EXTENDING AN IN-PERSON GROUP INTO CYBERSPACE

by John Suler, Ph.D.

Anyone who has been part of a work group has experienced the hassles of scheduling meetings, as well as the frustrations of how small work groups sometimes operate. Extending the group into cyberspace can eliminate the discontinuity due to scheduling problems. In groups where people need to speak with each other more often or maintain contact during vacation, holiday, or summer breaks, an e-mail list can be the perfect solution.

The "asynchronous" communication of e-mail allows members to participate in the ongoing virtual meeting at their own convenience and at their own pace. Some of the unique features of asynchronous, typed-text communication also may alter the interpersonal dynamics of the group, which offers the opportunity to better understand and improve how the group functions, including those frustrations in how it operates.

When creating an e-mail list, obviously it's important to make sure that everyone has an e-mail account. Extending the group into cyberspace when some people don't use e-mail is a bad idea. It will encourage subgrouping, miscommunication, and perhaps conflict. Doing so may even be a symptom of pre-existing conflict and an acting out of hostility against subgroups or individual scapegoats.

It's equally important to assess how much people know about using e-mail in general and an e-mail list in particular. Some people may say that they use e-mail "a lot" (since it's fashionable) when in reality they may only be casual users who barely understand the basics. As a result, setting up the list may be a slow, sometimes frustrating process. On the positive side, that process can serve as an opportunity for people to familiarize themselves with e-mail lists before the actual online meeting begins. It's also a good idea to have a facilitator or "host" for the list -- someone who can set up the list and has some technical understanding of how lists work, as well as some experience in the customs and social dynamics of a list.

There are many practical uses for the list. On the most basic level, it can be used for announcements, scheduling in-person meetings, and generally serve as a substitute for hard copy memos. However, limiting the list to this function alone -- a kind of "memo mentality" -- falls short of utilizing its full potential. Memo mentality ignores how the list can be a group MEETING with many other possible applications. It can be used in a collaborative effort to edit, revise, and approve a document. The group can prepare for and afterwards discuss an in-person meeting. Under ideal conditions, the list can be an effective alternative for in-person meetings by encouraging open discussions of issues and decision-making. To do this efficiently, some structure will be necessary. Adapting Robert's Rules is one possibility.

Extending the group into cyberspace can have a double-edged effect. On the one hand, the exchange of messages via the list may draw out or highlight the pre-existing interpersonal dynamics of the group. Typed text has a way of making things stand out in bold relief, sometimes "demonstrating the obvious" in a very eye-catching, rubbing-one's-nose-in-it fashion. On the other hand, an online meeting also may alter the dynamics of the group because it entails a change in the boundaries of time, place, and communication style. People easily can adjust the pace at which they participate, either responding immediately or giving themselves time to think. E-mail involves writing and not talking, which are two very different skills. People can save all of the discussion to their hard drive, giving them the opportunity to review and reflect on past discussions. Because there are no face-to-face cues, a "disinhibiting effect" may set in, resulting in people saying things they may not normally say in an in-person meeting. All of these factors can change the dynamics of the group.

Because an e-mail list is a very different style of communicating than being in-person, the two channels may become disconnected or "dissociated" from each other. What is said in one domain may not be said in the other. In particular, the disinhibiting effect could lead people to state things that they refrain from bringing to the in-person meeting. Sometimes the list discussions may even evolve into a kind of "subconscious" voicing of issues that are actively avoided in-person. It's usually a good idea to head off the dissociation before it becomes too deeply embedded. Discussing important issues in both domains builds synergy and integration. Understanding any barriers that develop between the two realms can lead to valuable insights into the interpersonal dynamics of the group.

Under ideal conditions, in-person and e-mail discussions will complement and enrich each other. The group will come to recognize the pros and cons of each realm. It will learn to maximize the advantages and minimize the disadvantage of each. The degree of success is the degree to which the group can effectively integrate the two. When the group moves fluidly from one realm to the other, when both realms give expression to all important group functions -- brainstorming, decision-making, problem-solving, socializing, conflict resolution -- then the group has fully succeeded in extending itself into cyberspace.

01/28/00

John Suler, PhD, is Professor of Psychology at Rider University and a practicing clinical psychologist. He has published on psychotherapy, mental imagery, and eastern philosophy. He currently maintains several web sites.

 

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