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Teaching Tough Groups

As docents, we’ve all had them. Sometimes we get advance warning. Most of the time we don’t. But we have all known those occasions when we find ourselves in the middle of a tour, and we realize that things are out of control.

How it happens will vary. It may be a situation where nothing we do seems to engage the group. Or, perhaps everyone is so excited and energetic that it feels like they are bouncing off the walls. Sometimes, one person demands all the attention, leaving others silent. At other times, the group’s agenda and yours are simply miles apart.

As part of our training, we docents are taught how to give information and let visitors make discoveries. Such training on content and the learning process is essential. Also important, however, is understanding the dynamics of a group, and knowing how to regain control of, and to communicate with, a group that seems out of control.

I’d like to share some of the approaches I’ve tried with my “groups from hell.” Perhaps they may help you with yours. I begin by looking at the overall characteristics of the group to see where the difficulty lies. First I consider the group’s energy level — is it too low; is it too high? Secondly, I check out the focus of that energy. Are people focusing on the tour or elsewhere? Thirdly, I look at how the energy is dispersed within the group. Are my interactions connecting with the group as a whole, only with a few people, only with one person, or with no one at all?

For those groups where energy is low and there is little or no interaction, I do what I can to increase my own energy output. I let my enthusiasm show. Often, humor helps — since humor is a means of engaging people in a fairly nonthreatening way. In addition, I try to be extra observant. I may have a group that is just not with me, or I could have a group of people who are with me, but don’t wish to be verbal about it. To engage either type of audience I will ask questions that are very open-ended in content — questions where every answer is correct. These would include questions about people’s opinions or experience, like “which would you choose as something to hang in your home,” or “consider how you would have painted this scene if you were the artist.” I verbally affirm every answer with a positive response and will ask for additional responses from others, affirming them as well.

If energy is “off the walls,” I may need to do the opposite. The group may need focus or containment. In this case, I would pull down my own energy level, begin talking very quietly, enticing the visitors to come in close to me in order to hear what I have to say. With younger children I may speak about a secret I’ve learned about one of the objects or something else that would grab their attention. If necessary, there is always the option with young kids of sitting them down so that they simply aren’t on the move. With older audiences I might aim for an enclosed space, such as a room with a door or an end gallery, where the group is physically corralled.

With a high energy group, many participants may be talking at once. With one group I toured everyone was asking questions at once. I did what I could to acknowledge that by saying, “I’m hearing lots of good questions, but can only answer them one at a time.” Then I proceeded to take charge by pointing and selecting one person to speak at a time.

With school groups the difference between high energy and pandemonium is often determined by the teachers’ involvement. I have learned that with a group of 1 3 or more students, I cannot simultaneously tour and control without additional adult help. When it is needed, I will ask the teacher for his or her assistance and identify exactly what type of assistance I require.

Now we come to that one person who dominates the group. This situation shows itself in many ways. It may be the person who always answers the questions you pose first. With children, it may be the child who is literally four inches away from you — who is very present physically as well as verbally. With adults, it may be a person who is continually challenging your information or presentation and clearly needs to be both the center of attention and right all the time. Or, it may be the one who always connects what you say with their own personal experiences. “My, this looks just like a chair we had at home when I was a girl.”

To be certain that everyone has an opportunity to contribute or participate I need to consciously involve them. With the child who is first (and often the loudest) in answering, I need to pose questions that have multiple answers and then request additional input from others. Again, questions about opinions, personal experience, or that allow for alternate ideas are well suited for this task. For instance, “If you created a symbol to put on your sweatshirt that told people who you were, what would that be?” Then, after the dominator answers, I would turn to the others for their responses. In extreme cases it may be necessary to withhold a response to the dominator’s answer and to call on another child by name for their answer, returning to the dominator later for his or her contribution.

I find the “person who has to be right” the most challenging. I once had a docent-friend come to me after a tour feeling that she had nothing to offer and that she shouldn’t be touring. I knew her work, and she was excellent. She had just finished a tour with a person who challenged all her information, asked questions in an accusatory manner, and didn’t even let her answer before firing another challenge at her. The experience can be demoralizing.

For me, trying to remember that this behavior represents one person’s agenda — to gain the center of attention and to make me feel inferior— and knowing that it is not a valid critique of my competence or presentation, helps a bit. Regaining group equilibrium, however, can be more difficult since everyone else in the group can be feeling intimidated and angry.

The tool of eye contact is a very useful one. Establish eye contact with everyone in the group, while consciously avoiding contact with the person who is attempting to dominate. Without your attention, it is possible that she will calm down. Again, consciously inviting others to give their thoughts or opinions is helpful. If all else fails, however, you might be forced to tell the dominator, “I realize you have many concerns about what we are discussing, so I invite you to speak with me about them after the tour has concluded and, until then, allow us to finish uninterrupted.”

To shift power away from an individual to the group, try involving the entire group in some decision, thereby redistributing the energy. Decisions like whether people would like a chance to sit while seeing the next object, or whether they would rather see a painting or a sculpture, are examples. Of course, this (as with most aspects of good teaching) requires flexibility on the part of the docent. To give the group choices redistributes the power within the group, but also away from the docent. The docent needs to set up the question so that the outcome of the choice will still work for the lesson.

When determining the focus of attention of a group I try to make some allowances. Sometimes, members of a group will wander away from the tour. I feel it is important to appraise the “quality” of their wandering. I try to watch and eavesdrop on the wanderers. If they are talking about things other than the topic-at-hand, or if they simply seem distracted, I will try to pull them back into the group subtly (through my tone inflection) or directly (by calling them back to join the group). I might even take the group over to where they are and “surround” them and continue the tour from there. If, however, they are really looking at the collection, and the conversation is about what they are seeing, I will simply let them go. My hope as a docent is that they become involved with the objects, and even if it isn’t through my words and tour, if that involvement is happening I feel good.

There are groups that have their own agendas. I recently heard about one group of adolescents who visited our museum from a halfway house. Their attention was definitely not focused on looking at art. As they wandered through the galleries, their comments continued to focus on one topic — death. The docent conducting the tour did what needed to be done. “You seem interested in death. Let me show you how death is depicted in some of the art we have here.” Being both aware and flexible, this docent picked up on their theme and used it to gain their involvement.

Alas, there are times when we try all our tricks but to no avail. We’ve changed our energy level and tone, we’ve asked inclusive questions, we’ve made (and avoided) eye contact as required, and have even tried to shift physically and mentally to a new vantage point. Nothing has worked. When that happens, I figure its time to sigh, get a cup of tea, and seek out a fellow docent to commiserate with as I tell the story of my most recent group from hell.

Christine Cave, M.S.W.. is a docent at the Seattle Art Museum in Seattle, Washington. A professional speaker, Ms. Cave presents workshops on learning styles and group dynamics in her private practice and in workshops for her fellow docents. Her article, “Those Annoying Audiences, ” which describes the Myers-Briggs Learning Styles Indicator, appeared in the Summer 1995 issue of The Docent Educator.

Cave, Christine. “Teaching Tough Groups,” The Docent Educator 5.3 (Spring 1996): 16-17.

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