Group size

I’ve been doing some coaching work with facilitators lately and I found myself talking about group size. The short version is that I often find groups of over five people tend to have relatively stilted conversations, which at their worst become what I call a plenary vortex: the fight for attention starts to diminish the quality of conversation.

David Gurteen dug out a piece of research related to this contrasting the conversations in five-person groups with the serial monologues in ten-person groups. It doesn’t prove that five is a threshold, but it helps make the general point about larger groups.

It’s also worth six minutes to hear Chris Corrigan on this topic, as captured by Nancy Dixon. He points to the value of groups of one as well as pairs and threes. Not sure about his ideas about odds and even sizes but worth thinking about. He also makes some points at the end about how smaller group conversations create a more active kind of engagement than just shoving ideas up on post its.

This shades into a wider point about the value of allowing lots of social interaction between people and not over-controlling or rushing it. For more on that, check out Keith de la Rue‘s article on the art of conversation.

Finally, I think that some really amazing things can happen in larger group conversations… but this usually requires breaking out of some fairly well-ingrained habits, and that’s a post for another day…

4 thoughts on “Group size

  1. Stuart Reid

    Interesting, and I liked seeing the video of Chris – I ‘ve read his blog but never heard him speak before.

    Peter Block has some interesting things to say about small groups in this very short video: In a throwaway remark that caught my ear, he talks about offering ‘somewhat ambiguous’ questions to the group, so that they can find room to talk about what they came to talk about anyway. I like that.

  2. Johnnie Moore

    Hi Stuart, thanks for the link. i really like the idea you picked up – the value of an ambiguous question which lets the group decide what to talk about. Lately, I’ve noticed when I get procedural questions from small groups about what they should be doing, I’ve been saying, “you’re smart people, do what makes sense to you”. I also like his insistence that the guiding principles are moronically simple!

    1. Stuart Reid

      Yes, I liked that bit too!

      His way of working with groups reminded me of breathing or a heart pumping – small group -> large group -> small group again. Not either/or, but yes, and.

  3. Telmea Story

    I’ve been making similar observations lately in therapeutic support groups. The character of sharing and interaction changes when groups size exceeds 10-12. Intimate sharing becomes public performance.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.