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Department of Communications/
News Bureau
22 Davis Hall, 10 Lippitt Road, Kingston, RI 0288
Phone: 401-874-2116 Fax: 401-874-7872

URI professor focuses on group decision making
The eyes (and other nonverbal communication) have it

Dr. Sandra KetrowKINGSTON, R.I. – July 29, 2002 -- When it comes to group decision-making, it’s not only size that matters. Eyelids do, too.

This according to University of Rhode Island Communications Studies Professor Sandra Ketrow of Wakefield, an expert on nonverbal communications who researches how groups make decisions. "Ideally, a task-focused group should be between five and seven people," says the professor who serves as a consultant for businesses, hospitals, and law firms.

What’s not said can be more important than what is, however. Yet little research has been done on nonverbal communication in groups. One reason is that it is so difficult, according to Ketrow.

"It had been said that there are as many as 4,000 nonverbal cues in a classroom at any one time. Personally, I think that’s a low figure. After all, there are 23 different positions of the eyelid alone," says the professor.

Although facial expressions speak volumes, where you sit, how you sit, and if you lean can too. Most cues, the professor points out, are not done on a conscious level because humans process nonverbal cues so fast, they make inferences about meanings before their brains can finish handling the words. People tend to believe what they see more than what they hear, and those cues can be misinterpreted, or hold diverse meanings.

Speaking of nonverbal communication, just as we might suspect, women and men communicate differently in group settings. Women tend to talk quietly on a personal level before a meeting. If a male enters the room the women tend to fall silent or pause and shift to more business-related items. On the other hand, men typically don’t speak about personal matters. If they speak, they will focus on business, sports or the weather.

During the meeting, women smile more and direct their comments to the group while men direct their comments to only one or two members. Women use much more eye contact than men and want the eye contact returned. "It’s similar to couple communications," says Ketrow. "When a husband isn’t looking at his wife while she talks, she’ll often complain that he isn’t listening. Men are usually being attentive; they just have different speaking-listening-looking ratios than women.

Men tend to sprawl in their chairs during group meetings. Women will cross their legs. Some men will take off their suit jackets, but a woman wearing a suit will not remove hers.
Ethnically speaking, African-American groups are more expressive getting the task done and laugh more during the process than Caucasian groups who tend to laugh only at the end of the meeting. Hispanics, on the other hand, appear multi-task oriented and are comfortable walking around during meetings.

Gender differences also show up in the courtroom. Male judges are perceived to be more credible by the jurors than female judges even when the male or female judge is seen as highly involved (via his or her nonverbal cues). Female jury members view female judges more positively than their male counterparts but not as positively as female jurors view male judges.

A judge, viewed as an authority figure, can impact a jury’s decision with a nod or a frown. Because of this demonstrated effect on trial outcomes, Ketrow says that coaches are now used to train judges to keep a straight face.

Office environment can enhance or distract from good group decision making. Tables work best. Without the table, people tend to feel exposed, according to Ketrow.

A standard-sized rectangular table is ideal. Round tables, if too large, put too much distance between the members and may promote competition. However, oversized rectangular tables can do the same thing. Chairs should swivel and have cushioned arms and seats. Paintings of founders shouldn’t glare down on the group. The room should have a window for the claustrophobic. Men don’t work as well in small, cramped rooms as women do, so room size is a consideration.

By the way, there is a formula for good group decision making, according to Ketrow. Successful groups explore more quantity and more accurate information, are willing to suspend discussion to get more or better information, generate a number of solutions, and have an analyst in the group who can nudge the others to consider the multiple options and the quality of information.

Unlike a leader, an analyst doesn’t appear naturally in groups, says the professor. In Ketrow’s research, an analyst appeared in about three of 45 groups. This suggests that less than 10 percent of decision-making groups have an analyst. Since it is difficult for a leader to also function as an analyst, a trained facilitator is a good idea, says the URI professor.

For Information: Sandra Ketrow, 874-4733, Jan Wenzel, 874-2116

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