Act Level of Procedural Communication

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It is at the act level that the facilitator completes a communication analysis of a

process design. Specific message behaviors are required to enact the task and relational

dimensions of an episode. The typical task message behaviors associated

with episodes are to describe, explain and elaborate, evaluate (pros and cons), and

support (reasons and evidence).Message behaviors to enact constructive relational

outcomes are typified by supportive and confirming message behaviors (Gibb,

1961; Sieberg, 1976). For instance, having members participate in an evaluation

episode using proactive descriptive language to phrase negative judgments (that is,

what they would like to see or wish for) may improve the initial idea and minimize

defensive reactions. Such approaches to evaluation can also enhance the solution

advocates’ feeling of inclusion and contribution while supporting group morale and


Using the Four Levels

The analysis of group process needs using the four levels of procedural communication

offers a comprehensive way to identify, plan, and implement facilitative

interventions. The event and activity levels provide a macro analysis that then set

up the microlevel analysis necessary for the episode and act levels. These levels can

then be reviewed for their task and relational fit with the event and the individual

and interpersonal needs of the group (see Exhibit 9.2). The identification of activities,

episodes, and acts can (1) provide the facilitator with a way to critically

develop, plan, and implement processes, keeping in mind both the task and relational

aspects of group decision making; (2) aid in instructing and guiding group

members in expected message behaviors for activity episodes; (3) provide the

facilitator with a way to monitor members’ acts for compliance with an episode

activity; and (4) help the facilitator detect task or relational problems while facilitating

a group.

A Procedural Analysis of Group Facilitation 141

Exhibit 9.2

Procedural Levels of Group Decision-Making Communication

Level Task Relationship

Event Meeting needs (goal, objectives, Group size, involvement and

complexity, constraints, expertise, collaboration needs, comand

information management) munication climate, social

pressures, power relations,

cultural diversity, and others.


Activity Steps, phases, sequence of Promote participation,

activities to fulfill decision- consensus, morale, individmaking

functions (such as ual and group creativity, and

problem identification, analysis, satisfaction

idea generation, and evaluation

and selection) to increase

decision quality


Episode Give and seek instruction, Establish who gives or seeks

ideas, information, judgment, what and when; coordinaand

choices to fulfill activity tion of individual communicontent

function cation for participation

and constructive interaction



Acts Specific communication Supportive and confirming

behaviors (such as describing, message behaviors (such as

explaining, evaluating, and listening and acknowledgsupporting)

to enact episode ing ideas and feeling, seeking

understanding) versus

defensive and disconfirming

(such as competitive, personal

attacks, inflexibility,

and domination)



The most common problems associated with decision-making meetings are directly

related to communication practices that limit or obstruct member participation

and minimize or neglect the treatment of matters that enhance the quality of

decisions. The use of open or free discussion approaches to group decision-making

poses a recognized problem to promoting member participation (see Fox, 1987;

Sunwolf and Seibold, 1999) and critical treatment of decision-making communication

(see Hirokawa and Salazar, 1999). The process designs selected for this

analysis were developed to minimize these problems by providing procedures that

support participation and focus communication on the requirements of critical,

effective decision making. They do so by establishing meeting procedures, norms,

and rules to establish and guide who can say what, and when, during decisionmaking

communication. (See Chilberg, 1989, on the degree to which process designs

vary in terms of controlling meeting communication behaviors.) The

procedures and rules are typically organized in steps or sequences of activities that

involve one or more episodes that establish opportunities for communication acts

appropriate to the task and development of productive member relationships.

Using three distinctly different process designs developed for decision-making

meetings—interaction method, the nominal group technique, and synectics—the

following analysis will identify the task and relational dimensions of each of

the four levels of procedural communication.

Interaction Method for Conducting Meetings

The interaction method developed by Michael Doyle and David Straus (1976) was

designed to promote effective group meetings by designing several rules for preventing

communication-based problems and four meeting roles to enact the

process design. The method was developed to arrest problems commonly observed

across a variety of groups and meetings: the wandering discussion, inappropriate

discussion procedures, obstructions to participation and consensus, and ineffective

information management. Although Doyle and Straus’s work covered numerous

issues relevant to effective meeting facilitation, these problems were central

to the process design.

Process Design Overview The interaction method process designates four

roles to prevent the typical meeting problems; the facilitator, the recorder, member,

A Procedural Analysis of Group Facilitation 143

and member/manager. The facilitator’s job entails having members identify and

maintain a discussion focus that includes a desired outcome. In addition, the facilitator

makes sure all members have an opportunity to participate in discussion

and weigh in on all decisions concerned with selecting the focus, focus procedures,

and substantive decisions. Consensus decision making is recommended for all decisions

unless the group decides otherwise (for example, to use majority voting),

and a “no-attack rule” is enforced to promote participation and prevent “flight-orfight”

meeting behaviors. The designated recorder manages meeting information

by providing a group memory that visually displays before the group the meeting

foci, information, and outcomes. This practice supports maintaining foci and procedures,

provides access to meeting information and a meeting record for future

reference, and allows meeting participants and the facilitator to concentrate on the

business of the meeting.

The members and manager/member are responsible for following the process

rules and together have control of meeting content. They are also responsible for

seeing that the facilitator and recorder perform their duties and maintain their

roles as neutral third parties unless members agree to permit them to offer content

or procedural suggestions. The manager/member may establish meeting goals

and provide substantive guidelines or constraints for decision making. Otherwise,

the manager/member is treated as any other participant and held to the same

process rules.

Procedural Communication Analysis At the event level, the process design is

meant to address the most common problems of meetings: member involvement

and participation.Meetings are notorious for uneven participation (see Fox, 1987;

Sunwolf and Seibold, 1999) and ineffective and inefficient practices that have a

negative impact on meeting communication and undermine decision quality and

member satisfactions. Jensen and Chilberg (1991) derived four rules to operationalize

the procedural guidelines of the interaction method; the focus rule, tool

rule, consensus rule, and the no-attack rule.

The focus rule requires that members establish and state a focus for discussion

that establishes the topic, purpose, and desired result or outcome. Topical agenda

items tend to include numerous issues that are hidden or not recognized, thus leading

to discussion that wanders (Doyle and Straus, 1976). For example, “discussion

of fundraising” is too general and open-ended, whereas a procedural agenda item

such as “generate a list of fundraising ideas” is more definitive and directive. The

former could allow all sorts of messages on fundraising, whereas the latter would

limit discussion to ideas for fundraising and require making a list in some manner.

The focus rule can help a group recognize that a decision goal may involve numerous

foci. For example, a discussion on fundraising ideas can be separated into generating

ideas, selecting a few promising ideas, judging the pros and cons of each

selected idea, and deciding on the most promising idea, among others. The focus

rule can aid groups in effective, critical decision making by decomposing complex

agenda items that have numerous distinct but related procedural tasks and establishing

the desired result for each. Task process effectiveness may also contribute

to group satisfaction by reducing the frustration created from cross-task communication

where no task gets critical or thorough treatment.

Meeting events that involve complex tasks and open discussions that become

unproductive and dissatisfying are candidates for the focus rule. The first activity

is to establish the first focus. This activity requires the facilitator to guide two

episodes: soliciting ideas on foci and choosing a focus. The soliciting episode would

require acts that produce ideas comprising a clear topic, purpose, and desired outcome.

The choosing episode would require acts of narrowing choices, explanation,

evaluating, and supporting (for example, reasoning, pros and cons, and evidence).

Although the interaction method provides a clear and useful guideline to support

effective decision making, it leaves some implementation details up to the

facilitator. A facilitator’s effectiveness could be enhanced by recognizing what

episodes and acts are involved in conducting the focus activity. A facilitator of a

group that is contentious, diverse, faced with complex tasks, and accustomed to

unbridled discussion could establish more elaborate rules. For example, when

soliciting ideas for a focus, the facilitator could require a brief rationale for the

focus or list all foci followed by seeking members’ needs for elaboration, followed

by pros and cons for first choice preferences.

The focus rule sets up the second rule and activity of the process design,

the tool rule. This rule asks group members to consider the best way to handle a

focus and implicitly questions the tendency and efficacy of open discussion for all

and any foci. It is a procedural rule that poses some requirements on the communication

practices appropriate for conducting the focus. For example, if the focus

establishes that an outcome will be a list of ideas, the selected procedure must attend

to it in some manner. The interaction method leaves this decision to the group

and offers the facilitator an opportunity to make a recommendation. This poses an

opportunity to address the participatory and relational circumstances of the group

A Procedural Analysis of Group Facilitation 145

by advocating procedures that incorporate activities to increase participation,

reduce domination, or ease tension. The tool rule activity is similar to the focus

rule activity in that it requires idea seeking and giving and idea selection episodes.

The acts needed for both of these episodes would be similar to those identified

for the focus rule, with one exception: tools could require an instructional episode

involving explanatory acts to instruct members on the required activities, episodes,

and acts to use the tool. For instance, the facilitator could suggest a comprehensive

approach to a decision-making task, such as nominal group technique, which has

its own set of activities, episodes, and acts, or recommend a timed round robin to

attain a quick sense of members’ opinions on decision options. In concert with the

focus rule, the tool rule can enhance task effectiveness by resulting in the selection

of practices that promote more critical and thorough decision-making activities.

It offers relational payoffs by avoiding the participatory liabilities of an inappropriate

use of open discussion while choosing practices that can support diverse

and equitable participation.

The last two rules of the interaction method, the consensus and no-attack rules,

further member participation by promoting involvement, commitment, and sense

of collective action. The consensus rule is implemented when there is a choicemaking

situation (including the focus and tool selection choices). It is intended to

keep the group together and prevent domineering members from hijacking the

meeting.Where decision options are already established from previous episodes,

the consensus rule enacts a judgment and choosing episode. The facilitator engages

the group in consensus decision making by having members engage in evaluative

and supporting acts of communication over preferred options.Members

are asked to agree to a choice only if they can genuinely accept or live with it. In

addition, the no-attack rule asks members to avoid personal criticism and permits

the facilitator to remind members when they do. This reinforces the importance

of a positive, confirming relational communication, and reinforces a constructive

and productive communication climate.

Nominal Group Technique for Idea Generating

Process Design Overview André Delbecq and Andrew Van de Ven (1986) developed

this process design to aid groups in idea generation and consensus. It is

suited for meeting events where collective involvement is needed to identify problems

and solutions among members who vary in personal interests, expertise,

culture, and ideology (Ulschak, Nathanson, and Gillan, 1981). Research indicates

that nominal approaches to idea generating outperform interactive approaches in

the quantity and quality of ideas. Nominal group technique (NGT) is most helpful

in situations where social pressure, evaluation, or social loafing hinders idea

generation, creative thinking, task emphasis, and participation (Sunwolf and

Seibold, 1999).

Procedural Communication Analysis At the activity level of procedural communication,

NGT emphasizes individual work and minimizes interaction through

six major steps: silent idea generating, round robin reporting, discussion for clarification,

ranking by importance, and repeating the last two steps to finalize a decision

choice (Ulschak,Nathanson, and Gillan, 1981). Each step requires instructional

episodes followed by the requisite activity episodes. From the communication

perspective offered here, NGT has two main activities: idea generating and idea

selection. The idea-generating activity has three episodes: silent idea generation,

idea giving, and soliciting clarification. The first episode requires members to write

short statements on the session focus (for example, identify problems with X

or solutions to problem Y). This is followed by an idea-giving episode using a

round robin technique where members take turns presenting one idea at a time

until all ideas are recorded verbatim by the facilitator. Members are invited to

silently hitchhike on others’ ideas and report them at the end of the round robin.

This episode is characterized by descriptive acts.Members are not to explain or

evaluate, just report. The discussion and clarification of ideas is held off until the

information-seeking episode. From a task perspective, these episodes contribute

to maximizing the quantity and diversity of ideas by preventing the loss of ideas

due to premature discussion or evaluation. From a relational perspective, these

episodes promote personal and collective ownership of the decision-making event

and reinforce constructive member relationships through equalizing member participation,

emphasizing supportive acts, coordinating interaction, and encouraging

members to build on each other’s ideas.

The information-seeking episode for idea clarification is the only time when

members interact. The facilitator reviews each idea one at a time and asks participants

“to ask one another the meaning of words and phrases. . . . Discussion can

and should convey the meaning, logic, and thought behind an idea” (Ulschak,

Nathanson, and Gillan, 1981, p. 87). Discussion is to focus on seeking clarification;

thus, communication acts are descriptive and explanatory—evaluative acts are

not permitted. The clarification episode directs interaction toward descriptive and

A Procedural Analysis of Group Facilitation 147

explanatory acts, thus minimizing the potential for ideational or interpersonal

conflict while emphasizing clarity and understanding.

The next step of NGT is an idea selection activity requiring members to engage

in a silent evaluation episode by rank-ordering a specified number of ideas based

on importance or preference. The silent ranking is meant to promote independent

judgments by reducing social pressures (Ulschak, Nathanson, and Gillan, 1981).

Once this step is completed, the ranked ideas are listed on a master chart for review.

The remaining steps of NGT can be implemented if the ranking episode reveals

inconsistencies, ambiguous consensus, or preferences for a questionable option. A

second round of discussion similar to the clarification-seeking episode can be conducted

to ensure the initial ranking was not due to misunderstandings or incomplete

information. A final round of ranking follows.

The main communication features of NGT are its emphasis on pooling individual

ideas, limiting interaction to descriptive and explanatory acts, and sharing

personal choices. It has a strong task emphasis and notable emphasis on intragroup

relationship management. It is well suited for gathering ideas and preferences regarding

contentious decisions; it avoids complications arising from highly interactive

meetings where differences of views can undermine both task and relational


Synectics for Creative Problem Solving

Process Design Overview The George Prince (1970) version of synectics is a

solution-centered process design used to solve difficult problems creatively. It is

a completely scripted process involving a client with a problem, participants who

serve as the generators of creative perspectives and potential solutions, and the facilitator

who orients and guides members through the meeting process. Synectics

is an atypical approach to group decision making in that the only person invested

in the problem is the client, who is the problem owner and expert who offers problem

background and evaluates solutions developed by the participants. Participants

have no vested interest in the problem and perform their creative

idea-generating role based on the client’s problem background. The facilitator ensures

that the client and participants perform the prescribed activities, episodes,

and acts of group members to create tenable solutions for the client.

Unlike other process designs where event analysis is multifaceted and fundamental

to selecting a process design, the synectics meeting is relatively eventless.

It is meant to help a client with a solution-resistant problem. The facilitator and

participants are neutral parties whose concern is with performing their respective

roles employing creative practices. The creative promise of this process design is

cultivated by minimizing constraints to group creativity and maximizing divergent

thinking (see Jarboe, 1999).

Procedural Communication Analysis The activities, episodes, and acts of

synectics are well detailed from the sequence of steps to specific language used in

performing communication acts (see Jensen and Chilberg, 1991 or Ulschak,

Nathanson, and Gillan, 1981, for more detailed summary). There are three activities:

problem analysis, solution development, and solution planning. The second

two activities can be repeated in efforts to generate additional solutions. Each

activity has several episodes with specific communication protocols that can be

repeated as needed to develop tenable solutions. The problem analysis activity

begins with an episode that occurs prior to the group meeting when the facilitator

works with the client using several scripted questions to discern the problem

background, unworkable solutions, and desired results and establish the problem

in a how-to form (for example, how to make a frame for a portable solar mirror).

When the group is assembled, this analytic episode is repeated; the

participants sit together listening to the client’s answers to the facilitator’s questions.

While listening, the participants are instructed to engage in an informationseeking

episode to acquire additional information or clarification. At the same

time, participants engage in a solution development activity by generating ideas

silently in the form of metaphorical how-to statements (for example, how to use

a sky hook, how to use a spoon). They use the problem analysis information along

with the client’s implied wishes and needs to reframe the problem regardless of

how strange or unusual the reframing might be.

The participants’ how-to statements set up the beginning of the solution

development activity. First, the facilitator initiates an idea-seeking episode by

soliciting and listing the participants’ how-to ideas for the client’s review. Second,

the facilitator engages the client in a choice-seeking episode and explanatory act

by selecting a how-to statement that stands out and explains why it was chosen.

Third, for the selected statement, the facilitator solicits ideas for solutions from the

client and then the participants. This idea-giving episode calls for descriptive and

explanatory communication acts where the facilitator coaches participants to work

on one idea at a time, build on an initial idea, and credit the previous person for

the contribution. This approach to solution development promotes both task and

A Procedural Analysis of Group Facilitation 149

relational features of the group process by encouraging attention to one idea at a

time while acknowledging participants’ contributions. Creative behavior, preventing

negative judgment of others, and acknowledgment of ideas can promote

group morale and member satisfaction (see Jarboe, 1999).

Once an idea is formed, an evaluation-seeking episode ensues where the client

in asked to engage in evaluative acts using the spectrum policy (Prince, 1970). Solution

evaluation involves three steps, which require the client to paraphrase the

solution, describe all of its positive features, and then state what, if anything, he

would wish to see added to it. This approach to evaluation reinforces productive

task and supportive relational outcomes by first checking on the client’s understanding

of the idea, followed by identifying what works for the client while confirming

the contributions of the participants. In addition, the client’s concerns with

the solution are not stated in a negative manner but posed as additional features

for a viable solution. These desired features set up a feedback loop where the participants

are asked how to modify the initial solution to make it more workable

for the client, followed by a reevaluation of the modified solution with additional

cycles of how-to’s and reevaluation as needed. This process avoids the problems

associated with the emphasis on negative aspects of a solution that can lead to dropping

it prematurely. It also prevents the dampening of enthusiasm and creativity

associated with evaluation and negative criticism (see Jarboe, 1999).

Once the client perceives a possible solution, the process moves into the solution

development activity where the client is asked to determine if the solution is

a new idea, next steps for implementation, and if there are any residual concerns

with the solution. If there are any residual concerns, the facilitator asks the client

and participants for how-to’s that could resolve the concern, followed by a cycle of

the client evaluation and solution planning activities.When a possible solution is

developed, or should a cycle fail to provide a possible solution, the facilitator asks

the client to pick another metaphoric how-to and the process, activities, and

episodes are repeated.

Synectics, unlike most other process designs, not only identifies process activities

and episodes but also establishes the specific phrasing of key communication

acts to promote fruitful task and relational results. The design promotes the task

aspects of group problem solving in many ways, most notably through structuring

and coordinating problem-solving interaction, separating the creative and evaluative

roles, and employing feedback loops to develop viable solutions. The most

notable relational features are associated with the consistent opportunities for

participation, acknowledgment of participants’ ideas, and elimination of negative

idea evaluation. These features can motivate participation and support creative

thinking that can contribute to productive and satisfying problem-solving events.