Communicating Well As a Group

by Siobhan Soraghan

Accelerating group capability


Trust, along with shared cultural assumptions, is the strongest glue binding people together in groups!

Dialogue requires participants to reveal their vulnerabilities and uncertainties around issues, so a sense of safety and trust is essential and therefore needs to be built in the group. This is what happens over time in moving through the four stages described in Dialogue and the group journey.

To accelerate this safety-building, it is helpful at the outset to openly share some constructive assumptions that can be adopted collectively and to agree to some helpful attitudes and simple protocols. Investing in this foundation pays dividends: it enables situations (such as those below) to be addressed with greater maturity and rigour than would normally be the case, so giving any organisation using dialogue an edge over their competitors.

Ground rules

The following ground rules can help build trust more consciously and rapidly, accelerating the journey through the four phases, thus increasing the pace at which the group evolves. Each participant can be invited to

  • Accept that your understanding of the topic/issue is incomplete
  • Be curious – want to enrich your own map/model/understanding
  • Say only what is true for you
  • Speak only on what you know about
  • Validate each person’s contribution – accept that in their world their views make complete sense
  • Make clear links between previous speakers and what you are about to say
  • Make your thinking transparent – share the assumptions you have made and the facts upon which you are basing your input
  • Be honest if you don’t understand someone – and seek understanding until you get it
  • Allow everyone the opportunity to contribute
  • Contribute, even if you feel afraid to
  • Avoid saying ‘no’ (negative and absolute)
  • Avoid saying ‘but’ (makes what the other person has said wrong)

If you wish to make a man your enemy, tell him simply ‘you are wrong’. This method works every time.

Henry C Link
  • Ask open questions as much as possible – this gives the receiver more scope to tell you their truth and requires you to put aside whatever model you have forming in your mind, which might otherwise tempt you to ask closed questions
  • Choose to have respect for and interest in each person, even if their role/job/view is not something you concur with – and even if you plain just don’t like them
  • Make yourself and your thinking available to the group
  • Release any temptation to orchestrate the dialogue
  • Balance advocacy with enquiry – spend just as much time asking questions to understand as you do making your own thinking clear to others
  • Have an intention to collaborate
  • Have a genuine interest in and concern for both yourself and for others
  • Be honest – and presume that others are being so
  • Be OK with feeling vulnerable when your thoughts/ideas/contributions are challenged
  • Expect unanticipated consequences (if that’s not a contradiction!)
  • Expect it to take time – and make the time.

Process options

When the group is only meeting once for just a few sessions, it is unlikely to have the time to progress organically through the evolution of the four phases described in Dialogue and the group journey. In such cases, the techniques suggested below in conjunction with the ground rules can help in creating the discipline for suspension, deeper listening and full participation.


Everyone agrees to allow at least 30 seconds before responding to what has just been said. This gives people time to reflect and digest what has been said in more depth than normal. Listening improves, and with it the quality of response that is made.

Taking turns

A simple way of ensuring that everyone has their say, one at a time, is to use the American Indian approach of passing a talking stick. Whoever has the stick is allowed to talk – no-one else. And when the person who was speaking has finished, they can either pass it to someone else or place it in the centre, allowing anyone else to lift it. This slows down the pace and should enable everyone to have the opportunity to speak, should they so wish. It also means that the person with the stick can talk as long as they like. It is worth allowing this. The unpredictable nature of everyone’s contribution, both in duration and in content, is a feature of dialogue.


A facilitator who understands dialogue in depth (the phases and characteristics as expressed in the ground rules above, for example) can observe and offer valuable feedback to the group on their process and on the nature of the contributions, and so raise a group to a higher level of awareness. This awareness- building is part of the team maturation that carries it through the 4 stages. Furthermore, they can model the behaviours conducive to dialogue. Then, once a group has reached an effective level of dialogue capability, they can ease out of the process.