October 13, 2020  |  David R. Novak

From 2 -> 3 -> 5 -> and Beyond

From 2 to 3 to 5 and Beyond

Communication and relationships are the same thing. And thus far, I’ve talked about relationships in mostly 1:1 terms. That is, one person to one person: a dyad. Relationships can be more complicated than just one person to another of course. Start adding more people to the mix and strange things start happening.

As you go from two people up to 3 or 4 or 5 and beyond, much of the dynamic of communication changes. The core is the same, it’s still about sending information and making meaning, but the interaction changes in myriad ways. New things become possible.

The Math

Some of this change is simple math. With 2 people there is one connection and 2 perspectives on that connection. With 3 people, there are 3 direct connections between individuals but also the capability for 2 together in relation to the other (2 v 1) becomes possible. This makes for 3 additional second order dynamics. With 4 people there are 6 connections and even more complex second order relationships. With 5 people, 10 and even more. 6 people, 15 direct connections and so on.


The assumptions of these flat networks hide many things. For example, in reality networks aren’t balanced and neat but rather can be gnarled and funky…like this:

The first graphic also tends to mask the realities of networks as harmonious and unified when in reality, network and groups are often fractured and fragmented — subgroups, cliques and alliances form. Here’s a visual representation. Each color is an imagined subgroup within a group.

It’s pretty obvious that as you start to add people, the communication dynamic changes. Three people do not communicate as two would. We’re still communicating — information and meaning are bouncing around and being created — some of the overall experience is the same, but different things happen. At some size, things get too big and large groups are virtually guaranteed to fracture into smaller fragments. But from 3 people and beyond, something changes. New possibilities are realized. Weird things start to happen. Different outcomes are achieved.

Dynamic Changes

Adding a 3rd person to any two person mix results in a dynamic shift. The context — in many ways — melds and morphs around you when this happens. Ever had a 3rd person join a pair? Or walked into someone else’s conversation and everything go weird? There you go. That’s it. A new communication bubble is formed. Within that bubble, new things happen that didn’t or can’t when it is any 2 of those 3.

Adding people to a dyad is a fun thought exercise but surely not how groups come together when humans are actually interacting. Often, groups of a certain size and combination convene together. As you add people, the dynamics change. Eventually, sometimes your group gets large enough, things even out, and communication hums happily all around you.

Add people, things change. The context may stay more or less the same, but if you’ve ever invited or encountered someone into a group with history, you know what I’m talking about. The change, for a while, is palpable.

New Things Become Possible

Along with the dynamic shifting that goes on as groups grow, there is other good news. New things become possible. Teamwork, for example, certainly not unheard of with two, becomes easier as group networks grow. A new identity might form…could be a sports team or a heavy metal band or tribe of friends or a new start-up business. Competition or collaboration might happen. These can lead to good and bad places. Even divisiveness can begin to occur as soon as the situation involves 3 people. Keep in mind I’m not saying that these things do not exist when we’re paired off, but rather it’s as relationships grow from 2 to 3 to 5 and beyond that we can really see these new things come into blossom.

How, you ask?

There are behaviors, for all intents and purposes, inherent in us humans that need shaping, training, or to evolve away. For example, kids are quite naturally collaborative, inclusive, and playful. It’s the older adults that mess that up (in some cases). In other cases, it’s the older adults (hopefully) parenting those behaviors out of kids. As an example, multiple parents on my block all of whom have similar aged children have noticed that among about 5-6 similar aged kids that play together, any two of them play nicely, but add a third to the mix and the behavior gets wild. Cohesion and happiness seem to fade. 2 gang up on the 1 in the ways that kids do. A good case study for why we should aim early at values and behaviors like inclusivity, cooperation, and problem solving.

Norms, Values, & Behavior Shift

Something else worth mentioning is how the norms, values, and behavior you might not see in dyads come about when the collection is bigger than that. More people mean a group’s values can blossom, shift, and adjust. Going along with the crowd becomes a thing. People’s behavior changes. Individuals within a group buy into — more or less — the group’s overall trajectory, ways of doing things, and purposes.

Leadership might form. People, if motivated, may cooperate. Or may sabotage. Where there’s leadership, there is often resistance. Small groups may try to organize in more equitable and egalitarian ways. Larger groups nearly always rely on leadership persons or structures to manage and move things along.

See how much changes about how we communicate and organize and connect ourselves just by adding a few additional people? Whew.

The core is the same. It’s still about information and meaning, but the landscape of communication feels almost entirely changed. Crazy.

As groups grow, diversities of all kinds increase (ideally) which provides richer resources for the group’s success. But as groups grow, some things about communication, like cooperating, developing consensus, and the amount or volume of communication become challenges. More people likely means more communication. As groups get larger they tend to get more bureaucratic, sub groups form, standard procedures may appear and formalize. This can be good and bad. Standards allow for efficiency, but they also limit and constrict in other ways. Formality and structure have their benefits, but generally structure tends to inhibit people’s sharing and participation.

Things change with communication as we get beyond on the dyad. At it’s core, communication is still what it is — meaning making, information sharing, interaction — a relationship, but similar to crystals, relationships grow and spread and take on new shapes as more individual units (people, molecules) are added to the mix. As communication scales up, we are faced with an entirely new set of problems and possibilities.

Groups | Communication at Scale