It’s the unavoidable fate that most university students venture through when studying: group work. Negative group work experiences have been widely published through today’s social platforms and academic literature; volumes of how-to guides and beginner manuals line students’ bookshelves and toolbar bookmarks. Despite all the available group work how-to literature, those who experience negative situations in group work often attribute them to group members’ behaviour, including failing to attend designated meetings and a lack of quality in completed work.
In 1986, when a ‘toolbar bookmark’ would have caused confusion for mechanics and librarians alike, Moshe F. Rubinstein detailed that the key tools for group work were to listen to each other, empathise, and to remain focused on what is within your control. While it’s been over 30 years since Rubinstein first penned this notion, it still rings true today - and not just in a university environment, but in nearly every workplace as well.
So, what exactly can we control?
The answer: ourselves.
Training ourselves to think more rationally in order to resolve conflict may seem, well, rational, but putting aside your emotions is often easier said than done. However, it might be the key to opening a new door in moderating your own behaviour in group work.
Theoretically, it’s called, ‘intrapersonal communication’. The central concept, in a nutshell, explains the everyday phenomena that occurs as we (human beings) process and make sense of the world around us in any given situation where we need to interact with other human beings (Trenholm & Jensen, 2004).
Entwined with intrapersonal communication is the theory of ‘emotional intelligence’. First coined in 1990 by Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer (not the singer, he’s more into straight-up emotional), the term focuses on the need for individuals to pick up on the non-verbal cues shared by others. This enables them to understand an individual’s feelings and emotions, and to guide effective communication and subsequent action. Yet, unlike Rubinstein’s notions, this theory has continued to be widely documented, having more recently been defined by Jarret Cortes (2012) as ‘a self-perceived ability to identify, assess, and control the emotions of oneself, of others, and of groups’.
Still not convinced this thinking is used to ensure group work success? Member of Forbes Media Coaches Council, Monica Thakrar, saw the importance of emotional intelligence in group work, and believes in three focus areas to ensure overall group success and growth: an understanding of one’s own emotions, developing ways in which to manage them, and developing empathy for other members’ emotions (2012).
‘But,’ you ask, ‘how can I ensure intrapersonal communication plays a key part in the success of my next group work project?’
Once you meet your fellow group members, make an effort to get to know them. This will give you an initial understanding of the personalities you will be working with and a chance to create rapport before the real work begins. It will better your chances of understanding why members might react in certain ways, and how they approach their responsibilities in a group situation.
Once you have gotten to know your group members, take the time to categorise which group members you feel more comfortable with, and those who you might find difficult to work with. This will guide you in identifying opportunities or strategies on the best way forward for a cohesive, productive journey; and will help you to understand how each member will best perform in producing your project together.
Now that you have identified those members who you may conflict with, you can determine how best to approach each member. For example, you may find it easier to communicate with these members through technology or face-to-face, in a serious or laid-back manner, or even through another group member. This will safeguard the ways in which you manage your feelings between those members you sense possible conflict with.
Understanding your own emotions, and those of others, will enable you to internally recognise how these crucial moments may determine the fate of the group’s success. Consequently, not only will this acknowledgment diffuse current conflict, but you will identify the issues that affect members negatively, and so avoid similar situations in the future.
As you progress through the project, with a good grasp on what personalities are in your group, your own compatibility, the best ways to communicate and an idea of how the group members express their emotions, it’s important to make sure you continue to work with compassion with each member’s actions and to not act negatively if a situation unfolds in a way you didn’t expect. Although you are all students, you are all on different walks of life, and what you consider a priority may not be the case for someone else, due to individual understanding, life situations and competence. Keeping calm and showing compassion for each other will instil encouragement and support your fellow team members, and you will have a better chance of moving forward effectively through the assignment process.
So, next time you’re faced with group work, take a moment to check in with yourself first with these five easy steps. Because although the conversation around what we can control in group work has only developed in the last 30 years, listening and showing empathy to others will be forever timeless.
Cortes, J. (2012). Emotional Intelligence & Positive Psychology. New Dehli: World Technologies.
Hartley, P. (1999). Interpersonal Communication, (2nd edn). London: Routledge.
Publications Team. (2002). Emotional Intelligence. Toowoomba: University of Southern Queensland. Retrieved January 11, 2019, http://common.books24x7.com.ezproxy.usq.edu.au/toc.aspx?bookid=12848.
Rubinstein, M. F. (1986). Tools for Thinking and Problem Solving, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.
Trenholm, S. & Jensen, A. (2004). Interpersonal Communication. (5th edn). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Thakrar, M. (2019). How (And Why) To Develop Your Emotional Intelligence, Retrieved January 17, 2019, https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescoachescouncil/2018/03/22/how-and-why-to-develop-your-emotional-intelligence/#41809f4c669b