Any social group, whether personal or professional, has a lot of combined power to influence communication; that’s apparent whenever people discuss Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or other online groups. It is also apparent in face-to-face communication, when the group changes the quality of communication by the way it includes, excludes, and assigns leadership to members. For example:
- A team forms a circle of chairs, but several members are forced to sit behind others. Everyone in the group moves over to create space and welcome all members into the circle.
- Coworkers at lunch take all the comfortable bench seats; but the one person is late must sit in an uncomfortable chair in the aisle, making that person feel they are imposing.
- One person dominates the discussion and overrides other speakers, but no one feels empowered to take over control.
Barriers to Group Communication
As indicated by the previous examples, the barriers to communication may include space limitations, physical discomfort, and failures in organization of the group.
Language barriers may arise even between people who ostensibly speak the same language because of individual triggers, experiences, and sensitivities; this effect is often apparent with reactions to humor. If group communication relies heavily on acronyms, jargon, or inside information, newer or uninformed members of the group may quickly become lost.
A lack of trust, the presence of distractions, cultural differences, and strong emotions, such as anger, can also distort and prevent effective group communication. Pressure to come to a consensus or to conform, not to mention active bullying, can lead group members to hide their true opinions and create unresolved tension.
Fixing Poor Group Communication
If you are the victim or perpetrator of poor group communication, you have several options to improve the situation:
- Ask for help: A microphone, translator, or a seating rearrangement may solve the issue.
- Encourage rules: Steer away from topics that inflame emotions; promote inclusion and respectful listening; make sure there are enough resources and space for the people expected.
- Watch body language: If other people are tuning out, shifting, or avoiding eye contact when you speak, then stop speaking and encourage someone else to speak. If you or others are trapped by someone else’s monologue, suggest that it might be nice to hear someone else’s opinion.
- Encourage participation: People are more engaged when they have a chance to contribute. If necessary, break up into smaller groups.
- Practice self-awareness. The better you understand your own mindset and your reaction to a social situation, the better you can find positive ways of improving it for yourself and others.
When You Feel Victimized by a Social Group
As with any situation, you have the option of responding in the moment, responding later, or not responding at all to social interactions where you feel excluded or otherwise victimized by the group. The question is: what response will actually benefit you?
- Respond in the moment: If you have sufficient assertiveness to respond in the moment, let the group know that you are feeling excluded or talked over. Depending on the group’s response, you may decide that the situation is merely an oversight, easily correctable, or so intolerable that you need to leave.
- Respond later: Make sure you have properly gauged the situation, marshal your thoughts, and if possible come up with suggestions (like choosing a restaurant with larger tables) that will avoid the situation in the future. If the feeling of exclusion is rooted in language difficulties, ask for a translation, one-on-one tutorial, or other written resource that will bring you up to speed.
- Choose to not respond: Check in with yourself to make sure that your choice is based on the infrequency or mildness of the situation and not on a fear of speaking up. Ask for help if you believe you are source of the problem, by boring or monopolizing the group or missing social cues. Also ask for help if the cause is team dysfunction or a company culture that encourages bullying, and you are unable to fix it on your own.
Leadership and Social Situations
As a leader, you may enjoy creating opportunities for your team to socialize. If you and your team are comfortable with socializing outside of company hours, non-work-related interaction can help create team cohesion and effectiveness and strengthen the company culture.
However, many employees resent the need to socialize after work is finished or, indeed, at lunch and break times during the work day. Moreover, if you yourself are uncomfortable with socializing, that discomfort will transmit itself to the team. Be careful, therefore, before you bow to your perceived obligation or outside pressure to socialize with the team. There are other ways to achieve the same results of team building and a strong culture.