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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

August 2014 Issue of NoveList News Featuring Me

Click here to access the entire August 2014 issue of NoveList’s RA news.  Along with a very useful article on how to bed use Tumblr at your library, there is this article by me on Book Discussion First Aid: Reassessing Your Group Dynamics.

I have reposted the article below, but the entire issue is worth a look.  Also, you do not need to be a NoveList subscriber to get this monthly newsletter.  I think it is worth it even when I don’t have an article.  [heehee]

For the lazy bunch, I have reposted my article below.  But first, I have an interesting anecdote to share from book club yesterday.

We met a week late due to my vacation [report on the actual discussion will be up later this week], and a new member joined us.  After we were done she said, “I go to another book club at a different library and this book club was NOTHING like that one.” [her emphasis]

I was nervous because I had no idea if that was a positive or negative statement.  So I said, “Well, I am a unique leader, so....”

She interrupted, “Oh, don’t worry. Yours was much better.”


I guess I have our group dynamic figured out.  Read my article here or posted below to help assess your group dynamic and see if you can improve it.


Book Discussion First Aid: Reassessing Your Group Dynamics

by Becky Spratford

*This article originally appeared in the August 2014 issue of RA News.*

Every book discussion group has its ups and downs, and I have found that the longer a group has been together, the longer the down swings seem to last.  As readers become more comfortable with each other it is easy to fall into bad habits that can drag group discussions down. It is the group's dynamic -- how the group works together [or not] as they discuss the books -- that is frequently to blame So, before you worry that your book choices are making meetings dull, figure out whether or not the group's dynamic is the real issue.  

Several years ago, I noticed that our discussions were becoming...difficult. There was no easy flow of conversation and ideas. One or two people dominated the conversation and participants were not open-minded to the opinions of others. We were having trouble getting deeper than comments such as, "I liked the book!" The lack of give and take in our discussions was upsetting to everyone.  We wanted to get together to have fun and vibrant discussions, but somewhere between our desires and our reality we were missing a critical step.

I found inspiration from my children's elementary school. At the start of each school year, each homeroom teacher and their students work together to develop behavioral norms for the coming year.  Because everyone contributes to the rules, everyone knows up front what is expected of them, of their peers, and of their teacher.  When there are issues, they have a group-created plan for dealing with it. The children were more responsive to correction since their misbehavior was in direct violation of a rule they played a hand in creating.

With that in mind, I initiated a discussion about our group norms. I acknowledged that as the leader I was ultimately responsible for the success and failure of the group, but I wanted to initiate a discussion on our group dynamic, where we could talk openly and freely about how we wanted our discussions to proceed.

Using the school model as a guide, we created two sets of norms: their expectations for me, as the leader; and their expectations for one another, as discussion participants. Having this open discussion about the group also got us out of our book discussion rut.  Everyone had something to add, ideas were flowing freely, and when we finally discussed the book itself, we all felt as if a huge weight had been lifted from our shoulders and had the best book discussion of the year.
This is what my group drafted:

Leader Norms:

  • Read the entire books
  • Gather information to help enhance the discussion
  • Be prepared to offer counter opinions -- even if they differ from your own
  • Be prepared to begin new lines of discussion when necessary
  • Do not let one person monopolize the discussion
  • Be willing and prepared to take control of the group, firmly but respectfully

Group Norms:

  • Make your best effort to complete the book
  • Come ready to both share AND listen
  • Be ready to back up your opinions with the "Why"
  • Self-censor
  • Have a great time -- if you stop enjoying it, let the leader know

You'll notice that these norms are easy to follow: they emphasize common sense and basic courtesy, and require minimal effort. The tools the group needed to keep the discussions flowing smoothly are also embedded in them; we have a clear set of shared rules to refer to as we handle any difficult situations.
For example, if someone dominates the discussion, I can gently remind them that we have agreed to "share AND listen."  And if things devolve further, I can always invoke the norm they have empowered me with: "Be willing and prepared to take control of the group, firmly but respectfully." I once actually dealt with a difficult participant in the heat of a discussion by standing up and literally saying, "It is now time for me to be firm, but respectful." Not only did it defuse the uncomfortable situation, but it made us all giggle, check ourselves, and regain composure.

The second point I want to stress about these norms is that you cannot expect them to work in a vacuum. My group revisits our norms at our December holiday party each year, to talk about what works and what we'd like to change. (in fact, the norms you see above are the product of 5 years of fine tuning!)  I print out copies for everyone and we have an open discussion about our norms while we are enjoying a yummy pot luck lunch. We talk about how we did following them as a group and as individuals over the previous twelve months.  We suggest modifications and vote on our norms for the next calendar year. It's a chance for the whole group to think about how we interact, both the good and the bad. Keeping the process responsive is part of what keeps the group invested in following the norms they set.

Responsive norms will produce results. Norms that you create and never revisit won't.  You need to be engaged in a discussion about the group, its dynamics, what is both working AND failing if you want to keep your discussions viable and fun.

Taking a hard look at your group's dynamic and seriously questioning how you are functioning will go a long way toward improving all of your discussions. It may seem daunting at the outset, but feel free to use this article as an icebreaker to get the conversation going. As I have seen from experience, once you begin discussing the group dynamic, it may be hard to get everyone to stop participating.  But isn't that why you are engaging in this conversation -- to recharge the energy and the give and take of a good discussion? Try it out with your group, and let us know how it went.

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