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Thursday, June 11, 2009 9:50 am
Survey Says…
Posted by: Neil Hollands

Does your book group work for everyone who attends? It’s better to maintain with continuous minor adaptations and subtle adjustments  than to wait until readers begin to quit and a major overhaul is needed. In particular, you want to avoid the situation where discussion problems turn into public arguments between readers. Think tweezers, not machetes.

Identifying and repairing problems can be a challenge. You might not be aware of festering unhappiness. Something that bothers most of your readers may not upset you. A practice that peeves you may be a highlight for others. 

The goal is to identify mass discontent without getting personal. To that end, a blind survey may be just the ticket. Ask questions about the group, then compile and distribute the results. Look for areas where a broad majority desires change, and then collectively discuss what those changes might be.

Here’s a sample survey of six questions that get at the issues of discussion. I use scales because it’s important not to mistake a minor annoyance for a major problem.

  • On a scale from 1 (stick to the book or the theme at hand) to 7 (any topic that interests us should be fair game), how much would you prefer that we focus discussion?
  • On a scale from 1 (I prefer deep analysis of one book) to 7 (I prefer to hear a little about a broad range of books), what are your goals for our book group?
  • On a scale from 1 (focus on questions) to 7 (use discussion questions only when conversation lags), how would you like to use discussion questions in the group?
  • On a scale from 1 (a few individuals are dominating inappropriately) to 7 (discussion is well distributed), how would you describe the flow of discussion in our group?
  • On a scale from 1 (we need more serious discussion and debate) to 7 (we need to lighten up), how do you feel about the depth of discussion in our group?
  • On a scale from 1 (I am frequently interrupted or can’t get a comment in) to 7 (I say as much as I would like), how do you feel about your ability to speak?

If your survey identifies strong collective requests for change, try starting the discussion this way: “The majority of our members feel we need to change our group in this way (describe the survey result). How can we achieve that result?”

The two most common areas of discord in book groups are disagreements over the conduct of discussion and disagreements over the selection of books. This survey addresses the first area. Next week I’ll provide questions to identify unhappiness with book selection.

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