Any tips for continually improving group dynamics?

What brings you back to a group again and again, even though your life seems like an endless to-do list?  You probably have a purpose, which can be as simple as getting out of the house and having fun or as challenging as wanting to be informed about political issues.  You may want to learn something.  Or to accomplish something.  You may like to discuss your views related to a common learning experience- without being put down, ignored or dismissed.  The experience has an importance to you.  And don’t forget the famous line in the Cheers TV series, “I like to go where everybody knows my name.” You feel like you are a welcome member of the group.

     What causes you to drop out of a group you thought you might enjoy?   You might simply be too busy, of course.   But, possibly, the group experience is not meeting your needs, as outlined above.  The following tips are designed to help you, a political book group leader, create the group that participants want to come back to.

·      Do make room for fun some fun.  A few minutes for refreshments and conversation help to get things started. 

·      A book-related question for people to briefly answer when they introduce themselves can add to the enjoyment and learning.  (“What did you learn in reading this book that most surprised you?”)

·      State your purpose from the establishment of the group and frequently reiterate it.  Re-assess it if you and the group think you are losing the sense of it.  “This experience is designed to better inform us on political issues so that we can be better-informed and can make better political decisions.”

·       The discussion questions, including occasional small group ones, really do begin to set a tone.  The members come to know each other better and occasionally even disagree.  (If you think members of a political party book group agree with each other, think again.  You will have conservatives and liberals and everything in between.)

·       Your closing question could tap into their feelings of accomplishment or their need to see the importance of a book discussion.  “Take a few moments to think.  What is one worthwhile take-away for you from this book and discussion?”

·       And make no mistake, book group leaders.  You set the tone.  Your # 1 priority will be to LISTEN.  When I hear an interesting point someone has made I make a mental note or a quick jotted note about the thought and who said it.  And, where it applies, I try to come back to it (Ex. “Katherine’s comment on ____ is actually a good lead-in to this next question”).  This shows that you VALUE their views. 

·       Use their NAMES.   Invest in a package or two of name tags and some markers.  You will often have new members attending, and everyone should be able to address others.         


     There are challenges, and I hesitate to mention them even, because they rarely happen after a session or two, when you yourself model support for all.

·        Sometimes a participant wants to dominate the discussion- it usually works itself out as you model good listening and encourage the more reticent ones with such extenders as “Can you give an example of that?” or “Can you tell us a little more about what you mean?”

·       Sometimes a participant cuts someone off.  I let them have their say briefly and go right back to the previous speaker and say, “John, you were making a point about _____.  Can you follow up on that?”  If the interrupter continues, I would say something like “Paul, Let’s let John finish and we’ll come right back to you.

·       I have never had a participant that is so disruptive of the group that he/she will drive others out of it, but I would talk to that person apart from the meeting and be very clear about the need for respect between group members.

    These are some ideas to help build positive and respectful group dynamics.  There will be more on this topic.

How do you choose or develop good discussion questions?

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lead to a good discussion

     There are many websites and sections in books which offer discussion questions and, by all means, use them as you wish.  I prefer to write my own for the following reasons:

·       If the questions are more than two simple sentences, your group will struggle to process them.  They are too busy trying to think what the questions mean.  I use short, direct questions, perhaps set up by a one sentence description of a situation in the book.

      Example: “Woodard sees a lot of comparison between the U.S. path and Canada’s.  What  does he see as the different way the two countries have handled their internal conflict?”

·       The language should be clear and simple and direct.  The last bullet shows an example of when I have learned from my groups to streamline my message.

·       You will have a good number of introverts in your group, which will mean that occasional processing time would be a huge gift to them.  Some of them will request the questions in advance, which I have already advised that you make available routinely.  But on occasion, watch what happens when you say this.  “Take a minute to jot down your thoughts on this question.”

     Ex. “in the past decade we have experienced other ominous occurrences or trends.  What are some of these?”

·       I sometimes include a question which requires them to break into pairs or small groups for a discussion of an issue, and halfway through that allotted time, I ask that they make sure both people have shared their perspective.  It sets a group tone of listening and valuing everyone’s input.  Placing such questions in the middle of the session is a good technique too, especially if the group is fidgeting.   They need to stretch from sitting long enough.  But I have one group that likes that activity as a warm-up, rather than interrupting the flow of the general discussion in the meeting.  Read your group.

·       Another effective technique is to give subgroups different questions related to a topic.  Provide a time period for them to discuss their particular question.  As they are winding down, I ask them to choose a spokesperson to briefly share their findings with the whole group.

·       I nearly always include a question which encourages people to draw on their own experience.

     Example: Think back to a community you know.  Is there an example of a business which thrived and was a vital force to the community- and how did that business change (or not) over the years?

·       I always wrap up with something like this one “What have you learned from reading and discussing this book that will make you a better informed voter?”  I’m thinking I will try an even simpler one in the future.  “So, now what?  How will you apply what you have learned from the book and the discussion?”  The answers are often fascinating and will show you what a difference you are making by offering this opportunity to interested readers.

How can I involve my group participants in selecting books?


Choices Choices Choices

This is the secret to a great book club. Really, it is. If you always select the books to be read, and a book is a dud, guess who is “responsible” or who will feel that way, at any rate. You can make your book group members part of the leadership team by establishing a system for having them choose the books.

     First of all, you need to encourage people to regularly “nominate” political books that they think others would enjoy. I keep a running list of my own researched suggestions and add those suggested by participants, according to their topic, gradually developing a nomination list for each theme.  

   I research books by theme as well and select several that look good and meet the criteria for books we are willing to post, always merging the participant suggestions on to that list.

     I put the group to work on selecting themes as well. I select about 8 pertinent topics for the series, work up a simple ballot for them to put tally marks next to their top 3 choices and pass it around the table at the first group meeting (the one with the starter book you have chosen to get the ball rolling). It is clear immediately that this is their group and that they are going to have a say. You are not going to choose for them, but will facilitate a system in which they choose the books. When you send out the follow-up memo, list the chosen themes and at least one of those themes with a “nomination list” of the several books you have previously chosen in that category, as possibilities to read and discuss. Ask them to pick their favorite one in that category. I like to have a schedule of selections planned ahead for the year, so they may get a few repeat theme nominations until we have filled the year’s schedule. See the sample ballot.

          When I send out a ballot, I give them a week to read reviews on the book or do whatever they would like to decide which book they would like to read on that theme. Any more time than that and the e-mail “ballot” will get buried. Any less, and the conscientious among them will not be as well-informed on the choices as they may prefer. Not all will vote, probably not even the majority. But all have had a chance to influence which book is selected- and, by virtue of the criteria for listing books in the first place, the books are all informative and well-received by previous readers.

     You have had a lot of say in the book list you put in front of them and, from then on they are in charge. Fair system and it builds ownership within the group.

Any basic tips for leading a discussion group?


Tips tips tips

These are the norms for the simple things the participants can count on and expect- and these will vary from one book group to another, but I thought you might like to see mine. They may seem obvious, but I fumbled my way through early book clubs, not having thought of some of these. There will be more substantive tips in future blogs about leading the group, but don’t underestimate the value of tending to these little things.

They need to know routine procedures related to bringing refreshments, parking at the site, location of bathrooms, etc.

You need a simple name which will pop right out at readers on the subject line of your contacts. Don’t spend a lot of time on this. Just suggest one and ask if that would be a good way for them to recognize a memo that comes in. And, voila, you have it. My groups are called “WOKE. Just bcre8iv (a friend’s clever license plate). “WOKE memo” on a subject line is a lot easier than “Your political book group memo”.

Establish procedures in the event of cancellation (In our case, there is no attempt to reschedule, because of the otherwise busy schedules of all involved). I ask participants planning to attend to double-check their e-mail or texts before heading out for the meeting, especially in the winter, in case a cancellation notice is posted. I get that posted by 2 hours before the meeting. It is rare that we cancel, but various book group meetings have coincided with dangerous icy conditions or a site having no heat.  

Encourage participants to attend even if they have not finished the book, so long as they have provided themselves with a solid background on the book’s theme

Promise that the focus will be on the big picture, not the myriad details- readers are encouraged to skim parts that are bogging them down

Participants can request the discussion questions in advance, as I generally have prepared them the month before the meeting

How do we select the books we post?

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How to choose...

We can’t post every political book we hear of on our website, but we do have some simple criteria we use in choosing which ones get posted and which ones don’t. We reserve the right to be choosy in this regard and we think you will come to appreciate that. We like to hear from you about books we have posted and those you think we should post. Please note the criteria below:

Availability to readers: It should be readily accessible through book stores or libraries. A big clue for us is the number of people who have given an Amazon rating. If over 100 people have rated the book, it is likely to be obtainable. Of course, if a book is just published, an exception would be made, allowing time for it to accumulate views.

Solid link with a political theme: Sometimes a book looks very interesting, perhaps historical, or philosophical, but you would have to dig for political implications.

Timeliness: The material must be current and should be published within the last 2-3 years, depending on the topic. The more recent, the better, although this has to be weighed against the availability factor. An exception would be made for classics in a field, or those which were written earlier but remain very relevant.

A moderate/liberal leaning preferred: We are working with a group of Independents and Democrats. What can we say? If you are working with a Republican group, many of these books would work for you, but not all. You might want to include books with a more conservative view and, as we get going, perhaps we could add a theme to that effect. This criteria is not set in stone. For example, Jeff Flake’s A Conservative with Conscience might be fascinating to read.

Quality: In general, we look for a rating of 4 or more out of a possible 5 in an Amazon rating.

Discussability: The best discussion books deal with issues, themes and problems. We want to engender lively conversation. Occasionally, you can’t get there from certain books.

Leaders’ experience with the book’s use in discussion: Some of you are going to be telling us, “We tried this book and it was a great discussion.” That is a book very likely to get posted.

How do you communicate with the group?

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If you are running the group for a political party office or party affiliated subgroups or any other public group, make sure that the responses by any interested people come to you, even though the particular agency may have helped with the initial publicity. Then you can establish a group listing, with your own favorite means of reaching such a group (Facebook, e-mail, etc.) and take over the reins of communication. I do request a “Did-you-know–we-are- sponsoring- a -political –book- club?” reminder now and then from the organizing agency, again listing my own name and contact information for the response.

     Even people who do not attend the meetings will often stay on the list to get information on upcoming books, if a few simple courtesies are followed. I try to limit my communications, although there is a cluster of contacts during the time you are giving all a chance to vote on books, explained further in the November 10 blog. Once schedules are set up, and your participants understand basic operational procedures (see next section), you can get by with just these:

a memo about 10 days before the meeting week with details of the meeting, a request for a donation of simple refreshments

a memo shortly after the meeting week, presenting any input or suggestions from the participants, along with the reminder of the next book with a brief summary of what it is about- and a personal welcome to first-time attendees. Sometimes they will have a ballot with a slate of books from which they can vote for their favorite.

     I utilize the blind copy option in the e-mails, and if you don’t do that, I suggest that you periodically remind members that they should reply only to you, not to all. I ask people to RSVP only if they plan to attend meetings. Tables and chairs and refreshments are arranged, based on an approximate count.

What about participant attendance?

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Questions on attendance

 It’s important, periodically, for me to remind you that you will develop your own style and way of doing things. This site is provided to give you tools and food for thought- but there are many ways of developing a successful political book group and each of these answers to questions represent the way I have learned to build a member-driven group over the years, not necessarily the way you will proceed. And our different styles are going to be what gives this site character, as some of you begin working with your book clubs.
     Attendance at any one meeting will generally be about 25%-50% of the interested membership, unless you have a long established group with stable attendance. If this latter case applies to you, you can skip this section. But if you are working with a larger group in a party office or public setting, this figure would be a realistic scenario, and it comes with a dilemma right off.
     Imagine that, through great publicity and organizational support, you have 40 interested people sign up. Celebrate! You will probably then find that 20 will want a daytime meeting and 20 will prefer an evening one. Now you have a decision. Do you want to leave half of those eager, politically-minded readers behind and go with a single session? Or do you want to serve both groups by having two sessions for each book? Either way, the odds are that 5-10 interested members will be at each session (25-50%). That is why, in the initial proposal, I had a minimum number required to run it. Now that I know about the fairly even split on session time needs, I would ask for a minimum of 40 to run a group, 20 if you’re going to designate a single time from the outset. And if you are working with a politically oriented party affiliate group which meets in the evenings, they will probably want a book group that takes place in a similar time slot.
     Your group will probably grow as participants tell their friends about it. And those friends may be party members who are not on the mailing list or they may be Independent voters. They may even be of the opposite party eventually. This has not come up with our group, but if it does, I plan to talk with that interested reader about how we could work together to make the experience positive for all involved. It is important that, in your original proposal to the party leadership, you leave a door open for non-party members, if room allows.

What do you mean by a "starter" book?


How to start

    Have you decided to venture into discussion of political books?  If so, now that you have thought about what model you want to have and initiated some action to find the best setting, you will want to select a book that will get things going in the right direction.  You want a starter book that will attract interested readers in your community. 

By this term I mean a book that YOU select which will be likely to appeal to many and get a good-sized group to attend.  Best-sellers would be a great option, as many politically-minded people already want an excuse to read that book. 

     This list of starter books will grow and change as we find more, many of which will probably be recommended by you.  In the meantime, you will have a short range goal and a longer term one in terms of setting up a schedule for both a starter book and a potential series. 

     The short-range goal is to get people to your initial meeting.  If you are offering your discussions through a political party or organization's office, the best way to promote it is through their newsletter or bulletin system.  Sometimes you will be able to give meeting particulars with a visual as well and, in other cases you may have to settle for a few lines in a brief newsletter.  A party chair or organizer might be willing to set out a flyer at meetings or in the office itself.  If you plan on a party-affiliated discussion, I would hold off on social media publicity, although that can be valuable later.   You likely have experienced political discussions in the last year, when both sides wonder what planet the other side is on.  If you have polar-opposite strangers, with no built-up civil norms yet  at the first session, it may well be the last.  Once my group was well-established and comfortable with each other, I would ask them if they would like a discussion on a non-partisan book, to which they could bring a friend with opposing views.  There could be great value in this, but it probably is a risky thing to do at the start, unless your overarching purpose is to teach civil discourse.

     The longer-range goal is to get them back and into a series of discussions.  Before they commit, they will want to know when the meetings will be and what the books will be.  You can and should begin to set your dates for the series before you know what the books will be.  There will be more on selecting the books in the next blog.

What type of schedule works best for your group?


What type of schedule works best for the group?


What type of schedule works best for the group?

     If you have an already established group of readers, you will probably have a schedule and time set up already.  If you are going to work within a political party structure or at a community site, I can tell you what time frame and monthly calendar seems to work best.  I have learned by trial and error in this regard, and this is what I would go with.  I have seen weekend groups work well, but I try to stick with week days. 

But you have to think of yourself too.  These books are not “beach reads”, to be honest.  Can you keep up the pace of reading a political book every 7-10 weeks?  As you set up a schedule, it is OK to think of yourself first.  You might want to go with a three or four book series.

     The readers I have worked with, despite the best intentions, find it difficult to read a challenging book in the summer and in the busy holiday time from the week of Thanksgiving through the celebrations of the New Year.  This five book annual schedule works well for me, and I introduced the starter book in the spring:

• Mid-Late September

• Mid-November

• Late January

• Late March

• Mid-May

Not everyone will come every time, of course, but these are the months which will have the best attendance.

     If you are operating out of a political party office or some other community site (ex. library, school/college classroom, senior center,  others) you are going to attract readers who work during the day as well as those who are interested, but only if the book group meets in the daytime.  I knew I would need to offer a daytime and an evening group to reach all of those eager participants.  I schedule them in the same (busy!) week, but it also gives you a good stretch of preparation time to prepare for the next book discussion.  The times you originally set up may change with group input, as mine did, but these time slots seem to work best:

Daytime – 1:00-2:30 (Get some home before the schoolkids arrive and others before rush hour traffic)

Evening – 6:15-7:45 (Time for some to grab a quick bite to eat and get home early enough to relax)

How can I get a sponsor to support my efforts to start a book group?


Make a written appeal first (See the Template for the Proposal to a Sponsor). This gives the chairperson time to read over the proposal and run it by a few others. If you haven’t heard back in a week or two, call the office. In the proposal, I offered to come to any meetings to explain further and that was important. I was invited to an Open House and chatted with people about the idea and got about 20 interested people to sign up. I planned to attend a Board meeting as well, but it got snowed out. We are in New England! Mention of the group in follow- up party newsletters occurred and our group is now at 35 members and growing. You could also mention this blogsite if the Party leaders wish to see information on a group that is up and running.

     Do not give up if the Party Office is not interested. Try Party-affiliated groups like Indivisible, or try a neighboring county, or get a few friends and neighbors to join you. A group of 2 or 3 people can have a great conversation. Or you can even pour yourself a beverage of choice, settle in with a political book and perhaps even keep a journal on your thoughts. A very personal and satisfying venture into politics.

Where can I host these meetings?

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      If you are already working with a small group of known participants, or are going to pull together such a group, you may be planning to have meetings at each others' homes. Your meeting locales are easily arranged. You can skip the next paragraphs in this section.

     I would encourage many of you to think beyond the home book group model and go with one aligned with your own political party headquarters or affiliate groups. For one thing, many home book groups actually want to avoid political books, because their members/friends have quite diverse political views and discussion can get uncomfortable.  If you go with a model based in a political party culture, participants will be somewhat like-minded, though discussions can still get spirited.  Also, there are many people, outside your group of friends and acquaintances, who want to squeeze political books into their busy schedule because they have come to realize how important it is to be informed. So, instead of recruiting friends for my book group, I first proposed my idea to run it through my county’s Democratic Party, because I have mostly been an Independent voter, leaning Democratic.  Everything went well from the beginning. 

     There are advantages of running a book group out of a local party headquarters. They probably have meeting space and a ready-made mailing list to provide publicity. Fortunately for our group, the leaders liked the idea and have been extremely supportive with both. Good publicity and a room for the meetings - just what you need. I think it will continue to be a great partnership.

     Already established political groups in your area (such as Indivisible) are also a possibility, and could perhaps give you some publicity with their members. Party headquarters might be able to help get you in touch with leaders of existing auxiliary groups.