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Peer residential group, final morning: review, group function & the benefit of working with difficulties (4th post)

Yesterday we had the final morning of the 'long weekend' three day Scottish Mixed Group.  I have already written posts about arriving, and the first and the second full days.  This was the fourth year that we had met for these annual get-togethers that run from Friday evening to Monday lunchtime; and several of us from the group have also met for an occasional full day workshop during the year between residentials.  The Scottish Mixed Group is one of a loosely linked network of other residential peer groups that have been meeting since 1991.  One way of seeing these groups' function is that they satisfy four overlapping needs - for personal growth, friendship, retreat/holiday, and outreach.  

So the groups provide a concentrated set of rather wonderful and often challenging emotional/interpersonal experiences that can nourish personal growth.  Just as when practising physical yoga we stretch ourselves well beyond the usual demands of ordinary life, so the "emotional yoga" of groupwork often challenges & stretches us unusually fully as well.  In both cases, the strength and flexibility we gain can serve us very helpfully when coping with the ups and downs of everyday life. Nietzsche's "What does not kill me, makes me stronger" has some truth in it.  Mark Seery of the University of Buffalo is a researcher who has particularly contributed to this area with papers like "An upside to adversity?: Moderate cumulative lifetime adversity is associated with resilient responses in the face of controlled stressors" and "Whatever does not kill us: Cumulative lifetime adversity, vulnerability, and resilience".  And this is relevant for relationships too.  In their paper "Stress resilience in early marriage: Can practice make perfect?", Neff & Broady found in two different studies that "entering marriage with better relationship resources may not be sufficient to shield marital satisfaction from the detrimental effects of stress; rather, couples may also need practice in using those resources to navigate manageable stressful events."  These findings that some personal challenge (not too much, not too little) often promotes growth, is mirrored in the groupwork literature too with a strong suggestion that learning from groups is optimised when there is some degree of moderate conflict - along with plenty of caring support and a commitment to learn from what's experienced.  

Fascinatingly this spills over too into how-does-one-become-a-better-psychotherapist territory.  Many of us who come to these residential peer groups work as health professionals.  I lectured last year on "How can we help our clients more effectively?" and highlighted that research clearly shows that psychotherapists vary considerably in how much they help their clients.  This variation does not seem to be explained by differences in therapist qualifications, training, gender or years of experience (this latter point is more debatable).  Concerningly too, it seems that therapists themselves are poor judges of how good they are.  So what on earth separates excellent therapists from average therapists? Well it looks like the separation occurs particularly with more complex, challenging clients - see Saxon & Barkham's paper "Patterns of therapist variability: therapist effects and the contribution of patient severity and risk".  And it looks too as though a major factor here is how well the therapist copes with interpersonal conflict - see Anderson et al's findings in "Therapist effects: facilitative interpersonal skills as a predictor of therapist success".  Note in this Anderson paper that assessment of general interpersonal skills did not distinguish between more & less helpful therapists - it was specifically assessment of how well therapists managed conflict that mattered.  Well, where do we learn to manage conflict better?  Observing, participating in, and reflecting on how we cope with genuine conflicts in this kind of peer interpersonal group seems a fine resource ... not necessarily much fun, but a fine potential resource.  I would suggest too that this isn't only relevant to therapists. It may well be that excellence in interpersonal relationships more generally is particularly highlighted by how well one copes with conflict.

I said that one way of seeing these peer groups' function is that they potentially satisfy four overlapping needs - for personal growth/development, for friendship, for retreat/holiday, and for outreach. What happens in these groups provide so many opportunities for personal growth - see Yalom's listing of well-documented therapeutic factors.  The groups also allow us to make & deepen friendships.  See the blog post "Friendship: science, art & gratitude" for an exploration and paean to friendship ... and too the series of posts on "Meeting at relational depth".  Life is so deeply precious, and relationships are right at the heart of what can make life so wonderful. And these residentials pretty much always occur out in the country.  I lead (and choose to lead) such a full, busy life ... the intensity of these groups & the beauty of their settings is often like a cool, drink of water in the heat of daily life's busy-ness.  Retreat/holiday.  And outreach ... with such potentially rich experiences, of course one wants to share them.  In the words of Isabel Allende "We only have what we give".  As Paul McCartney wrote in the "The End" (the last song recorded collectively by all four Beatles) "The love you take is equal to the love you make".

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