5 Tips for Managing Group Dynamics

Being in the outdoors with others pushes us. Not only do we face physical and mental challenges from long days on the trail, but there can be interpersonal challenges, too. Dealing with a bossy partner, struggling spouse or tense group interaction is that much more challenging in the wilderness.

But if you take some simple steps, you can also set yourself and your group up for success. If you’re heading out on a trip, here are some tips for establishing the right tone in order to have a great time and make everyone feel like equal partners in the adventure.

1. Set a collaborative tone from the beginning.

If you’re in a large group—or even with a single partner—take two minutes before you start your journey to touch base. Review your travel plan for the day, how often you will take breaks, and how you will manage pacing and speed. Discussing and agreeing on your plan as a group puts everyone on equal footing—and helps make sure each person has a voice in big decisions from the very beginning.

2. Trade off taking lead.

It’s easy when you’re in the backcountry for the person who’s at the front of the group to become the de facto leader. That’s the person with the clearest view for navigation, and often the first to notice wildlife or other parties. Try trading off at each break, so that each person in the group gets to take a leadership role throughout the day.

3. Use “CFOR” to manage conflict.

This is a simple acronym helpful for managing communication and conflict, and is frequently used in Outward Bound courses. Here’s what each letter stands for:

Concern: What’s been bothering you?

Feeling: How did it make you feel?

Ownership: Is there anything in the situation that you can or should take ownership of?

Request: What do you request that the other person do to help things be different moving forward?

If something’s on your mind, just CFOR it with the group by addressing each letter in the acronym. That way you make it clear what’s bothering you and what positive steps you and others can take to improve the dynamic.

4. Check in informally.

Check in on how other people are feeling physically and emotionally throughout the day. Breaks can be a perfect point to do this, so that you don’t have to call someone out individually if they appear to be struggling. It doesn’t have to be a big deal, just, “Hey, how’s everybody doing?”

5. Debrief with highs and lows.

For a satisfying close to a trip, do an informal debriefing on what your high and low points were. It can be nice to do high-low-high or plus-minus-plus to keep things positive. By debriefing before you all head home, you get the chance to process and reflect on your experiences as individuals and as a group.

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