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Simple strategies help capitalize on benefits of diversity in group settings

This is an excerpt from Group Dynamics in Recreation and Leisure by Timothy O'Connell & Brent Cuthbertson.

Working With Diverse Groups

Capitalizing on the benefits and avoiding the shortcomings of diversity in groups require attention from professionals. There are strategies professionals may use to maximize the potential of diverse groups while staying away from the downfalls. These include developing a positive group identity; encouraging members to spend time getting to know one another; promoting an atmosphere of inclusion; developing an inclusive system of communicating; encouraging group members to learn about other cultures, religions, ethnic groups, and so on; focusing on similarities instead of differences; and discussing how differences can be a positive aspect of the group.

Professionals can help diverse groups develop a positive group identity. This identity should include elements that represent all members of the group. This process often requires time to complete. The goal is not to force individuals to become homogeneous but to reach a common understanding of what the group is about and who the group represents as a whole. The group is together for some intended purpose, and the group's final identity should focus on that purpose rather than the characteristics of the people who make up the group. Most people know of groups that have successfully developed a positive group identity. These groups stand out: Their members are happy, their job gets done, and people refer to the group by its collective identity instead of the individual traits of its members.

A second strategy that professionals might implement while working with diverse groups is to encourage individual members to get to know one another. In the movie Remember the Titans (Howard 2000), football coach Herman Boone (portrayed by Denzel Washington) required his African American and European American players to learn something personal about every other team player. Coach Boone's strategy was unique, as racial tensions were high after two high schools were integrated into a single school in 1971. Ultimately the team members came to see each other as brothers and go on to a winning season. By developing an understanding of others in a diverse group, members gain some understanding of each person's background, culture, and ethnic influences. This understanding will encourage group members to develop respect for others' beliefs, attitudes, and values.

Promoting an atmosphere of inclusion is a third strategy for working with diverse groups. All group activities should be as inclusive as possible. While ensuring inclusiveness might require additional meeting time or the help of technology, doing so avoids hurting people's feelings and reassures people that their beliefs, values, and issues have not gone unheard. The process of developing an atmosphere of inclusion should not be patronizing. Being patronizing can hamper the effort to promote inclusion by causing negative feelings among group members, particularly those in the minority. A primary way to develop inclusion is to be sure that the group has agreed on goals that are cooperative. To reach these goals, all members of the group will have to work together.

Although it is related to promoting inclusion, developing an inclusive system of communication is important to recognize as its own strategy. Groups should use communication networks that include all members, especially when important decisions are made and solutions to problems are implemented. Including every group member in a communication network is not enough; the network should also reflect the values, attitudes, and beliefs of the group members. The communication styles of different group members should be accommodated as well. Some people might prefer to read a written communication while others prefer to hear a verbal message. Language choice should also be monitored, especially when communicating with group members who are not speaking their primary language. These members might translate some words or syntax into a different, offensive meaning. Likewise, body language and certain hand gestures mean different things in different cultures. While groups do not need to reconstruct communication networks and styles each time a new person joins, when welcoming a new member it is a good time to revisit communication procedures to ensure that they are truly inclusive.

Professionals can encourage group members to learn about other cultures, religions, and ethnic groups. Each group meeting might start or end with the sharing of food, customs, and other information about the ethnic backgrounds of different group members. With the ease of access to information via the Internet, local libraries, and television, group members can also explore other cultures and ethnicities on their own time. Recreation, leisure, and experiential education service providers can offer programs that highlight the customs of different cultural and ethnic groups as a means of promoting understanding. During the summer in New York City, tourists may attend major street festivals and parades sponsored by a wide variety of cultural and ethnic groups. Facilitators and leaders can suggest group members attend events such as these to gain a better understanding of others.

A sixth strategy that professionals might use is to focus on similarities rather than differences among group members. This strategy involves looking at the individual aspects of each person and not using stereotypes or prejudices to form impressions of others. If group members rely on outward signs or depend on what they think they know about others' cultures or ethnicities without focusing on similarities, a group will not be able to capitalize on its diversity. Looking at each individual as a person and not as a member of a particular race or culture may uncover many similarities in values, interests, and beliefs. Group members may also reach a common understanding of why people are interested in the group. As mentioned, one commonality that professionals can focus on is the group's purpose. By focusing on what the group is supposed to do, group members can focus on how their similarities and individual aspects can enhance the group as a whole.

A final strategy professionals may implement is to discuss how differences can be a positive force for the group. This chapter presented several reasons why diverse groups may be stronger than groups with less diversity. When group members are aware of how diversity benefits group performance, they will be more apt to accept diversity. Group members can be educated on the benefits of diversity in many ways. First, group members can be given readings on how diversity affects groups in a positive way. Second, group members can brainstorm ideas on how having diverse members in the group is a positive quality. Third, the recreation, leisure, and experiential education professional can remind the group at strategic moments how diversity has helped, and not hindered, the group. Finally, the professional can promote the idea that diversity adds to an individual's life experience. Exposure to new cultures and ethnicities creates an exciting opportunity to learn about others in the world!

This is an excerpt from Group Dynamics in Recreation and Leisure: Creating Conscious Groups Through an Experiential Approach

More Excerpts From Group Dynamics in Recreation and Leisure