Party management and communication
- Group management
- Briefing before commencing
- On the move
Party members expect the leader of an activity to be experienced and to competently handle any situation that arises. The group's confidence in the leadership displayed will depend on how the leader copes. If the leader has confidence in his or her own abilities, this will be transmitted to the party. Often members do not relax and enjoy what they are doing until they feel reassured that the leader knows what he or she is doing. The leader's ability to inspire confidence in group members starts with the leader's ability to communicate effectively with the group.
Effective communication occurs when your message is created, sent, received, understood and acted upon to give the outcome expected. The best messages are brief, easily understood and unambiguous. They are usually verbal, but may be written. Written words may have the potential for misinterpretation, but this is less likely because they are usually the result of considered thought.
Some messages may be neither oral nor intentional and leaders need to take care that all messages sent are those intended. An example is body language, which includes reactions, mannerisms, gestures and posture. People are usually less aware of messages they send by body language, and this has significant implications. It is generally accepted that 70% of communication is nonverbal, and leaders should practise self control to harness body language so that it reinforces intended messages, and does not give unintended or conflicting ones.
The best leaders decide what needs to be said, then give brief messages which are to the point. They speak clearly and make eye contact with all members of the group, which helps them monitor how the group is receiving the message. Good leaders realise that communication is a two-way process, and are aware of the response to their messages. They seek feed-back from the group, because this enables them to gauge reactions and clarify points where necessary. Good leaders listen carefully to ensure that they are not missing the point of what a group member is trying to say; they look for the body language and other signs present to help interpret the ‘true’ message.
In critical situations, it may be advisable to ask group members to repeat what you have said in their own words. This technique should eliminate any possibility of misunderstanding.
The practical application of good communication is a very important aspect of party management, particularly during an activity. If the leader does not communicate well and keep in touch with the members then the party can become demoralised, lost or even want to mutiny. For this reason, good leaders do not allow the group to spread out too much, especially in conditions of poor visibility, high risk or tricky navigation.
Leaders learn a lot about the group from listening to the level of conversation. This is not an encouragement to eavesdrop, although this is often unavoidable. The tone of conversation of a happy, relaxed and keen group differs markedly from that of a tired, dispirited or anxious group. These clues may alert the leader to an impending problem and give time to assess possible courses of action.
Briefing before commencing
Before commencing the activity, it is best to outline the plan for the day, with particular emphasis on expected features and stages. This is usually best done with a map. It is also the time to appoint the front person, navigator and whip for the first stage of the trip, so that each party member understands their own and other’s particular roles.
On the move
Many leaders tend to lead from the front. During the various stages of the activity, good leaders generally change their position within the group, providing a good opportunity to make contact with different members of the group and observe how they are going. Newcomers need special attention in this context.
It is a good idea to develop techniques which will enable trouble to be anticipated, so that possible disruption or later cancellation of the activity can be prevented. This is particularly important if you are going into remote or difficult country. Look for gear that is about to fail, limping participants, and any signs of fatigue.
During the activity aim to maintain a steady pace appropriate to the circumstances. Do not stop unnecessarily, because this breaks up rhythm and creates frustration. On steep climbs slow right down rather than stop. It is undesirable to stop in cold, wet and windy conditions because of the windchill factor.
Look around regularly to count heads and note how the individuals are coping. Use this time to check on general progress, and keep in touch with navigational reference points and features. You do not need to stop to do these things, because there are usually opportunities such as a bend in the track or a wildlife distraction which allow time to glance around. Practise referring to your map and taking compass bearings on the move.
It is usually a good idea to have a brief clothing stop after about 15–20 minutes to enable members to adjust gear and clothing for comfort, and brief rest stops at regular intervals, usually after each hour of activity. Of course, there will always be unscheduled stops for toiletting, camera opportunities, injuries, interesting flora and fauna, or great views.
When and where to stop will depend a lot on the weather, terrain and how the group is managing. Try to pick a spot that is suitable for the conditions, such as after a steep climb, with shelter and a view. During the pause, circulate and chat with the members of the group, and take whatever action may be required to deal with any issues.
A stop for lunch is not just a stop for food and drink. It is an important event and enables members to rest, take photos, wash or air their feet, change their socks or have a nap. It also enables you to review the events of the morning, have a good look at the map and make any necessary changes to your plans.
Debriefing, where all involved review expectations, issues and outcomes after the event, is very useful for guiding better leadership in the future. It is best to have it in conditions that are conducive to relaxed, comfortable conversation. Debriefs may be done after any stage of an activity, but most commonly when it has been completed. On longer trips, debriefing after a logical section may lead to useful input which can be used to improve later stages. Debriefings may be formal or informal. Good leaders use them to find out how others viewed the activity, and use the findings as a basis for a review of their way of doing things. Not all debriefs will be positive, some may produce surprising comments, and others will be critical of the leadership. However, all leaders can gain much valuable information to improve their skills.