Last updated on 7th October 2010
Should group facilitators & would-be group facilitators have personal experience of the skills they're teaching? Should swimming or driving instructors be able to swim or drive themselves? I'm sure it's possible to help someone learn to swim without being a swimmer oneself, but if you're an instructor you're likely to do a better job and be more convincing in your suggestions if you yourself are pretty good at swimming.
I think the same is true for facilitating groups (and often doing one-to-one work too). If you're teaching knowledge & skills - stress management, physical exercise, meditation, healthy diet - you're likely to be more helpful if you are experienced and have put the ideas into practice in your own life. Frank et al addressed this issue in their paper "Physician disclosure of healthy personal behaviors improves credibility and ability to motivate" and I've explored this territory much more fully in an earlier blog post "Self disclosure by health professionals". I well remember many years ago working as a junior house surgeon in a busy hospital. The surgical registrar would do the ward round and regularly tell patients that they shouldn't smoke. However he didn't seem to be able to cover the male ward and then the female ward without taking a break for a cigarette between them. I noted patients glancing at his nicotine stained fingers as he gave them his no-smoking lecture. It's not good enough - see more general research on health professional behaviour in the post "Common sense isn't common". As a favourite yoga teacher used to say "If you're not really practising yourself, it's immoral to teach. If you are really practising yourself, it's immoral not to".
In the handout "Group therapy - background information" I've written: "Many different types of therapy have been tried in group format. Rather than construct a long list of such therapies, it may be more helpful to divide the many types of therapy group into two general categories - structured groups and process groups. Structured group therapy often involves the transfer of skills and knowledge. It may feel a bit like a classroom situation. Frequently, structured groups are used as a cost-effective way of delivering similar forms of therapy to individual one-to-one work. Process groups, however, use groups not just for cost effectiveness but also to focus on forms of learning that are specific to the group format itself. Process groups acknowledge that the developing relationships between group members are also a major therapeutic resource". In the real world, the distinction between structured groups and process groups isn't so cut & dried. It's very clear that many participants in structured groups which teach knowledge & skills actually benefit hugely from their interactions with other group members. Similarly process groups, which produce many of their benefits from interactions between group members, also provide exposure to new knowledge & skills.
In writing about process group facilitators, I've said "The therapist's role involves several overlapping tasks. These include responsibility for ‘structures' like confidentiality, location & timing; encouraging a balance between safety & challenge; clarification & education; and working as a group participant". I wouldn't go to a swimming instructor who couldn't swim themselves. I wouldn't go to a process group where the facilitator hadn't had plenty of experience participating in groups. Irvin Yalom's great book "The theory and practice of group psychotherapy" makes the same point much more fully. But where does a would-be process group facilitator get such experience? Websites like the US "American group psychotherapy association" & "Group psychotherapy resource guide" (with its list of courses), the UK "Sociodrama & action methods training" & "Institute of group analysis" list a variety of training opportunities. I myself run a 5 day group facilitator training through Glasgow universities. The next is due in March of 2011. The description of the "Opening up" group I run highlights the type of work I do in this area. And I'm also involved in regular residential peer groups. Here in the UK these residentials provide a rare opportunity for therapists to gain experience as participants in this style of group. Feel free to contact me if you're a group facilitator or would-be group facilitator and participation in this kind of work interests you.