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Group Dynamics: The Natural Social Lubricant!

Julie Clemons
Article Date:  February 28, 2006

What is (are) Group Dynamics?

I use the term Group Dynamics to mean all the human behaviors and interactions that influence your trip.  Group dynamics begin as soon as people in the group begin to meet each other.  It’s important to remember a couple of things:

  • People focus on the leader
  • 90 percent of communication is nonverbal.
  • (Therefore) the leader is communicating whether s/he knows it or not.

Why are group dynamics important?

  • Safety.  You need to have a clear read on your participants’ physical and mental status to plan appropriately.  They need to see you as confident and prepared in order to follow you comfortably.
  • Learning.  People need to feel safe to learn what you are trying to teach them.  It’s hard to pay attention when there are other, more basic things on your mind, such as ‘What’s for lunch?’ or ‘Am I the only person here who is scared about sleeping outside?’
  • Fun.  A trip with bad vibes is No Fun.  And people won’t go on your next trip.

Tools and ideas for good group dynamics:

In order to use your leader superpowers for good, you need to understand the people on your trip, and you need to be open to changes and improvements.  Although everyone is different, some ideas are universal enough to be useful to know.

  1. Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. I find the idea of Maslow’s Hierarchy to be very helpful in predicting what participants are going to need from me as a leader.  If you Google ‘Maslow’s hierarchy’ you can find any number of articles and diagrams on the topic so I’ll be brief here. Remember when people sign up for your trip they are volunteering to be taken from their ‘comfort zone’ (dorm room, dining hall, floormates) and brought into your world, so reassure them that your world is one they will enjoy.
    • Basically, the first need is physiological – water, food, warmth, going to the bathroom.  What are the first things people ask you about on a trip?  ‘Where are we sleeping?  What’s for dinner?’  And they are thinking, although they don’t ask, ‘What if I have to go to the bathroom in the woods?’  This is a great opportunity for you as a trip leader to show your participants that you have things under control and that they can trust you.  Go over all this information and ask for their input where appropriate, as in, ‘What would you like to eat?’ 
    • Once that is satisfied, the next need is for safety.  ‘Will there be bears/moose/avalanches?’ ‘What happens if I fall?’ ‘What if we get lost?’  ‘What if someone gets hurt or sick?’  Again – You have the information to make people feel more comfortable, so why not share it with them?  People may or may not actually ask, but at least one person is wondering, I guarantee.  Share the trip route, show people how to read maps, tie knots, set up the stove, or do other skills appropriate to the type of trip.  Even if you think everyone already knows, a refresher is always good and a chance for the group to work on a small task together helps break the ice.
    • The next need is for belonging.  Wanting to know that others like you and relate to you is a universal human desire.  Oftentimes on a trip some people already know each other and therefore already have some sense of belonging, which is great.  Some people won’t and therefore you need to do a little social engineering, or what a friend of mine calls ‘benevolent manipulation.’  The best way I know of to break the ice and get people chatting is to get them doing.
      • Make time to introduce people to each other.  Another universal human truth is that people like to talk about themselves.  Ask folks to go around the circle and say their name (year, hometown, whatever) and answer a question such as ‘What made you want to come on this trip?’ or ‘What do you hope to get out of this trip?’  Try to avoid questions that will obviously divide people or inspire competition, such as ‘What’s the hardest you’ve ever climbed/paddled?’  ‘What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done on a trip?’  The idea is to help people find things they have in common, not to rank them.
      • Give them tasks to help with the trip.  Do you have food that needs repacking?  Does someone need to check the first aid kit against the list of contents and make sure everything is there?  Does someone need to get everyone’s shoe size for skiing?  Does someone need to unpack the tents and set them up to make sure all the parts are there?  Get people working together in small groups.  Not all these tasks are strictly necessary, but they help achieve the goal of helping people get to know each other, so why not?  Plus, it makes people more confident and cuts down on the amount of babysitting you have to do later.  Make sure to thank people (and double check that all the tent poles get put back).
      • Non-competitive games are great, although they can feel risky to some folks.  Pick a couple of games that are simple, that you?ve played before, and that YOU think are fun, and give it a try.  The books Quicksilver, Cowstails and Cobras, and Silver Bullets, by Karl Rohnke, are great resources.  And here’s a great website with hundreds of games: https://www.wilderdom.com/games/gamesspecific.html
      • It IS important that the games are non-competitive.  Again, we are trying to answer the need for belonging, and if there’s anything that kills a sense of belonging, it’s being the worst at something.  Again.  (Trust me, says the former last-picked-in-gym-class fat kid.)
  1. Typical group development includes Forming, Norming, Performing, Storming and Transforming.   Often, weekend trips are not long enough to see evolution through all these phases, but I include this as part of my secret master plan to make you all grow up to be outdoor educators.  Plus, you may end up leading longer trips like Spring Breaks where you will see these behaviors.


  • Who is this group?  What is your name?
  • What kinds of things do we have in common?
  • What is interesting and different about each person?


  • Who is in charge around here?
  • Will I be safe?  What is going to happen?
  • Will my needs be taken care of?
  • How are we going to treat each other?  What is ‘normal’ here?
  • What are we going to try and accomplish together?


  • What kinds of behaviors contribute to success in this group?  What doesn’t?
  • How do we accomplish what we want, keep everyone on board, and make sure each person is getting what he/she wants out of the experience?


  • What leads to conflict in this group?
  • How do we balance individual needs with what is best for the group?
  • Do we operate with respect and compassion, even now?
  • How do we resolve conflict?


    • How are we stronger for having dealt with conflict?
    • Are there any new resolutions we need to make?
    • What can we take from this experience to bring us to ‘the next level?’

    How does the leader help a group form?

    • Being the first one to take the necessary risk – start the conversation, etc
    • Learning names
    • Facilitate learning about one another through shared tasks or games.
    • Sometimes helping a group form also means helping people leave the group who should not be there – i.e. if one person is an expert skier and everyone else is a beginner, will that expert enjoy skiing more slowly, or should she really sign up for something else?
    • A pre-trip meeting can be very useful.  See attached suggestions for pre-trips.

    How does the leader help a group norm?

    • Being clear about ground rules, if any (i.e. ‘No alcohol’ or ‘We hike together throughout the trip.’)
    • Encouraging people to ask questions – being open and well informed about what the trip will entail (routes, food, difficulty, etc).  Thinking about Maslow’s hierarchy will help you anticipate questions – having the answers will inspire confidence in you. 
    • Setting the expectation for group interaction: How do you deal with differences?  Who is slower or faster, or less or more experienced?  What happens to a person who asks ‘the dumb question?’  Will everyone be accepted?  YOU set the tone here, remember, 90 percent of communication is nonverbal.  Possibilities include: (One word whips, Group contracts, Hopes and fears, Full Value Contract)
    • Sharing your goals for the trip and asking for the input of others.

    Hopefully, by doing these things, the leader will help the group move on to perform.  (Storming and transforming are outside the scope of this discussion but I’d be happy to go into it later.)

    • Checking in with the group periodically is a great thing to do.
      • Readings
      • Chow circle
      • 1-10 scales
      • ‘Rose and thorn’
      • Closing activities

    3. Dealing with the problem participant

    • We have all had them.  Sometimes a participant’s expectations just do not conform with what the trip is set up to do.  Is it?
      • A physical problem – The person may not be capable of changing this within the short timeframe of the trip.  What are the goals and how can these be achieved given the makeup of the group you have?  What about the trip can change?
      • An attitude problem – What did the person expect coming into it (and how can learning about this help you with advertising next time)?  What can be changed at this point to preserve the goals of the trip?
      • A behavior problem – Is it creating safety issues?  You must be willing to deal, as you are responsible for everyone.  What is the person getting out of their behavior (power, gratification, security)?  How can you help them get it in a way that works better in the context of the trip?
    • I think it is most helpful to ‘Seek first to understand.’  What is this person’s goal?  How is the behavior helping them reach it?  How is it affecting the group?  If it needs to change, what is the best way to do this to preserve safety and dignity?  Remember it is quite possible that the participant does not think he/she has a problem.  Think carefully about whose problem this really is before you go into fix-it mode.
    • The other component is clear, full disclosure before the trip starts (see ‘Forming.’)

    4.  Continuing education for the Leader!

    • Be open to feedback.  The best leaders are constantly improving their skills, and your peers are in a great position to help you become a better leader if you’ll be open to it.  There are times when this is a safety issue.  If someone says your driving makes them nervous, pay attention.  Everyone can improve, and even if you think nothing is wrong with your driving, why would you want to scare this person?  Slow down, take a rest, switch with another driver.  Not only will you get a break, you’ll make that nervous person more likely to come on your next trip.  If you have other leaders on your trip, talk with them afterwards about how they think the trip went, and what they liked and didn’t like about it. 
    • Be willing to give feedback.  The best feedback is specific and constructive.  Check that the person is open to hearing it first.
      • Unhelpful: Dude, that trip sucked. WTF?
      • Helpful: Boy, that was a long day.  Can I tell you something?  I think what you planned was a bit too much for this group, because it seemed like most people weren’t having much fun after we stopped that last time.  What do you think? 
    • Understand your own affect and presentation to others.  Your affect (accent on the first syllable, please) is how others perceive you.  It’s the sum total of all that communication that’s non-verbal.  People may find you friendly, intimidating, cool, funny, spacey, sketchy, unpredictable, calming, reassuring, aloof, etc, or some combination of the above.  Trust your friends and co-leaders to tell you the truth, and work on your affect.  Think about the people you feel comfortable being led by.  What do they do/say/look like/act like that makes you feel that way?
    • Have a co-leader or shadow whenever you can.  A shadow is someone whose leadership judgment you trust.  Ask this person while on the trip to be thinking about your leadership style and to give you feedback afterwards.
    • Stay compassionate.  As you become more confident it’s easy to forget what it was like being the awkward beginner.  Keep trying new skills – always be a beginner at something so you don’t lose your perspective.

    Group Dynamics is one of the hardest skills to master.  That’s because it deals entirely with people and their thoughts and emotions, meaning you will never encounter exactly the same situation twice.  It’s not like a technical skill where there are usually only one or two right ways to do it.  That’s OK – that just means there are A LOT of right ways to do group dynamics.  Keep on exploring and being open to ideas, and you will do just fine.

    A Sample Pre-Trip Meeting

    You can have a pre-trip meeting anytime, for any trip.  They are most useful for overnight or longer trips, and better if it can be done five days to a week ahead.  This way if people have to chase down gear they have time to do so.

    Things you may want to cover:

    • Introductions
    • Why you are excited about this trip!  Your excitement is contagious.
    • Logistical notes (remember, think Maslow’s hierarchy – being well prepared helps people trust you.)
      • Forms to fill out?  (If using medical forms, check for birthdays during or close to the trip.  Big leader points!)
      • Menus?  Any allergies or food preferences?  What do people like?
      • Where are we going?  Bring maps and guidebooks – information gets people excited and also helps them decide if this is the right trip for them.
      • Where will we be sleeping?  Tents? Tarps? Shelters? 
      • When can we leave?  When do we have to be back?
      • Equipment lists – especially for a beginner trip, it is great to bring YOUR pack all packed and actually show people the difference between wool and cotton socks, etc.  Emphasize that you can get stuff through rentals, you don’t have to run to EMS with the credit card.
    • Leaders’ goals for the trip – what are you hoping to do, what do you hope that people will learn or get out of the trip?
    • Ask your participants, ‘What would make this a great trip for YOU?’ (Since your pre-trip meeting is a week ahead you will have time to work these suggestions in!)
    • Let them know they can email you if they have questions or want to talk anything over.  Make yourself available after the meeting – sometimes people are too shy at first.

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