Group Interactions, By the Magic Numbers

Author: Barbara Palmer       

We’ve written before about the “Rule of Four” referring to the number of individuals that some sociologists and anthropologists have identified as being the sweet spot for engaging conversation. In her book, The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why it Matters, author Priya Parker, an expert in the field of conflict resolution, offered her own “magic numbers” for group interactions.

Groups of 6: Parker puts the number of people who can engage in intimate conversation at six people. That size of a group is “wonderfully conducive to intimacy, high levels of sharing, and discussion through storytelling,” she writes. On the minus side, they aren’t ideal for producing a diversity of viewpoints.

Groups of 12 to 15: This size group is still small enough to build trust and intimacy, but large enough to offer diversity of opinion and a quality that Parker called “a certain quotient of mystery.” It also has history on its side: King Arthur’s round table had 12 seats and Jesus had 12 apostles, she points out.

Groups of 30: When a gathering grows to 30 people, it starts to have the same buzz of energy as a party, whether or not it actually is one, Parker writes. A group this size usually is too large to sustain a single conversation, unless it is led by a skilled facilitator.

Groups of 150: When she talks to conference organizers who think about group dynamics, “the ideal range I hear again and again is somewhere between 100 and 200 people,” she writes. At that size, “intimacy and trust are still palpable at the level of the whole group.”

A group of 150 or so members is one is which everybody can still meet one another, “if the intention is there and the effort is made,” she adds. It’s also the number that anthropologists regard as the natural size of a tribe and “matches the number of stable friendships that the anthropologist Robin Dunbar says humans can maintain.” That’s not to say that gathering larger groups can’t be successful, Parker writes, but that those groups usually get broken up into smaller subgroups.

Tides of Humanity: The World Cup, the Olympics, Times Square on New Year’s Eve. “These are gatherings where the goal is not so much intimacy or connection as tapping into the convulsive energy of a massive crowd.”

As I head to Convening Leaders 2019 later this week, I intend to keep these numbers in mind and see what I can observe about the effect of group size on interaction.

And for the record, two is a great number when it comes to conversation. Convene talked to Parker earlier this year, and an excerpt of that conversation appeared in the November issue.

Also recommended: Watch Parker’s interview about the art of gathering (above) hosted by Creative Mornings NYC and the Q&A video (below).