Deciding the optimum group size for a conversation or decision making is critical in small group work. What is the optimum size?
Over the years, in running my Knowledge Cafes, I have discovered through trial and error and observation that the ideal size of a group for interactive conversation is three or four people. At the most five.
Anything more than five and the conversation does not work so well: one or two people tend to dominate; the conversation breaks into two, even three; frequently one person is entirely cut out of the interaction, and there is little energy in the group.
This research paper confirms my observations. Here is the abstract:
Current communication models draw a broad distinction between communication as dialogue and communication as monologue. The two kinds of models have different implications for who influences whom in a group discussion.
The experiments reported in this paper show that in small, 5-person groups, the communication is like dialogue and members are influenced most by those with whom they interact in the discussion.
However, in large, 10-person groups, the communication is like monologue and members are influenced most by the dominant speaker.
The difference in mode of communication is explained in terms of how speakers in the two sizes of groups design their utterances for different audiences.
Credit: Group Discussion as Interactive Dialogue or as Serial Monologue: The Influence of Group Size by Nicolas Fay; Simon Garrod; Jean Carletta
So in those workshops and conferences where people are sat in groups of 8 at large round tables (often the only tables available in hotel conference centers) or long, narrow tables, no real conversation takes place!
To have a good conversation you need to be in touching distance of each other, and each person in the group needs to be equidistant.
These two settings are ideal:
Far too often in small group work, the size of the group is set too large. The research shows that three or four, at the most five, is the optimum group size.
- More than five people and it is not a conversation!
- What is the optimal group size for a conversation?
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