I recently posted a piece that outlined the four pillars of observable behavior (individual, groups, the environment, and the collective mood) and walked through how to break down the first pillar, the individual, in your everyday life.  In this post I will tackle the second pillar, groups, pointing out how often you come in contact with them and how to ensure your own confidence in personal group situations you find yourself in.  I will walk through the four group assessments, point out what to look
for to make assessments and then how that information can help you better understand what your own body is saying to other people you come into contact with. This will help you quickly assess what everyone else’s body is saying to you and will offer you clues on how to respond.

Group assessments are made by observing the amount of physical space between two or more people in any setting. There are a couple of things that are important to remember when observing and assessing groups.  The first is that, because we do work with organizations from all over the world, the group relationships that I will outline apply everywhere, but the spatial distances may vary based on cultural and societal norms for the area in which you live.  For example, while traveling in some foreign countries, I have noticed that some cultures interact with others with very little space in between them, while others maintain a significant amount of special distance.

The second thing to remember is that the individual clusters are crucial to making accurate assessments on group dynamics.  In particular, understanding the comfortable cluster is especially important, because it will be the barometer by which you determine the dynamics of the group you are observing.  If you want a refresher on the individual clusters or if you are new to our site, here are our cluster cards that give some rules of thumb for the comfortable cluster of individuals.

There are four different assessments for groups: intimate, personal, acquaintance, and none.  I will walk you through each, explain what the cluster typically represents, provide some spatial examples for your frame of reference, and then provide a typical “real life” example using the setting of a shopping mall, because this provides a reference point that most readers will be familiar with, and have found themselves in before.

An intimate relationship is classified as one with a high degree of trust between both parties.  We use the word intimate to describe this dynamic because it implies that two (or more) people know each other well enough to spend time together with little space between them.  You can spot intimate relationships between people by looking for a close physical proximity (distance) between both parties.  Generally, a rule of thumb is that the people will be closer than one arm length separation between them.  You might also notice some sustained touching or touching in areas that would be considered off limits for a less trusting relationship, such as the small of the back or the neck.  For example, if you were visiting a shopping mall with your spouse or significant other, you might hold hands and stand very close to each other.  In some stores, you might touch each on the back or shoulder and, during all of these instances, because you are comfortable being in each other’s intimate space, both of you would normally demonstrate comfort as your own individual cluster.  Now, anyone could walk up and touch someone without their permission, so you can confirm an intimate relationship by observing that both people are in the comfortable cluster.  Conversely, if one person is within “intimate distance” and demonstrating dominant behavior and the other is in the submissive or uncomfortable cluster, then no true intimate/high trust relationship exists.

The second closest group dynamic to take notice of is when two people are in the personal zone. Personal relationships are ones we would look at between friends. When people are taking up space in each other’s personal zone, and they are all comfortable, they are showing that they have a moderate level of trust with the other people.  You can spot people in each other’s personal zone if physical separation between both parties is greater than in an “Intimate Relationship”.  An approximate rule of thumb is that one arm’s length of distance between you and the other people exists.  Only minimal touching is involved or touching in neutral areas such as the upper arm or a pat on the upper back.  Both parties should be displaying behavior from the comfortable cluster if this distance reflects their actual relationship (if neither party is perceived as a threat).  If you think about an instance when you were visiting the mall with a friend, you might stand next to each other while walking and sit with each other in the food court, but you probably won’t touch each other on the small of each other’s back or stand extremely close to your friend with both of you remaining in the comfortable cluster.

The third cluster of observable group behavior is the acquaintance relationship. Acquaintance relationships are best described as those where people know each other but have a minimal level of trust with each other.  The physical separation will be greater than that of a personal relationship, but close enough where conversation is still possible.  The rule of thumb for spatial distance of an acquaintance relationship is greater than one arm’s distance between each person.  You might notice some touching during the greeting or at the end of a conversation, such as a handshake or an “air-kiss”, but because it is only for a brief moment of time, and neither person will display the comfortable cluster while so close, the relationship can still be assumed to be merely acquaintance.  In a shopping mall, you might have an acquaintance relationship with an employee of a store that you visit often.  You will comfortably discuss items for sale, pricing, and upcoming specials, but not at a distance closer than one arm’s length.

The final group dynamic to observe is where there is no dynamic between people.  This may be because they have no prior knowledge of each other or no familiarity with who they are. In instances where there is no relationship, whenever possible, the greatest amount of physical separation available is kept from strangers who you have no relationship and no degree of trust established with.  In an environment where you see two people that continue to maintain significant distance between each other, with no interaction, you can confidently observe no relationship between those people.  An important note here is that you may be in a shopping mall where two people do know each other, but choose not to interact.  For the purposes of your interaction you can determine that there was no dynamic during the period of time that you observed, but it does not mean that these people don’t know one other at all.

There are four different group dynamics to be aware of while observing people. They are intimate, personal, acquaintances, and no dynamic. By observing people using this framework you can quickly assess your own relationships with everyone around you, observe group dynamics between other people that you come in contact with and also have a better understanding of everyone else around you at any given time. Whether you are in a shopping mall, at a wedding, a business conference, or in a one-on-one meeting, by being aware of special distances between people you will have the advantage of being able to accurately assess what is happening between everyone else around you, helping you to focus on what’s important and eliminating uncertainty.