The Space between Big Group and Small Group

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Viktor E. Frankl

When you’re facilitating groups you surely will have worked with phases of working together in a big group and spitting up into small groups to have focused conversations or to work on something. Recently I thought a bit about what actually happens emotionally with participants when we split into groups and afterwards congregate in the big group.

Whatever we do to nominate the groups, it’s always in a spectrum between full autonomy (“find a partner”) and fully constrained (“Michael goes with Susan”). In between we use line ups, constellations forming clusters, adding props like cards, dice etc. What we choose should be a matter of the purpose and the intended outcome (diversity ↔️ homogeneity, build new connections ↔️ deepening connections, cope with anxiety ↔️ reduce anxiety).

Now comes the next phase - forming the groups. When in presence I do assume that this always happens in full autonomy of the participants. We’re asking them to be bold and move closer to someone else - with all emotions from the joy of being accepted and welcomed to the fear of being rejected. When doing this at the beginning of a workshop, it’s a first test to go into a small individual groan zone. What I “know” already as a facilitator in this moment is that participants get rewarded with a warm feeling of connectedness afterwards.

Boy And Girl Sitting On A Log Bridge In A Park And Talking by Jacob Lund Photography from

Boy And Girl Sitting On A Log Bridge In A Park And Talking by Jacob Lund Photography from

When working online it’s a bit different. Autonomy when creating groups is not always given. In case of creating groups fully randomly, the combination of no autonomy when nominating groups and no autonomy when forming the group makes it likely that participant engagement gets lower due to fears of a loss of control and consumption behavior.

And even when there is autonomy, clicking a button is something else emotionally than consciously approaching another participant, saying yes to each other.

We’re coming to the end of the group work: Request to dissolve. In presence there is no question that there is autonomy of the people in the group to finish the last sentence, share short appreciations and make a conscious (group) decision to dissolve the conversation (or not).

After that each individual acts to congregate in the big group. Turning the head to focus on the facilitator, moving some steps to form a big group circle is emotionally important to be able to let go of one scenario and consciously say yes to the next scenario.

It’s more difficult in online environments. In most of the scenarios it automatically ends when the breakout timer stops or when the facilitator closes all the breakout rooms. No space for consciously closing the conversation, taking a breath and then focus on the next step.

It’s these small frictions that drive us at to find a better ways to have workshops online - for facilitators and participants.

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