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Communicating Effectively with Groups

The workplace has changed radically in the past 30 years, and in many cases instructions are given—and discussions happen—over e-mail and the phone. That said, some issues and tasks are still best handled in person, and being able to get your point across clearly to groups within and outside your business is an essential management skill. As this action-list explains, you also need to be able to take on a variety of "roles," techniques, and styles so that you can change your approach depending on your audience.

What You Need to KnowI've been a senior manager for some time now and find that my persuasive skills are not what they were: in fact, I rely on my authority to persuade people of the merits of your arguments. What can I do to change this in a group setting?

You need to go back to basics. First, examine your arguments and then put yourself in your audience's shoes. Being honest, would you "buy" your point of view if you were them? Make a note of questions that people may ask, and prepare yourself to deal with them. Also remember to open up the discussion to the room: answer questions directly and check back that your audience is satisfied with your response.

As well as the content of your argument, think about the delivery. Speak clearly and directly, and avoid jargon as far as you can unless your audience is as well versed in it as you are. If you can, link your comments to points made by other contributors so that you can show you have taken their thoughts onboard.

Also, boost your messages with your body language. Keep up good eye contact with the group and use open, positive body language (no crossed arms!) to put others at their ease. As you talk, look around the room to gauge the reaction of others: what nonverbal signals are they using? Do they seem irritated or engaged?

What to DoClarify the Purpose of the Group Meeting

Is it really necessary to bring this group of people together? If so, what exactly is the aim? Is it simply to pass on some information, to take a decision on an issue, or to get some ideas flowing about a new product or service? Make sure that you are absolutely clear about this purpose before you go any further. Once you're sure, check again whether the task really is suitable for group discussion: if it involves looking at confidential data or information, it probably isn't right for an open forum, whereas brainstorming a new marketing campaign will be.

Set Parameters

Even if the meeting is a relatively informal one, create an agenda and give an indication of how long it will go on for. (Remember that not everyone may have as much time as you to spare for this particular issue.)

Check That the Right People Attend

Group communication is most effective when all the key players are there: there is no point inviting people who have no interest in the meeting's purpose or who may not be able to contribute to it. By the same token, you cannot have a completely successful meeting if the people with the most relevant knowledge can't make it or haven't been invited. Make sure that no-one is overlooked, even if you don't get on with them that well personally (this may be the case if the issue you're discussing has a long and fraught history).

Get the Right Number of People

It's best not to let the group get too big: five is a good number to go for, as it is big enough to allow discussion of the issue from multiple viewpoints, but not so big that it is impossible for a decision to be made. It also means that even if one person is in a minority, there aren't a multitude of other people in the room shouting him or her down.

Make Any Necessary Introductions

If you are in charge of the group discussion, set the scene by explaining again what you are all there to do. Clearly you can skip introductions if you're meeting with a close group of colleagues, but if not, make sure everyone knows who the other attendees are and what their role in the meeting is.

Take Part!

A lot of energy and time has already gone into assembling this group, and if you've agreed to take part in it, do so whole-heartedly. Sitting there in silence, plotting ways you can say "it was nothing to do with me" if things go wrong is not the way to go. If you really don't want to be there, make your excuses and leave the room. If you stay, be positive, join in, and do what you can to make the group discussion a success.

Have an Open Mind

In most cases, we go into a meeting knowing what our position is on a certain issue. If you're taking part or leading a group discussion, however, you need to still be willing to listen to others and be ready to change your mind. Why? Because groups work best when participants are ready to listen to different points of view or take on new information. If you do change your mind in the meeting, explain why clearly.

If you're steering the group meeting, it's essential that you allow everyone to speak, even if you know in advance that you're unlikely to agree with them. The other attendees need to see the whole picture.

Showing that you are ready to listen to views that conflict with your own also shows your audience that you actively want them to participate, rather than just sit there and agree with you. They need to think for themselves, rather than have solutions presented to them.

Defuse Tension As Appropriate

If the aim of the group meeting is to make a decision about something, you need to keep some type of objectivity, even if you personally disagree with the final collective decision. This is not the time to lose your temper, however emotional you feel. Similarly, if another attendee is unhappy, aim to defuse the situation by reminding the group on everything it has agreed on, and what the overall objective of the meeting was.

Inviting feedback on someone's input to a meeting (including your own) is an important part of a group discussion, and if you're leading the group, make sure you explain that these comments should not become personal. You don't want the meeting to become negative and full of recrimination, so make sure you display the behavior you want to see in others. Where possible, preface negative-sounding feedback with some praise ("That's a helpful point, Randy. Do you feel, however, that…") and don't try to blame anyone present for past mistakes or failures—this is particularly important if you're holding a meeting at the end of a project to discuss what could be done better next time.

What to AvoidYou Don't Listen

There is no point at all holding a group discussion if you're not prepared to listen to other people's viewpoints. Even if you disagree, listen carefully and don't interrupt them until they've finished speaking.

You Allow Others to Sidetrack You

If you are leading a group discussion about a particularly contentious issue, you may find that some other attendees try to derail the meeting by talking between themselves when you or someone else is speaking, or by trying to take the meeting into areas not covered by the agenda. You have to nip this in the bud: be assertive, stop the meeting and tackle your disaffected coworkers assertively, but not aggressively, so that you can keep things on track.

You Get Defensive

If you are talking to others about an issue or project that you feel personally invested in, it may feel almost painful at times to hear others talk about it in a negative way. However, if your idea is ever to make it to market or see the light of day, it has to be tested and treated with some rigor. Try to be objective and indeed encourage others not to say what they want you to hear. If there are problems to be tackled, it's best to do it quickly.

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