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Julie Cooper

Spring Development

Programme Director

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What advice would you give yourself?


There is a conversation on LinkedIn at the moment: “ What would be the one piece of advice you would give to yourself when you were 20?” It reminded me of the very first time I taught an evening class in my twenties. I was well prepared, but also a little apprehensive – so I carried out my masterplan, which was to not let anyone get a word in edgeways – that way they couldn’t possibly ask me a question I couldn’t answer!

I guess that looking back, the advice I would give myself is that no one expects you to know everything. I also quickly discovered that most of the time students learn as much from each other than they do from me.

What advice would you give others running groups?

Fast forward to 2010, and I found myself having a similar conversation with my colleague Ann.  What is the one piece of advice we would give anyone responsible for running a group for the first time? What do they really need to know? This wasn’t quite in the same context. Ann and I had been training advisers, coaches and mentors in one to one skills. In an attempt to make resources stretch further, the Powers That Be had the bright idea to get these folk to work with groups, instead of individuals – and some of them were terrified. They were confident with one to one skills, but needed some help knowing how to transfer them to group work, as this was a whole new area for them.

We wanted to meet the needs of our clients, hence the discussion around what it is that they needed to know, and how we could help them make the transition. We spent hours looking at relevant theories, models and strategies that we could adapt to help them. Ann and I had no intention of ever writing another book – we had just finished The One to One Toolkit – but getting our thoughts on paper seemed the best way forward, and The Groupwork Toolkit was born, after a fairly tortuous labour!

You won’t be surprised to know that I didn’t manage to distil my thoughts into one piece of advice for newbies – but I did get it down to two. I call them Rule No 1 and Rule No 2. Yours might be different, but here are mine:

Rule No 1

There is one thing you can be sure of – if the group detect you are uncomfortable, apprehensive or anxious, in no time at all they will have picked up your mood and they will be out of sorts too. Have you ever been to a presentation or lesson where the person at the front was nervous, stammering or pouring with sweat, or where the speaker is unprepared or pitches the material at the wrong level for the group? It’s painful, isn’t it? It’s hardly conducive to learning, or participation, so always remember Rule No 1.

Rule No 1 is absolutely critical for success in groupwork. You may muddle through without it, but you would be on very risky ground. The good news is that Rule No 1 is incredibly simple to learn.

So what is it, this all important mantra? It is merely this:

Rule No 1

Behave as if you expect a successful, enjoyable session.

It may be simple, but it carries with it substantial wisdom. Let’s unpick it a bit.

“Behave as if…” You may well have come across variations on this theme, taught in all sorts of courses, such as confidence building, assertiveness, interview techniques or presentation skills. Phrases like “behave to become” or “act it to be it” are used to convey the message that if you work at making your body language, speech, manner and smile portray how you want to feel, eventually your emotions and mind will catch up and you will feel more confident and less anxious. It may feel impossible to act “not nervous” when you’re scared witless, but it can be achieved.

Besides a strong determination, the other crucial factor is that you have a very clear understanding and feeling of what it is you want to achieve. Visualisation techniques can help here. Spend time imagining how you will come across to your group. What will you be wearing? How will you be standing? What will your speech sound like? What will your body language be like? How will they be responding to you? Keep on until not only do you have a crystal clear picture of the New Improved You, but also you can recall it so well, it is becoming part of you already.

“…you expect a successful…” So you’re learning how to portray a confident image – but in what context? You also need a very clear idea of what success will look like. It will be made up of several factors that you need to explore, some relating to the process – what happens during the session – and some to the outcomes – what your group members will have achieved by the end. Let’s look at these in turn:


You can visualise a successful process during the session, for example, your input and exercises being well received and productive, participants being engaged throughout.


You can also fast forward in your mind to the end of the session. You have achieved what you set out to do. The participants are now confident and equipped They have learned something useful and they are cheerful and positive, thanking you for your help. A vital part of your preparation is to find a quiet moment beforehand to think through what success will feel like, look like and sound like. Visualising this in advance and fixing it in your mind will help you with Rule No 1.

“…enjoyable session” Enjoyment isn’t just about lightweight froth without meaning. There are many elements to a groupwork session that your participants may enjoy, such as:

• A challenge
• The opportunity to experience something new
• Meeting new people
• Getting to know others better and forging friendships
• A sense of achievement
• The chance to speak out and be heard
• Shared stories and experiences
• Getting fears and concerns out into the open
• Feeling motivated by getting the tools to do something
• A sense of belonging
…and we haven’t even mentioned learning yet!

Often, what people enjoy most in a session is not something we planned . We organise the programme and the resources and then somehow the team spirit kicks in – the group bond and share. There are very few types of groupwork where none of the above will apply. If you act as if the session will be enjoyable, you are giving your group permission to relax and get the very best from it.

Rule No 2

What is your worst nightmare? Losing control? Things going badly wrong? People getting angry or walking out? Being laughed at? These are all quite extreme situations, and they really don’t happen very often. They are unlikely to happen at all if you follow:

Rule No 2

Head them off at the pass

To effectively head them off at the pass, you need to know which way they are going. Rule no 2 is about being alert at all times (one reason why running a group is so tiring!) so you will spot the warning signs that trouble is brewing. When you see a sign, you nip the potential problem in the bud. It may be that the situation or behaviour would never have escalated into trouble, but you’re not going to give it the chance to find out.

This means that it isn’t an extra coffee break for you if the group has been put in pairs or small groups to complete a task. You should always be paying attention, listening in or walking round to check that they are on task and not struggling. Normally just your presence will remind them of the job in hand. What are the tell-tale signs to look out for? They may include:

• Restlessness, such as drumming fingers, fidgeting, texting under the table
• Not attending to the task in hand
• Personal conversations going on, members distracting each other
• Tuning out, day dreaming
• Hostile expression or body language

Ideally, you will always have a few tricks up your sleeve to distract or divert attention, such as:

• A spare exercise that requires them to work differently, eg: if they are wandering off topic while working in pairs, bring them back to work as a whole group
• A new visual aid or different form of media that will grab attention, eg: a DVD
• A story to illustrate a point
• A quick fire quiz

Anything, in fact, that changes the situation. Introducing changes will not mean that you lose the focus of the session, since all your optional extras will be related to the task in hand; it just means that you are prepared for any eventuality. By making the group face something new, you will keep them on their toes.

What would you add?

Do you agree with my rules, or would you put something else at the top of your list? What advice would you give colleagues new to group work? What was the first big lesson you learnt along the way? I’d be interested to know – and I’m sure I’m not the only one!

This is a from my guest blog at Unimenta, as their expert in workplace training.

Julie Cooper of Spring Development is an author trainer and coach, specialising in one to one skills. You can find out more at

Her new book, Face to Face in the Workplace, has been described as  “A must have for every manager”   Special offer: Unimenta members can buy Face to Face in the Workplace at 20% discount by using the code ‘Unimenta’ at the checkout here:

 She has also co-authored books for advisers, coaches and mentors, including The One to One Toolkit and  The Groupwork Toolkit . You can find out about them here:

Author Profile Picture
Julie Cooper

Programme Director

Read more from Julie Cooper

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