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close this bookCommunity Participation in Problem-solving: Leadership (HABITAT, 1989, 35 p.)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentGuidelines for the trainer
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentA statement of principles
View the documentI. Styles of leadership
View the documentII. The power of leaders
View the documentIII. The maturity of groups
View the documentIV. Leading a problem-solving group
View the documentV. Using participatory problem-solving techniques
View the documentBibliography

IV. Leading a problem-solving group

Running problem-solving discussions is one of the crucial tasks for project leaders, but it is also one of the most difficult. It certainly is if the session is not merely a talk followed by questions - as many so-called discussions tend to be. To structure an occasion where all participants are free to provide information and express views - where the discussion leader does not behave as the only authority - calls for a particular kind of sensitivity in interpersonal relationships and a familiarity with certain group-management skills.

Formal meetings

However, there is an important distinction to be made between formal and informal group meetings. The former are "business" meetings and are bound by set procedures for the conduct and recording of what happens. The latter are flexible in the way discussion proceeds; nevertheless, there is no reason why they should be at all casual in their approach.

When groups are operating according to standardized committee procedures, many of the interpersonal problems encountered in group-work are avoided. The "parliamentary" rules tend to override other customary factors and considerations. However, the rigid committee approach has its limitations. When the business is clear-cut and the emphasis is on making majority decisions, the formal committee approach might be appropriate, but, when the concern is to explore ideas, reach understanding of issues or solve complex problems, flexible group-work methods should be used.

However, the less rigid the rules of debate, the more the group will tend to behave according to traditional or habitual patterns, and the more important it becomes for the group facilitator to be aware of and sensitive to these customary influences. A lot of the literature and training approaches related to group-leading skills comes from the West. Quite often what is recommended does not easily fit non-Western societies - particularly the less affluent sectors of developing societies. Therefore, it is important to adapt any so-called "modern" methodologies to the practices of the people with whom we are working.

So, let us review some of the likely characteristics of groups in traditional and non-Western societies.

Expected behaviour in groups

Group membership is a vital factor in most communities. Throughout their lifespans, most individuals belong to a variety of groups - usually based on clan, age or work relationships. Also, traditional groupings of individuals occur for a wide variety of purposes, such as the settling of interpersonal or family disputes, the initiation of the young in terms of family or social responsibilities, the supporting of dependent community members, and the planning and organizing of community projects.

People living in traditional but still integrated societies still have powerful incentives for joining and participating in groups: the habit of group-membership still persists. To be effective in working with such groups, we need to be sensitive to whatever habitual ways of communication are present. In some societies, age Is a determining factor as to who speaks when, how often and to whom. Young people are expected to be respectful of their elders, deferential to their opinions, careful not to contradict or answer back. Women, especially young women, might be expected to speak in mixed groups only when invited to do so.

In the countries of Europe or in North America, a discussion might be rated as "good" or "lively" when participants are animated and quick to cut across one another in the enthusiasm of debate. In other countries, however, such animation and interruptions might be rated as "rude" or "chaotic". Similarly, it might be regarded as bad manners to become emotional or "overheated". Contrary to the advice given in some management- training manuals from the West, where speed in decision-making is related to efficiency, there are many communities in developing countries where the controlling belief of discussions is that people should be given time to have their say and that decisions should never be made hurriedly. In most developing countries leaders or authority figures are particularly respected - even by their age-mates. They are listened to more than other participants in a group.

From your own experience in your own project areas, perhaps you would want to discard some of these points or add others to the list, but, no doubt, you will agree that to be blinkered to customary values and communication patterns would seriously reduce your ability to build harmonious and productive relationships.


Some of these characteristics do pose problems for a community-development worker who is trying to maximize participation in problem-solving and decision-making. How, for instance, might the traditional attitudes to women's participation in group discussions - or a great deference to authority figures - affect your attempts to involve as many residents as possible in the planning and implementation of projects?

In all that is said in this manual about generating discussion and using problem-solving techniques, these other influencing factors should be borne in mind. Sometimes, there will be a degree of incompatibility between the "modern" recommended strategies and the "traditional" patterns of communication. You will be called on as a community worker or leader to make adaptations to customary patterns of interaction or to persuade groups to use discussion methods to which they are not accustomed. This, of course, is more easily said than done.

The problem is related to expectations and confidence. People who are not used to democratic discussion methods are often reluctant to allow any leader figure to come down from the pedestal they erect for him in their minds. This point is highlighted in the following story of a priest:


A priest established a Bible study group in his parish. He wanted it to be an occasion where people could come together, to learn together and to learn from one another. He wanted to be an ordinary member of the group, but the parishioners who attended would not let him be that. Always, they looked to him for "the answer" on any question at issue. So he left the group to its own devices for six months and only rejoined when they had developed their own style and confidence.

This is what often happens to community workers when they are seen as the "experts" even on matters that deeply affect the well-being of the people themselves. However, to walk away from your project for six months is not the only answer. There are some useful suggestions in what follows that can be applied in any community for facilitating problem-solving groups where all participants feel able to contribute.

The role of the leader

The second manual in the series on Project Support Communication deals with the conduct of meetings and focuses on the formal "committee" type of meeting. What follows concentrates on informal meetings where the objectives are related specifically to problem-solving. Also, the emphasis here is on the role of the group leader and the things he can do to facilitate the participation of the members in the decision-making process.

The leader's facilitating functions can be divided into two main categories:

- Those directed towards the members, in the sense of maintaining a harmonious atmosphere;

- Those directed towards the task, in the sense of achieving the group's work goals.

Maintaining harmony

To establish a "group climate" which fosters a tension-free discussion, where there is an openness of information-sharing and debate, the following are key functions performed by the leader:


The leader adopts a friendly approach to all members of the group but he is particularly concerned to "draw out" the silent or shy ones. One of the tasks is to "hold the ring" - to make sure that a few knowledgeable, confident individuals do not dominate the talk. One way to encourage the non-forthcoming is to bring them in when you are sure that they will have something to say on a particular point. If they are directly invited to say something when they are not sure of their ground, they might feel put on the spot and further discouraged from participating.

"Aziz, last year, you and your family did a lot of work improving your house can you tell us a little about what you did?"


The leader should work for group harmony by trying to point out ways of resolving any disagreements that arise. He should encourage people to explore their differences of viewpoint but always in a way that reduces tension. If people know the reasons why someone holds a contrary opinion, though they might not come to agree with it, they at least might come to understand and respect it.

"We seem to have identified that there is a difference of view on this maker between those of you who are owners of property and those who are tenants, and we can see why each side thinks the way it does. Is there any way, I wonder, that the payments for services might be different, depending on whether you are a tenant or a landlord?"

Expressing group feeling

The leader should try always to sense the mood of the group and be prepared to acknowledge it. If the group feels strongly on any particular issue or cannot see why it should be bothered by a particular maker, there is little hope of focusing attention on rational problem-solving until the feelings have been recognized and, at least, aired.

"There seems to be a lot of anger around - directed at the City Council. Many people are pointing to the Council's lack of action over waste disposal or its failure to do any repairs to the water supply. What do we think is the main problem facing the Council's officers that might explain these things not getting done?"

Achieving goals

When members of a group feel comfortable with one another, not afraid to expose feelings or offer opinions, the leader can do a great deal to ensure a focused and purposive discussion.


It Is very important that the members know the main objectives of the meeting and have a clear idea of the topic to be explored, the problem that needs to be solved or the decisions that need to be reached.

"Are we all agreed on what Is the main business of this meeting: to establish a residents' committee In this settlement, to identify its main functions and decide on Its membership?"


Some members might be reluctant to speak without being asked, so it is the task of the leader to stimulate contributions. As suggested earlier, there might be difficulties for women members of a mixed group to contribute freely. So, one of the tasks might be to encourage them - bringing them into the conversation when you sense that they will certainly have something to say.

"Mamas - we have been asked why we should be careful about letting the chickens stay under the storage structures in the compound. What would you say about that?"

One strategy might be to suggest that men and women form their own clusters, when a large group is broken down into subgroups for manageable discussion of a particular issue.


Some members will experience difficulty in getting their points across. A sensitive leader helps them by restating what they are trying to say or by developing an idea they have touched on. However, this should be done with care - to avoid appearing patronizing or dominating.

"Paulo, can I just check that I have heard you correctly? You are saying that you are concerned about health risks if pit latrine are dug too close to the houses?"


Out of a concern for progress and action, the leader helps to focus the discussion by pointing out when members seem to be straying off the point or repetition is occurring.

"Joseph, I think that we should all agree that the issue you are raising is a very important one, but do you mind if we leave a discussion of it until next time, because, if we take it up now, we shall not be able to finish our main business for today?


Another way to achieve a focused discussion is for the leader occasionally to pull together the ideas that have been expressed and put to the group the conclusions that seem to have been reached or the disagreements that need to be resolved. Such summaries give the participants a recognition that they have all been heard and they create a sense of progress.

"So - where have we got to in our discussion so far? It seems to me we have agreed on three main Issues.... "

If you are In the leading or "chairing" position for a discussion session, your main problem might be to contra yourself from talking too much. You might be better educated than the majority of the members and more skilled and confident at speaking in public, and you will most likely have more technical knowledge than the residents. However, if you see your main purpose as stimulating a range of views on a particular issue, it is more important that you ask the right questions than give all the answers. If members direct questions at you, you will often need to redirect them to the group:

"Maria is asking whether we should draw up a proposal to put to the City Council - what do the rest of you think about this?"

By occasionally summarizing the contributions, you will be building on the ideas and opinions of the participants.

Organizing group discussions

Though the word "informal" has been used to describe the kinds of group discussion treated in this chapter, this does not mean that what happens should be uncontrolled and unguided. Such discussions usually depend on careful planning. The leader will need to be:

- Familiar with the topics under discussion;

- Informed about the backgrounds and interests of the participants;

- Prepared with the issues he or she thinks should be explored or the questions he or she thinks should be raised.

Group size

The number of people in the group is also an important factor in making for success. Between 6 and 12 members can engage in a purposeful yet relaxed discussion - a group small enough for all members to feel they can contribute, yet large enough for any shy members not to feel exposed. If the group is too large, it can be divided into subgroups which can break off to discuss a specific topic and then "report back" on their conclusions to the large group. One way to conform to traditional patterns of discussion - as touched on earlier - is to base the division into sub-groups on sex or age sets.


The physical arrangement or formation of the group will also affect performance. Fluidity of interaction will depend not only on whether everyone can be heard bun also on whether their body language can be read. In everyday encounters, we are used to picking up the signs that someone wants to say something (the lift of the head or the opening of the mouth) or that someone has finished speaking (the slight turning away of the eyes). A look in someone's direction can signal an invitation to contribute; a smile can relieve a tense moment. All these body and eye movements are important in prompting and adjusting the flow of talk. If a group is seated in such a way that members cannot easily see one another, these vital clues will be missed, and the flow of talk impeded.

Where you, as a perceived "authority figurer, sit will have a strong influence too. If you take a central or dominant chair, this will often be taken as a signal that you will be tightly controlling the proceedings in a traditional "leader/chairman" manner. Sometimes, the simple act of taking up a less prominent position can prompt initiatives from the participants.

Some talk-flow diagrams

In the next and final chapter, we shall explore a number of issues related to using specific problem-saving techniques In group settings. To summarize what has been said in this chapter about the general factors influencing discussion, here are some key points:



Purpose: The objectives should be clear to all participants.

Preparation: The group members should have some experience related to the topic being discussed.

Control: The leader should be in authority but not the authority

- responsible for the conduct of the meeting but not performing as the only expert in the group.


The group should be small enough for everyone to feel able to make a contribution.


The seating should be so arranged so that everyone has eye contact with everyone else.


All members should feel free to offer their ideas, to challenge and be challenged.


The discussion should end with a statement on what has been achieved and how it should be best followed up.

Before the next chapter, here are a few exercises and role-plays which give you a chance to practise some of the general group-leading skills.

TASK 4 The listening game


The sensitize members of a training group about the communication blockages that can occur in normal group discussions.


1. Any number between 6 and 12 people can participate.

2. The rest of the group acts as observers - noting any example of communication blockages.

3. The participants form a close-knit circle, so that there is easy eye contact between all members.

4. Choose a topic for discussion - ideally, one which is likely to arouse fairly strong feelings and about which there will be divided opinions in the group.

5. The ground-rule for the discussion is as follows:

Before you can say what you want to say, you must first play back to the previous speaker what he or she has said - as accurately as possible. If the previous speaker is satisfied that you have heard and understood what was said, and says, "Yes", you can, then, make your own contribution to the discussion. If the previous speaker is not satisfied, and says, "No", you can have another attempt at reporting what was said or let another member try. The previous speaker should say only, "Yes", or, "No"; and should not prompt in any way and should only say, "Yes", if completely satisfied that what was said was heard correctly and understood.

6. Someone should be appointed to make sure the rule is being followed because only then does the exercise have impact.
7. After 20 to 30 minutes, stop the exercise and reflect on what has been learned from the experience.

Some questions for discussion

1. What got in the way of accurate hearing and retention of messages?

2. What are the implications for anyone who has the responsibility for leading group discussions?


In the light of all the possible distortions and misinterpretations that can occur in group discussions, this exercise should reinforce the value of the leader's clarifying and summarizing functions as described in this chapter.

TASK 5. Leadership options


To identify appropriate group maintenance and task functions of a leader.


Below are set out a number of scenarios commonly experienced in group discussions. If you were the leader, which option would you take?

1. You are working to a deadline, and It is Important that your group reaches a decision on a particular matter under discussion. A few of the members are constantly straying from the point. Would you:

(a) Tell the members that are causing the distraction to pay attention to the Job in hand?
(b) Remind the members that there is a deadline for making the decision?
(c) Do nothing - and let the group carry on as it wishes?

2. One of your members Is particularly knowledgeable and vocal, saying things that make good sense and are to the point - but preventing the others from contributing. Would you:

(a) Tell the talkative one to give the other people a chance?

(b) When there is a suitable pause, redirect the discussion to other members of the group?

(c) Wait for other members of the group to make their feelings known and put pressure on the "talker"?

3. Three members of your group habitually say little or nothing during the discussions. You are confident that they have some relevant contributions to make to the group - if only they could be drawn In. Which of the following moves would you make?

(a) Some members are keeping very quiet. Maria, Rosa and Carmen - you haven't said a word! Come on, I think everyone should express their views, so we can reach a group decision.

(b) Maria - or Rosa and Carmen, I guess from your own experience you could tell us something about this. Would one of you like to say something on this point?

(c) Do nothing about the three silent members.

4. Two contrary and conflicting points of view have emerged In the group. The discussion Is "log-jammed", because both sides Just keep repeating their same opinions on the matter. Would you:

(a) Make it clear to the members that they must reach a decision before the deadline - so they had better resolve their differences as quickly as possible?

(b) Summarize the two opposing viewpoints as you see them and ask the members if they can see any common ground between them - or any possibilities of reaching a compromise?

(c) Sit back and wait to see which side will win?

5. In your group meetings, two members are becoming hostile to each other. What is happening between them is beginning to affect the atmosphere of the group. Would you:

(a) Tell them to stop quarrelling, so that the group can continue with its business in a proper spirit?

(b) After one of the meetings, have a friendly chat with the two people concerned - pointing out how their differences are beginning to affect the workings of the group and asking if they would like to air their problems to see if some way can be found of resolving them.

(c) Hope that the rest of the group will be able to ignore them - or others in the group will intervene to "sort them out".


These scenarios and possible responses have been chosen to illustrate three very different styles of leadership. The third response in each case fits what is sometimes called a "laisser- faire" or "let it happen" style. It was not included earlier as a category because It Is more a "non-leadership" style.

The first option is always in the Directing style - a strong or authoritarian manner of dealing with people. An approach which is not likely to build confidence in the members or encourage their participation.

All the second options are examples of what we called earlier the Consulting or Facilitating styles. They illustrate the group- maintaining and task functions described in this chapter. Such moves are designed to build a harmonious and purposeful group - without making a a submissive one.

This exercise should highlight that the facilitating style does not mean that the leader opts out of all leadership functions.

TASK 6 The problem group


This activity gives your colleagues and you chance to try your hand at handling a group discussion where there are bound to be members who will try to disrupt the proceedings - or will need your help in participating.


Seven cards, each with a role - as described below. On the reverse, each card Is numbered 1-7. Pins.


1. Seven people volunteer to role-play the members of a residents' committee In an area where there Is a "slum- Improvement" project. A voluntary agency has collected money for the project, and you have been donated $5,000 to spend on "whatever the committee considers most useful". You are meeting to make a decision how this money will be spent.

The seven people who are to participate In this activity draw cards for the role they will play. The cards are as follows:

1. Chairperson

Be yourself - but try to put into practice the maintenance and task skills discussed above.

2. The silent member

You are a very shy person and, although you are pleased to be in the group and listening to what others are saying, you never make any contributions yourself - replying only to questions addressed to you personally and, then, with the briefest replies possible. You should avow being drawn into long statements or revelations of your personal views. They are not very strong ones anyway.

3. The compulsive talker

You are a dominant, bossy sort of person who enjoys the sound of your own voice. You have an opinion about everything and you are very keen to air it - and you will resist any attempts to Interrupt you. You do not listen to what others are saying - you simply ignore them and say what, you think, it Is important to say.

4. The victim

There Is someone In the group (No.5) who seems to dislike you. This person picks on you all the time, criticizing what you say and trying to interrupt whenever you contribute. You resent this very much - and you try to fight back with critical remarks and Interruptions.

5. The persecutor

There Is someone In the group (No.4) you really dislike and who, you think, talks nonsense most of the time. You critize what this person says, interrupt and try to get the rest of the group to discount what he or she has to say.

6. The rival

You think that the group leader Is not doing a very good Job. You think you could do a better one. You take a upon yourself to summarize what other people are saying, to encourage the group discussion In directions you think best, to ask questions of individual members, to encourage their contributions and to Ignore, as far as possible, the efforts of the chairperson. You are making a takeover bid for leadership of the group.

7. The joker

You enjoy being in the group, but it is Friday afternoon and you feel like getting away for your weekend's relaxation. Certainly, you do not feel like working and talking about the topic in hand. You would rather put off the decision and have a laugh and a friendly chat with your fellow group-members.

2. When you have drawn your card, read and reflect for a few minutes on the role you have the "licence" to play. Pin the number, which is displayed on the reverse of the card on your chest and think about how you will take part in the discussion - trying to keep as close as possible to the role that you have been given.

3. If you are not participating, you will observe the action - paying particular attention to the tactics of the leader.

4. The role-play should last at least 20 minutes.

5. When a stops, the players should have the first chance to comment on what has happened especially the leader.