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Peer groups: Scottish Mixed Group – first full day: small support & full group work, gender ‘fishbowls’

Again it's a little before 6.30am.  Pitch black outside.  I wrote yesterday morning about the first evening of this group.  We then went on to the first full day.  How was it?  Well it seemed to me that we've begun to find our feet well.  The morning began with people emerging little by little.  Greetings.  Warmth.  The big table and "fellowship" at breakfast.  Open heartedness.  And, as agreed, we started in the full group at 10.00am.  We took a little time in silence - "to clear the palate".  Then practical agreements - how long we wanted to meet for, the possible overall structure of the three days, whether or not we wanted to have small support groups as well as the full group of fourteen.  I tried to hold my part in the organization lightly.  Good to be "over-ruled" about the size of the small support groups.  I'd suggested groups of three or four, and several others wanted groups of four or five.  In my experience, both can work well.  The former typically allow a bit more intimacy & time per person (and I usually prefer this), the latter introduce a bit more variety.  We put people's names on individual bits of paper and first dealt out the men's names "blind", two per group.  Then we did the same for the women's names.  Two groups of five and one of four.

I spoke a bit about my hopes for the group.  Said that I expected, hoped that how this group worked would grow well out of the many learnings we've made over twenty years in developing the other peer groups that have blossomed in this loosely-knit peer network.  I also said that the different groups (UK Mixed, UK Women's, UK Men's, Scottish Men's, and other regional groups like the one in East Anglia that I've never been to) have a pretty close "family resemblance" to each other, but they have also evolved their particular flavours as well.  I said that I hoped and expected that we too - as the new Scottish Mixed Group - would evolve in some ways that hadn't been tried before by the other groups.  For example, as a group that contains quite a few therapists already involved in or wanting to develop more skills in running groups professionally, I wondered whether some of us might like to meet as a "special interest group" to talk about how we observed our function as a group developing.  Others too spoke about the excitement of being here at the birth of a group that may go on to meet over many years - the UK Mixed Group, for example, has now been meeting annually for twenty years and counting.

Funny.  I was thinking about my time involved with group work this morning.  I went to my first "encounter group" as a young, fresh-faced medical student in the winter of ‘71/72.  It blew me away.  I had no idea that people could be so open & authentic with each other.  I kind of expected blood on the walls if we allowed our feelings to emerge like that.  I've mellowed, maybe become a bit wiser, maybe become a bit less crazy (in ways I welcome and ways I wonder more about).  The groups I'm involved with have mellowed too.  But I still find the magic in them that I did as a 21 year old student.  Human beings interacting with honesty and open-heartedness can be so healing for each other.  I actually set up and ran my first group over a weekend in about '77.  I've participated in so many different styles, sizes, durations of group.  Some were great, some were pretty dreadful.  Good learning.  This particular loose network of residential peer groups came together 20 years later in '91.  They have been running and spreading now for a further 20 years and here in '11 we're beginning the Scottish Mixed Group.  A nice symmetry.  I think that this kind of "process group" can be very helpful and very special.  I think it's a damn shame that there isn't more of this kind of work available.  It's well evidence-based, but there aren't enough therapists, who know what they're doing, who are available to run them.  Hence my involvement in the five day trainings in group work at Strathclyde/Caledonian universities.  Hence, in part, the initiative to get this residential peer group going to provide an opportunity for potential group facilitators to gain more personal experience of groups themselves.

It's only part of the reason for getting this Scottish Mixed Group going, but it's a big part of the reason for me.  This however brings with it, its own particular challenges.  Quite a few people who have come to this group have only met me before in a therapist/trainer role.  How well will we transition to being a more genuine peer group?  It will be fascinating to see.  And hopefully we have time.  This project is one that I hope will grow over several years.  I can maybe make myself redundant, in terms of bringing the group together & "holding" it, over several meetings.  And, as I've said before, one way that I find it helpful to understand these groups is that they serve a series of overlapping functions - with the importance of these functions varying between participants and also changing for people over time.  So there's personal growth work, friendship, retreat, and outreach.  And part of the personal growth work/outreach mix is that involvement in these groups changes us as carers, whether we're doctors, psychotherapists, parents, friends.  We all inhabit the care-giving role at many times in our lives.  This work, I know, can enrich that hugely.  And it enriches our facility in other roles too - in care-seeking, in expressing our power & assertiveness, in playing ...

Anyway we spent most of two hours in the initial full group, before breaking for tea and moving into small support groups until lunch.  The smaller groups feel to me like music quartets/quintets or maybe small jazz ensembles playing together after the more ‘big band' interaction of the full group.  A different but related music.  Same challenges - to be real, honest, feel inside, what's going on for me here as I relate with you others.  Caring, sensitive - how are you doing, can I hear how it is for others?  Good to give time to this.  All our relationships are affected.  (For more on group work as playing music together and other metaphors, see the handout "What it's usually helpful to talk about in the group").

And lunch.  Big table.  Talking, laughing, lovely.  And most of us then going walking up into the hill and round the high loch.  Getting a bit lost.  Back a little late after trudging and slipping through the woods.  Tea and cake.  The afternoon full group.  It can be a bit of a sleepy time sometimes in groups, this afternoon meeting.  Speaking about the challenge, the awkwardness sometimes of separating and coming together again.  And after a while we did a ‘fishbowl' exercise.  First the men sat in the centre of the circle with the women just silent spectators around the outside.  The six of us guys spoke about how it was feeling for us being here with the women.  We've all been in Men's Groups together.  Some of these guys I know from way back.  We've been through a lot.  Deep connections.  Love.  How is it having the women come into this?  For me, right now, good to be together as guys.  Safety.  Comradeship.  Friendship.  And then after 20 to 25 minutes, swapping over.  Guys listening, mouths shut, on the outside.  Women sitting in an inner circle talking about how it was hearing the guys speak, how it has been coming to this group, how they're feeling, what buttons these experiences press.  Lovely.  Honesty, vulnerability, competitiveness, appreciation, fun.  Lots of colours.  The group feels a bit like a big stew.  Cooking.  The flavours are coming out now.  And supper, good conversations, and ‘time-off' together after the meal.  Most of us played a slightly crazy game of charades.  Fun.  Being spontaneous and idiotic and creative and warm.  And to bed. 

And now here I am in the quiet sitting room.  The light from outside growing.  What about today?  What do I hope for?  That we continue as we've started but, with increasingly knowing each other, safety, diving in more.  And I'll try passing on responsibility for structuring and time-keeping in the group to others - maybe one of the small support groups could serve that function today, and another of the small groups could serve it tomorrow.  Handing over the "power", even in these small ways, I feel is helpful.  Stepping back, growing more into a peer group.

For a description of the second full day, see tomorrow's post.

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