COMS 100A - Assignments
Survey of Communication Studies

California State University, Sacramento

Small Group Communication
Lecture Notes
Week #9



What Constitutes a Small Group?

Communication within the context of small groups is often distinguished from communication between two people (interpersonal communication) or in an organization (organizational communication). Yet the question often arises, what constitutes a small group? What distinguishes a small group from a small organization? How many people must be part of a group for it to be considered a "large" group?

John Brilhart offers five distinguishing characteristics of a small group:


  1. A sufficiently small number of people so that each will be aware of and have some reaction to each other (from 2 to rarely more than 20)
  2. A mutually interdependent purpose in which the success of each person is contingent upon the success of the others in achieving this goal.
  3. Each person has a sense of belonging or membership, identifying himself with the other members of the group.
  4. Oral interaction (not all of the interaction will be oral, but a significant characteristic of a discussion group is reciporcal influence exercised by talking).
  5. Behavior based on norms, values, and procedures accepts by all members.1

    1John K Brilhart. Effective Group Discussion, 3rd ed. (Dubuque, Iowa: William C. Brown, 1978), pp. 20-21.

What impacts how group members communicate with one another? Many things impact how group members communicate, but three especially influential variables are A) the networks of communication (who talks to whom), B) the roles each member plays, and C) the process they use for making decisions. Read about the networks of communication in your text book on pp. 287-290. Read about the roles on pp. 276-281. Read about three processes for decision-making in the paragraphs that follow.

Three Processes for Decision-Making & Problem-Solving:

I. Brainstorming

Brainstorming is the generation of large quantities of ideas for solving a problem. The goal of brainstorming is for group members to generate a volume of ideas before evaluating the quality, feasibility, and/or appropriateness of those ideas. Thus, group members are encouraged to generate seemingly implausible, unrealistic, idealistic ideas which might later be tempered to work into the constraints of the situation. When brainstorming, group members are encouraged to avoid judging any idea that is mentioned.

An advantage of brainstorming is that the group is more likely to generate creative ideas. Also, brainstorming often helps group members build rapport and cohesion because the process is fun, inventive and sometimes humorous.

A disadvantage of brainstorming is that it is a random, unstructured way of responding to a problem and often eats up much of a group's time. Also, if a group contains members who are willing to dominate conversation, the brainstorming process provides those members with a forum to be heard frequently, while more quiet members may become say little.

II. Nominal Group Technique

Nominal Group Technique (NGT) is a highly structured decision-making process whereby group members are asked to generate ideas individually and write them down. The leader then asks each group member to share his/her first idea which the leader records for the group. After each member has shared his/her first idea, each is asked to share the second idea, presuming it has not already been stated. After each member has shared the second idea, the third idea is shared and the process continues until all members have shared the all ideas they wish to share with the group.

Once all the ideas are recorded, the leader opens the floor for members to get clarification on the ideas. Members may ask one another what was meant specifically by a particular idea. Then, members are asked to rate the ideas according to which they like most and least. Ratings are then tabulated and members are asked to vote on the ideas rated most highly.

One advantage of NGT is its efficiency; little time is wasted in the process. Also, the group dynamics are controlled, so the discussion cannot be dominated by any one person, and conversational tangents are less likely to occur. Additionally, because less discussion occurs, individuals are more likely to make individual decisions rather than conform to the norms and persuasions of the "whole."

A disadvantage of NGT is that the group is unlikely to develop much cohesion from the process since individuals do little talking with one another. The absence of conformity may also be problematic in that the group members may lack an emotional commitment to the ideas since they acted largely in isolation.

III. Standard Agenda

Standard Agenda is a logical process by which a group defines a problem and develops solutions. The leader takes the group through six steps, making sure the group does not stray to another step until prior steps have been accomplished to everyone's satisfaction. The six steps are as follows:


  1. The group must define the problem they are up against, even if it seems obvious.


  2. The group must analyze the causes of the problem and the potential consequences if the problem continues.


  3. The group must then develop criteria for an acceptable solution. Here it is important that the group stick with criteria for acceptability of solutions rather than naming possible solutions.


  4. The group must identify possible solutions.


  5. The group must evaluate the solutions to determine which one(s) in the best alternative.


  6. The group must test the solution and then meet later to re-evaluate its success.


Each step is important enough to be dealt with thoroughly. Time spent in the early steps may avoid wasted time in later steps. For example, a group may spend lots of time brainstorming solutions early on and then, upon evaluating those solutions, discover that not all members of the group see the problem the same way. Defining the problem first could avoid wasting time later.

An advantage of the Standard Agenda is that the process is logical, sequential and orderly. As mentioned above, if followed closely, the structure can help a group avoid unnecessary conflicts or misunderstandings. Also, the structure of the Standard Agenda helps keep a group focused and on track. The process also allows for brainstorming and all its advantages (group cohesion, generation of risky, multiple ideas, etc.), yet it gives the brainstorming more focus.

A disadvantage of the Standard Agenda is the difficulty of keeping the group's discussion focused on the agenda items. Insisting that a group stay with the agenda may cause frustration and resentment among some group members. Also, the process does not provide any controls for group dynamics, e.g., frequent talkers, quiet members, etc. Thus, it is up to the leader to ensure balance and friendliness in the discussion.


As you can see from your reading of the text book and your reading of these small group decision-making techniques, many variables impact the communication among group members: individual and group roles, communication networks (who talks to whom) and group procedures for decision making. Small group communication may be further complicated by interpersonal dynamics among group members, organizational dynamics, and/or intercultural differences. In all cases, the communication process in small groups is made problematic by the channels communication, the participants and their personalities (which become a source of noise), and the procedures used to manage the flow of communication and focus of the messages being sent.

Page updated: August 5, 1998