Strengthening communication in groups

Published in Nonviolence Today, No. 60, September-December 1998, pp. 15-17 [pdf] and Peace News, February 1999, pp. 12-13 [pdf]. Published in Spanish on Mujer Palabre,, at

Schweik Action Wollongong

(Brian Martin and Yasmin Rittau, with Sharon Callaghan, Chris Fox and Rosie Wells)

This article is located on Brian Martin's website.

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Communication is essential to the effective operation of groups, in order to arrange meetings, share information, reach agreements and implement plans. Furthermore, improving communication is a way of building the group itself. When we talk of "groups" we are thinking about grassroots groups seeking to promote justice and equality, but really the same applies to all sorts of others.

There are many potential problems that can adversely affect group communication:

In our own small group with five members, we set out to investigate how to improve communication systems. The initial impetus came from the last item on this list: communicating in an emergency.

Our special interest is nonviolent resistance to aggression and repression, with a vision for society of nonviolent defence as an alternative to military defence. The group is named after Jaroslav Hasek's fictional character Schweik, a soldier who created havoc in the Austrian army during World War I by pretending to be extremely stupid. Nonviolent activists may want to cause (nonviolent) havoc among aggressors, but they need to have their own systems running as smoothly as possible.

Communicating in an emergency is obviously vital in many situations facing nonviolent activists. For example, in military coups the first targets are commonly television and radio stations. Sometimes all telecommunications outside the country are cut off, such as after the 1981 coup in Poland and the 1987 coups in Fiji. Activists may wish to alert people targeted for arrest, to call meetings, to organise rallies and to mobilise support in the community and around the world. Their usual communication channels, such as phone and fax, may be disrupted or put under surveillance.

There is much that activists can do to overcome obstacles to communication. Rather than relying on a single channel, such as the telephone, they can practise using several modes, such as face-to-face contact, email and short-wave radio. They can develop systems that stand up in the face of disinformation and surveillance. They can sort out their ideas on openness, use of codes (such as encrypted email) and the extent of mutual trust. They can develop and practise their skills using simulations.

It soon became obvious to us that different groups will have quite different communication requirements. Members of some groups routinely see each other face-to-face; others only make contact occasionally by post or phone. Some groups operate in the face of serious surveillance and infiltration; others suffer benign neglect. Some groups are harmonious and tightly knit; others are fractured by power plays.

Communication can be strengthened in every group. The question is how. We developed and tried out some exercises that worked well in our group. We describe them briefly here to illustrate the sort of things that are possible. Other groups may want to develop their own exercises, tailored for their own situation and needs.

Here are some principles we think are important for exercises to build communication in groups.

Well-designed exercises not only strengthen communication: they also strengthen the group.

Exercise 1: "How would I contact you?"

Aim: to encourage group members to think about how they make contact with each other.

Requirement: most group members should know each other. Everyone should trust one another.

Optimal size: 4 to 8 people. With more than 8, it is probably better to break into subgroups.

Time: 30-60 minutes (10-20 minutes for answering questions individually; the remainder for discussion of answers)

The exercise

Q1. For each other person, write down what method (e.g. telephone) you'd use to contact them personally to tell them about the meeting--and what method you'd try to contact them personally if the first method wasn't successful.

Q2. Assume that you couldn't contact the person directly. Who else could you contact to help you find the person or pass on a message? (Examples: friends, family members, neighbours.)

Q3. Assume that you still can't contact the person. What activities or locations do you know about which might provide ways to contact them? (Examples: meetings, sporting activities, restaurants, travel.)

Q4. Assume that you still can't contact the person. What do you know about the person that might help explain why they are not contactable? (Example: dangers, threats, health problems.)

Comment. We've tried this out with ourselves and several other groups. It has always been stimulating. Writing down answers first is helpful so that each person thinks independently. There can be some imaginative responses, such as contacting the rail authority to page someone travelling by train. People may answer Q2 in doing Q1. It doesn't matter. One spin-off is sharing of practical information, such as phone numbers.

Exercise 2: "When you're not there"

Aim: to encourage group members to think about how they would make contact with each other in difficult situations.

Requirement: group members should know and trust each other. This exercise requires more trust than exercise 1.

Optimal size: 4 to 6 people.

Time: 30-60 minutes.

The exercise

Comment. After one or two situations, people may start to think more broadly, so it can be useful for a later person to pick a less usual type of situation.

Exercise 3: personal contact sheets

Aim: to build group members' knowledge of each other.

Requirement: group members should have a high degree of trust in each other.

The exercise

Each person writes down on a sheet of paper how they can be contacted, including:

The sheets can then be given to other group members.

Comment. People may feel uncomfortable about providing certain information about themselves or about people close to them. That should be expected and respected. Participation should be voluntary.

Some people will take the initiative to write up their sheets. Others may require more prompting. One option is filling out information at a meeting (have a computer handy).

Exercise 4: simulations

A simulation is like a practise run for the real thing. Simulations can be simple yet be quite informative.

There are lots of other possible simulations. Anything important that regularly happens, or might happen, is worth simulating. Simulations can be opportunities for involving people outside the group, such as friends and neighbours.

Another way to develop better communication is by studying what others have done, such as systems developed by political prisoners, by oppressed peoples and by the anti-Nazi resistance in occupied Europe during World War II. There are lots of insights available. Our focus here, though, is on what groups can do that is not just educative, but also participatory and fun.

We are still learning ourselves, and would be pleased to hear from anyone who would like to share their knowledge and experiences. Schweik Action Wollongong, PO Box U129, Wollongong NSW 2500, Australia; phone +61-2-4221 3763