I lead a support group for single/widowed/divorced individuals for people aged forty to eighty. Meetings are informal and focused on sharing, so an agenda is not usually necessary. However, lately we have had a problem with sidebar conversations. One member in particular, who has little or nothing to say when it is her turn, will make a statement to the person speaking that has nothing to do with the topic. Or she will have a sidebar with her neighbor during another person’s turn. This being an informal support group, I don’t want to establish a lot of rules that would harm our purpose of listening to each other and to offer suggestions when needed. How can I address this without offending the “offenders”?
Dear Fed Up,
As your question demonstrates, leading informal groups is often far more challenging than holding a formal leadership position. It’s often difficult to strike the delicate balance between leading and participating.
In a situation like this, I would first consider whether this should be a public or a private conversation. If the problem is pervasive and many people are having sidebar conversations, it may be best to hold the conversation as a group. If the problem is limited to one or two members, it may be better to simply address your concern with those individuals. A couple of suggestions for both situations:
If you decide to hold the conversation with the entire group, consider carefully what your intent is and make sure to clarify that up front. Then, describe the behavior you are noticing and its impact without identifying specific people by name. Calling someone out specifically will damage your efforts for building safety. Finally, ask the group for their perspective. For example, you may consider starting with something like this: “When we started this group, our goal was to provide a safe and respectful place where we could listen and learn from one another. Over the past few months, I have noticed that our group has started a pattern of side conversations that may distract from the person speaking. I am wondering if others have noticed this and felt the same impact that I have. What do you think?”
With that, you have successfully handled the easy part of the conversation. Now comes the hard part: waiting for, listening to, and discussing the meaning that others share. At this point, the conversation could go in many different directions. Everyone could remain stoically silent, unwilling to speak up and address the behavior. Some could become defensive, thinking you are publicly criticizing them. Others, who agree with you, could start calling people out by name for having sidebars, destroying safety.
So, what is your role at this point? You have initiated the topic and it is up to the group to add meaning. Your responsibility will be to maintain the conditions of safety that will lead to a productive discussion. If others become defensive, make sure to point out that this is not about specific people, it is about a group pattern and ultimately about how the group wants to interact. If others don’t see it as a problem, accept that you may be alone in your feelings and be grateful that the group is still working well and serving its purpose for the members. Above all, remember that your intent is to start a dialogue and maintain the safety people need in order to add their perspective.
Should you decide that the issue is only with one or two individuals, you may choose to discuss this privately with them. Doing so naturally creates more safety for the other person. Not surprisingly, the approach is similar: focus on your good intent, share your observations about the behavior and what you see as the impact on the group, then ask for their perspective and be open to hearing their point of view.
Two cautions with this type of conversation:
1. Don’t overrepresent what you have heard from others. Your focus should be on sharing what you have noticed. For example, “I noticed last week that you were talking with Todd while it was Suzie’s turn to speak. Ann and other members of the group seemed distracted by your conversation and weren’t able to fully listen to Suzie.” What you don’t want to say is, “Lots of people have talked to me about this and are concerned about how distracting it was when you were talking to Todd last week.” Share your perspective and leave it at that.
2. Consider both what is occurring and what is not occurring. Sometimes we get over-focused on the impact of the behavior—in this case, that group members are distracted and feel disrespected—and fail to understand what is not happening because of the behavior. Here, the group is neither hearing from this person, nor gaining the benefit of her experience and perspective. When she shares comments primarily in sidebar, everyone is losing out on her insights. Make sure to point out not only what is happening but what is not happening as well, and how that impacts the group.
Whichever way you choose to hold the conversation, with the group or with the individual, let us know how it goes!