Reflective Essay about Communication
"The most important thing in communication is to hear what isn't being said." Peter Drucker (1909 - 2005)
Working in groups can be as easy as sitting down, discussing ideas, and reaching a consensus. It can also be as difficult as trying to speak to a bunch of aliens who do not share the same language, expectations, or knowledge of the topic. Ideally, the first scenario is the preferable one. Practically, the second scenario is the one that seems to result most often. The question naturally arises as to why this is so if all that is necessary is to reach a consensus. That, after all, is the point of doing work in a group—to solicit opinions, to explore them in terms of the problem being solved, determine a solution that everyone can agree upon, and to apply derived solutions to the problem.
There are several theories that address this problem, and it is clear from thee theories that there are three main attributes to clear communication: 1) fields of experience of the receiver of the communication and the sender, 2) feedback from the receiver to the sender, and 3) a common communication medium. Schramm (1954), Westley-MacLean (1957), Kincaid's Convergence model (1979), Borman (1983), Gouran and Hirokawa (1996), Poole (1999) and Frey, Boton, and Kreps), all posit one or more of these attributes as critical to communication in groups. Most group work involving communications is grounded in systems theory, but systems theory prefers stability over change, so that innovation is considered an outlier of sorts, to be scrutinized as an anomalous function of the group rather than the function of the group. Functional theory, on the other hand, looks at the prescriptive nature of group deliberations and applies communication as a tool that is used to reach outcomes and solve problems. Functional theory suggests that there are conditions that must exist if the communication within the group is to be beneficial or worth the effort. Group members must:
- commit to making the best decision,
- identify resources needed to carry out the group's charge,
- determine procedures for the group to follow,
- articulate procedural rules and interaction practices, and
- review the decision-making process and make any necessary adjustments to the decision,
- demonstrate that they understand the charge,
- establish criteria with which to evaluate possible solutions,
- develop alternative solutions,
- evaluate those alternatives by comparing them to each other and the previously-established criteria, and
- use the evaluation to choose between alternatives.
When it was announced that we would form groups for our presentation, there were five of us sitting close together. We immediately looked at each other, and though we didn't know each other well, we seemed to be a match, if for no other reason than that we all, except me, spoke English as a native language. I felt comfortable with my level of English, and I supposed that there would be no difficulties in communicating with the others. The only difficulty that I could foresee would be accents differing, but that wasn't really a concern. I also remembered being in some groups before with some Asian international students, but they seem content to just be assigned something, and often offer no input or participate in discussions. It may simply be an issue of culture, but I don't know for sure.
We quickly wrote our names and phone numbers own for the other in the group so that we could contact each other about meeting times, but Anthony simply wrote his ID number instead of his email. I thought that maybe he just misunderstood, but even after he saw that we had written our email addresses and phone numbers, he still l didn't add his email address. I wondered, and I'm sure that the other guys did too, why he would do that. It was only a small thing, really, but I doubted whether he was even capable of participating correctly when writing an email address was such a simple thing. We hadn't even started yet, and here was already a problem with communication.
During the third week, after the lecture, I was looking around the room for my group members, and I realized then that I did not know them, what they looked like, or what their names were. I only could hope that one of them would recognize me, give me a nod or something, when a guy that had been sitting in front of me during the lecture turned and asked if we ought to go to where the others were, in the back row. I thought that I probably seemed like an idiot, looking around and probably looking right at them the whole time, and not knowing who they were. As I got closer, though, I remembered them, and we all sat down together.
I sat next to Anthony, who asked me if I had viewed the slides we would need. I had been involved in another group the previous week, and I had concentrated on that instead of this group. When the other members of the group pulled out the slides, I was surprised, because they did not seem so eager the first week. We were dividing up the parts, one person per slide, and Peter had taken charge, which was a good thing, since I thought that I would be better off if someone just told me what to do. Peter wrote down the topics from the slides and noted how many slides each topic had, and then divided the work by five, so that we had one topic each. After everyone had a topic assigned, Peter asked if there were any questions or particular preferences. At first, I didn't have a preference, but then I did—when I saw what the topics were, I noted that there were a couple I would rather not do. Peter said that he would do the number 3 topic, which was one of the ones I didn't want. At that point, I had even more confidence in Peter, who seemed to enjoy being in charge, and just took that position naturally. I stated then that I preferred part 4. Part 1 might have been better, but if I had that part, then I would have to go first, which I didn't like doing. After everyone had their parts, we all talked again about how easy it was to do the presentation.
Functional theory suggests that it is the outcomes that matter. When looking at the earlier theories, however, we did have some difficulty fields of interest, communication between sender and receiver, and feedback. Most of the guys had a preference about which part they would take (a couple of others wanted part 4, and didn't want to go first, like me. Anthony never did say what he wanted, but just accepted what was given him. The look on his face told me that he didn't want to do anything at all, but was just playing along. I think that if it hadn't been for Peter, we would never have decided anything.
But it is the outcomes that matter, and the planning phase finally worked itself out. Recall that in functional theory, group members must commit to making the best decision, determine procedures for the group to follow, articulate rules and interaction procedures, review the process, demonstrate an understanding of what we are to do, establish evaluation criteria, develop other solutions, evaluate those and compare them to other criteria, and choose between alternatives.
In some sense, we did those things, but the process was really abbreviated. We mostly got it done by acquiescence more than by active interaction. We accepted what we preferred or were given, there was little discussion about it, and we supposed that dividing the presentation into five parts was really the best solution. We still didn't know what we were supposed to do, or how the five parts would fit together, and we really had no evaluation criteria except for not having questions, which would have left the matter open for more discussion. In essence, Peter, who was the de facto leader, determined, with our silent consent, what the procedures and rules would be, how we would interact, and how we would choose a solution.
Much of the problem was caused, I think, by the awkwardness of being group members for the first time, when we didn't know each other well. No one wanted to step on anyone's toes or claim something that didn't belong to him. We also were content to just get it over with, everybody do his part and throw it together as best we could. I think that if we had had an established group, where we had worked together before and knew each other's strengths and weaknesses, the planning might have gone better because it would have been more in-depth and addressed the presentation more realistically, with much more pride of input into the whole process and product. As it was, we did what we thought we should do, though in hindsight, we could have done much more, and in the process, learned more about how groups really function, and how planning is really an important part of that.
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