassed to admit he couldn’t hear what we said, so he abruptly changed the subject instead of asking us to repeat our comments. He still wanted to participate in the family conversation, and didn’t realize when he was talking over someone else already saying something.

    Later, he would also make negative assumptions about what people said and get angry and defensive when we tried to clarify what we were really talking about. This was a symptom of Alzheimer’s, that was made worse by the hard of hearing problem. Fortunately he had my grandmother to insist he see a doctor.

    If your group includes folks 40-80, you may have someone who needs aging support. If they are living alone, you may be the only person noticing this behavior. You might setup a gathering and invite family members to come meet the group as a way to connect with them about this issue, if it comes to that.

  6. Jim

    I appreciate your thoughtful response to this question. I have a slightly different view and offer it for your consideration.

    First this is not a mediation, it is group facilitation. A small point? not really. Mediation is about helping two or more parties solve problems, facilitation would be helping the group achieve shared goals.

    Second. I would start with the group goals, so they are understood and shared with by group. These should be stated or posted at each meeting. For this group one possible goal is to “create a safe environment for open sharing”.

    Third. I would encourage creation of processes and ground rules that support the goal. One here might be “only one person speaks at a time”, or “no side conversations”, or “we listen with respect while others take their turn sharing”.

    Forth. I would use the purpose and ground rules to help direct the group to their goals. I would select processes that encouraged participation by all.

    Last. I would encourage supportive acknowledgement of speakers, and, of participants who help create a safe space.

    If the sidebars took place in this environment it is easier to correct in the moment or in private conversation. I am suggesting a bit of prevention first before response. The process here is intended to create safety for all to participate.

    It has worked well in many small groups.

  7. RuediG

    The advice given in the post seems to be oriented entirely toward outside behavior with little inquiry into the reasons why the disruptive behavior is occurring. Is the person speaking out of turn, off topic and on the side because the person cannot hear and follow the main thrust? Is it because they want to add something they think is pertinent and important, but maybe not for all participants? Is it because they think the topics of the group are becoming less relevant?

    Before exploring any solutions through a group conversation or an individual conversation, I would advise to have an individual conversation with the “offender,” focusing on open questions such as
    – How do you feel about the group?
    – How well does the group meet your needs?
    – How interesting do you find the topics we’ve been talking about?
    – etc.
    Another way to handle this would be to distribute a questionnaire along these lines (“Rate 1-5, plus comment if you wish”) to all group members before the next meeting, collate the answers, and then discuss the collated answers in the group.

    1. Rebecca

      Using a questionnair is great, but should be have the option of being anonymous

  8. vicki

    I have been a facilitator of group process for over 20 years. I always establish ground rules with the group (they generate the ideas for the rules of engagement and conversation). I have a list available of others that have been used in the past that they can get ideas from if they so choose. We then talk about the best way to ensure that we follow them so that they group can have the level of trust and openness that they desire. As the facilitator, I have the role of bringing up their rules of engagement so that they can reassess, change them or add to them. It works extremely well. Feelings are not hurt since the group came up with them and there is a lot of humor used by groups when enforcing them.

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