1. Characteristics of a group

1.2 Physical Environment

Several critical factors in group dynamics - flow of communication, perception of status, emergence of leadership, for example - are affected by things like the physical position of group members, their distance apart, and their body orientations. These in turn are strongly influenced by the shape and size of the room in which a group meets, and the spatial arrangement of chairs and tables. A long, narrow room will probably limit eye contact along its length and impel members to talk to others across the room, but not along it. Anyone who sits at the end of a long table or behind the only desk in the room is likely to be accorded leadership status. Dominant members will tend to choose the more central seats in any group situation, and reticent ones may even try to sit outside the group. The further apart members are, the less talkative and more formal is the interaction likely to be. Tables create a physical barrier which may be reassuring in groups where formality is of the essence, or where there is a wish to maintain personal distance or space. They may also be invaluable as a writing surface. A lack of tables may be threatening to some but it usually encourages openness and informality.

Personal space, the area around a person which he or she regards as private, will of course vary from individual to individual, but it is clear that people of higher status often prefer, or are accorded, greater distance between them and others. (The seats on either side of a tutor in an otherwise undifferentiated circle of chairs are often the last to be filled by students.)

The location of a group meeting has its effect too. The tutor's room is his or her territory and underlines the authority role. The student union bar on the other hand could be a more egalitarian venue but has the drawback of invasion by others, not to mention licensing limitations. Just as groups may assume territorial rights over physical space and objects, so members may act territorially about positions in a room.

Questions to ask about physical arrangements:

  • What associations does the room have in the minds of the students?
  • Is it the tutor's room, a formal classroom, or some neutral area?
  • Is the room to be a regular venue?
  • Might discussion be vulnerable to noise or interruption?
  • Can everyone be equally spaced?
  • Is anyone (especially the tutor) likely to have a special position e.g. behind a desk or at the head of a table?
  • What can be done by moving furniture, to improve communication in the group?
  • Can everyone make eye contact with each other?
  • How possible is it to rearrange the grouping of chairs and tables?

Figure 1 shows some commonly used "layouts" of chairs and tables. You might like to consider which alternative you might choose for a discussion group of any particular kind.

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