PROCEDURES AND THE FUNCTIONS OF GROUP COMMUNICATION

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Benne and Sheats’s influential study (1948) on group communication identified

three main functions of message behaviors—task, maintenance (social and relational),

and self-serving—and the types and purposes of message behaviors associated

with each. Procedural message behaviors were minimal and folded into the

task and relational functions, giving them an incomplete treatment and subordinate

status (Chilberg, 1989). Although task and relational functions of communication

are inherent in the procedural function, the importance of the procedural

function for effective group decision making has gained attention. There is a significant

body of research on the influences of formal procedures on group process,

member relationships, and task outcomes that indicate procedures for discussion,

decision making, and problem solving to enhance group performance. “At the same

time ‘which procedure(s) should be used, and under what circumstances, remains

unclear’” (Sunwolf and Seibold, 1999, p. 395). Off-the-shelf process designs provide

more or less adequate information for their implementation, but the facilitator

is frequently left to his own devices in advocating and guiding procedural

A Procedural Analysis of Group Facilitation 137

choices, monitoring group members’ performance, and intervening with regard

to group members’ task and relational message behaviors. Facilitators should be

concerned with more than monitoring the step-by-step procedures of a process

design; they should also attend to the relational implications of the procedures and

actual members’ communication behaviors.

The facilitator who is cognizant of the task and relational functions of message

behaviors required by procedures achieves a more critical understanding of process

designs. Such understanding is an aid in selecting and facilitating a process design

that fits a group’s task and relational circumstances. It helps the facilitator discern

the fit of a process with a particular group and its decision goals, establishes task

and relational message requirements, and provides a basis for monitoring compliance

with or need for adaptation of the process design.

For example, a multistakeholder steering committee for a group decision forum

established the problem to be solved by a group.When the facilitator stated the

problem to establish the focus for the next step, an influential member expressed

dissatisfaction with the problem statement. The facilitator solicited the objections

of the member and soon recognized that the objection was based in a power issue:

whose interests were going to define the problem to be solved. The facilitator

offered a more inclusive phrasing of the problem that satisfied the objector and

was acceptable to all present. The facilitator’s ability to read the messages of the

dissatisfied member at both the task and relational levels contributed to her ability

to resolve the dispute without a protracted discussion or additional process in

an already time-constrained meeting.

A process design is valuable, but being able to “see” from a communication

perspective can be useful. It is not enough to know if members are off-task or following

the rules of good group citizenship. Communication is more than a conduit

of information or just performing decision-making tasks. It also constructs,

or “makes,” the group’s reality of itself, decisions, and the context in which it is embedded.

“Group decisions [are] social products emerging from and embedded in a

‘social milieu’ (or ‘reality’) that is both created and sustained through communication”

(Poole and Salazar, 1999, p. 172). Group communication can reproduce or

alter group reality and decisions. The consummate facilitator maximizes constructive

and productive interventions by providing and facilitating procedural

messages that address both the decision-making tasks and the relational aspects

of group communication.