Paying Attention to Group Formation Dynamics

In this post let’s look at some of the brilliant work of nonverbal communication expert Michael Grinder.

As Grinder teaches, when doing facilitation work, whether running a workshop, delivering a training, or giving a talk, an important variable to pay attention to is how FORMED the group is. Let’s start with a couple vignettes.

Imagine, you arrive in the room early and make sure everything is set up and ready to go. As the start time approaches you sit at the front and casually greet attendees as they enter.

Here’s what follows.

Vignette 1

As the room fills you observe things are pretty quiet. As attendees settle into their seats, they are mostly facing forward and waiting for the workshop to begin, looking through the printed materials you’ve provided, or looking at their phones.

When you announce it’s time to get started, the room is silent. All eyes are on you. You introduce the first group activity and notice there isn’t much movement. People hesitantly eye each other. Some stay put and wait for others to approach them. You decide to step in and facilitate.

Wrapping up the activity, everyone quickly returns to their seats and waits for you to start speaking again. You start the next section with a joke. Some people laugh, some smile and nod, some have no reaction at all.

Halfway through the next section a guy toward the back keeps interrupting you with questions. Your diplomatic answers don’t stem his repeated attempts to hijack the presentation. He does it again and you notice others move their heads back slightly as their eyes widen.

They glance around the room and then stare intently back at you, waiting.

Vignette 2

You notice people coming into the room in groups of two, three, and sometimes more. Everyone is chatting with each other and, though they greet you warmly, otherwise don’t pay all that much attention to you.

When you announce it’s time to get started, many in the room keep chatting as you attempt to gain their attention. You take a few steps to the side and say, “OK NOW THAT IT,” quite loudly. You freeze. When you can tell you have their attention, you look down, take a couple steps forward, and continue speaking in your normal voice.

Later you introduce the first group activity. People start chatting, automatically divide into groups, and dive right in. Wrapping up the activity, people linger and continue to chat. You have to ask several times for people to return to their seats and shift their focus back to you.

You start the next section with a joke. A few people laugh loudly and it spreads throughout the entire group. Someone then adds to your joke and the group laughs even louder.

Halfway through the next section a guy toward the back interrupts you a few times. You notice people in the room rolling their eyes. Someone else addresses him by name and advises him to take it offline.

The Six Indicators

These two vignettes feel quite different, don’t they? And yet there’s only one big difference between them. In Vignette 1, the group is largely UNFORMED. In Vignette 2, the group is more FORMED.

It’s a variable that’s both easy to ignore and makes a huge difference to your job as facilitator. In his book, Managing Groups (2011), Grinder describes six things to watch for to assess how formed a group is.

1. Where are people looking before you begin?

Unformed: Attendees by and large do not know each other. Once seated, they will mostly be facing straight ahead, waiting for you to kick things off. People might be looking at their laptops, phones, or looking down at any materials you may have provided. Your conversation with people in the room should focus more on bonding them with each other.

Formed: People will be acquainted with one another. Before you begin, there will be more people facing each other, in pairs or in small groups, and the room will have more spontaneous conversation. Your conversation with people in the room should be more focused on bonding yourself to the established group.

2. What is the speed of transition into group activities?

Unformed: When you introduce an activity where attendees need to pair up or form small teams, there will be more hesitancy. Some people will stay put and wait for others to approach them. Look for people turning their heads toward others while still looking at YOU, perhaps hoping you’ll step in and take over.

And maybe you should. You can save time and ease discomfort by assigning pairs or teams for them. To decrease confusion and increase their sense of safety, make sure the agenda, instructions, and goal of the activity are clearly displayed.

Formed: People who already know each other will more readily turn their heads and eyes toward each other and start talking. They will be more eager to transfer their attention from you to one another.

3. How fast do they switch their attention back to you?

Unformed: When time is up people will more quickly switch their attention from the activity back to you. You, as the facilitator, are still more important to them than each other.

Formed: As attendees become more bonded with one another, or if they already are, they will want to wrap up their conversations before giving their attention back to you. You’ll have a more difficult time reclaiming the room’s attention. In fact, it might be a challenge.

I’ve seen facilitators use a variety of tricks to deal with this dynamic, from raising a hand and waiting for everyone else to raise theirs, to turning the lights off in the room! Grinder shares a more subtle approach, a great example of what I call a facilitation “magic trick.” He calls it “ABOVE (Pause) Whisper.”

Here’s the technique:

Move away from where you have been standing to speak. Shout an incomplete sentence, several words, louder than the group’s volume (ABOVE). Freeze your body. If you were floating a hand while speaking, freeze it in place. This includes your gaze. Stand there, frozen, staring at the group, until they are sufficiently quiet to hear you (Pause). Drop your hand(s), look down, and take several steps forward. Now that you have the group’s attention you start speaking to them as you normally would (Whisper).

4. How well do they know each other?

Unformed: Attendees are lacking information about each other’s personalities and styles. Thus, how you treat one person will be more how others will expect you to treat them as well. If someone is being disruptive and you handle it with a heavy hand, your reaction as facilitator might have a greater negative effect in an unformed group.  

Formed: People will be aware of each other’s styles. If someone is apt to interrupt or ask gotcha questions, the rest of the group will likely be aware of this fact. There is greater knowledge of and appreciation for individual differences. If you handle the person from the example above in the same way, in a formed group it’s less likely to be seen as reflecting how you’ll interact with others.

5. Who is providing the safety?

Unformed: The facilitator shoulders even more responsibility to ensure smooth sailing. If the room is too hot, if the coffee isn’t refilled, if the agenda isn’t flowing well, such hiccups will have a greater impact on the group’s perceptions of your abilities.

As a group is first forming, interacting with each other will make many feel uncomfortable. They will by relying heavily on you as the facilitator for its source of feeling at ease. You can provide this sense of safety by appearing confident, having a clear agenda, being on your game as you facilitate activities, and making sure you’ve covered your bases with respect to the amenities.

Formed: Members provide EACH OTHER with their overall sense of safety, which means you are actually less important to them overall. That’s a good thing, by the way. One of the things you want to facilitate is their own effectiveness AS A GROUP, whether you’re there or not.

6. How varied are their responses?

Unformed: Responses to your requests will be more staggered, more heterogeneous. If you ask the group to pair up, some will start doing it while others hold back, looking at you uncertainly. If you ask them to be back from a break at a certain time, some will and others will trickle in at various times.

Formed: Responses will be more homogeneous. Attendees will more readily dive into group activities. They will tend to return from lunch or breaks as a group (or large subgroups). If you tell a joke, it’s more likely either no one laughs all that much or the whole group laughs.


As a group becomes more formed, its collective self-reliance increases. That’s a good thing. It’s similar to Mark Bowden’s notion of “lazy leadership.” As a facilitator, you ideally want to be able to leave the room altogether and for the group to keep working just as effectively.

Part of your job as a facilitator is getting them there. By way of comparison, think of Tuckman’s famous model. You can’t get to the storming, norming, and performing if you don’t get the group to “form.”

Below is a summary of Grinder’s six indicators of group formation.

Until next time.


Grinder, M. (2011). Managing groups (the fast track): A simple guide to manage your group from good to great (2nd ed.). Battle Ground, WA: Michael Grinder & Associates.

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