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Peer groups: Scottish Mixed Group – second full day: bumps, maintaining the group, emotions & cognitive processing

I wrote in the last blog post about the first part of the second full day at Glassie.  Later on in the afternoon we moved into a more "bumpy" phase of the group.  Often in these more difficult interactions there is the richest learning for everyone involved if one has the courage and openness to digest what happened.  Irvin Yalom, in his research on process groups, found that best outcomes were associated both with a great deal of caring, empathy & emotional "holding" and also with a great deal of "chewing over" and trying to understand what was brought up by events in the groups.  Interestingly, and in contrast, best outcomes were associated with a medium level - not too much & not too little - conflict & challenge.

The importance of exploring difficulties for the treasure they often contain, reminds me of a poem that I read many years ago at my dear step-daughter's wedding - a poem that has been precious in my own marriage.  It's an extract from Wendell Berry's "The country of marriage":

Sometimes our life reminds me
of a forest in which there is a graceful clearing
and in that opening a house,
an orchard and garden,
comfortable shades, and flowers
red and yellow in the sun, a pattern
made in the light for the light to return to.
The forest is mostly dark, its ways
to be made anew day after day, the dark
richer than the light and more blessed,
provided we stay brave
enough to keep on going in.

Confidentiality issues strongly limit what I will say about what happened, but basically one participant in the group pushed another participant to open up more emotionally.  The person being pushed felt (as did others as well) that they were being pressured excessively, became upset and temporarily left the group.  After a gap I went out to speak with the one who had temporarily left.  I think the group were a bit shaken by what had happened.  Eventually we all re-convened, there were apologies and a good coming together.  It's a bare description but it gives some sense of what occurred.

So what helpful outcomes can come from an experience like that?  And my answer is "Lots of potentially helpful outcomes".  In about forty years of involvement in groups, I've seen very little that has occurred in these environments that, of itself, was necessarily damaging or useful.  It seems to me that it's so often how an event is processed and learned from that makes it helpful or not.  Further assumptions that I make are that everyone involved is probably doing the best that they know, and that everyone involved probably has useful things they can gain from the experience.  So what are some of the possible lessons for me and for the group as a whole.

Well for me, one of the key lessons is that if I leave a group to help a member who has left, it's important - if I can manage it - to intermittently let the group know what's going on.  It can be tricky to do, but it's well worthwhile my bearing this in mind (and I didn't do this enough here).  My actions are also going to be affected by whether the group is residential or just an evening or day session, and whether I am facilitator, co-facilitator, or just a group member (on this occasion I was a bit of all three).

For the group as a whole I can see at least three lessons.  One is that I have seen many "crises" occur in groups.  On occasion someone has left prematurely and never come back.  At best - if adequate time isn't given to process what happened - there is lost opportunity for learning.  At worst - and this seems a more likely outcome - both the individual who left and the group as a whole will suffer damage.  So when a group is in danger of leaking a member, it's likely to make great sense to try one's very best to retrieve the situation.  A second lesson is, if possible, to have crisis-triggered discussions in front of the group - or at least fed back to the group.  This isn't always going to be possible, but it will help other group participants learn rather than potentially be confused by what has gone on.  And the third lesson is that often this kind of difficulty can be avoided in the first place by adequately orientating would-be group members to the likely demands of being in the group.  With a group where I'm the paid facilitator, I simply refuse to let anybody join without having a fairly extensive one-to-one session with me first.  In this solo session I take time to clarify what the person hopes to get from coming to the group, how they can actively work in the group to achieve the changes that they personally want to make, and I talk over their personal history & life experiences to get a sense of whether the group is likely to be right for them.

With the peer groups we run, I'm not "the therapist" screening possible participants; however typically "newcomers" arrive through personal invitation of people who are already group members and who act as "sponsors".  For the men's groups we have a "wiki" that newcomers are encouraged to visit to help orientation, and quite a few people will also read blog posts I've written (like this one) describing what's likely to be involved.  Important territory.  Probably most "conflicts" over how best to use time in the group should have been at least partly addressed before the group even starts. 

And now see the post "Peer groups: Scottish Mixed Group - final morning".

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