Last updated on 2nd November 2009
I'm facilitating a group today on "Relationships & emotional intelligence". When explaining why someone might want to come to the group, the initial publicity leaflet reads "It's worth taking the time to look at our relationships because they are such a huge part of our lives. Past relationships deeply affect how we feel about ourselves and how we interact with others. Current relationships can be a great source of joy, warmth and support, or of loneliness, frustration and unhappiness. Human beings are social animals. In many ways we are the sum of our relationships. As adults, we don't have to just accept how we learned to relate when we were younger. We can look at our interpersonal style and how we connect with our emotions. We can get feedback from others. We can decide what patterns we are happy with and what we'd like to improve on. The group gives us the opportunity to do this and a chance to practise new ways of being with others. We can change how we are in relationships. In doing so we change ourselves, our worlds, and the way we affect those around us."
I run the group over eight sessions - seven are two-hour weekly evening meetings and one (today's) is a full day. I certainly don't expect anybody to completely transform their interpersonal style and their emotional intelligence in twenty hours. The groups run as "terms", so if a participant is finding it useful they can come back for further eight session/twenty hour trainings. I run two or three of these group terms a year. At the end of each term some participants "graduate", leaving space for new participants to join. Like making yoghourt, the "culture" (for example their openness & empathy) carried by people who have already done one or more group terms tends to be extremely helpful for newcomers to observe and learn from. And in a mirror reflection, for those who have already participated in earlier group terms, the challenge of meeting and forming relationships with group newcomers offers many important learning opportunities.
Although, over the decades of working as a doctor & therapist, I have run many kinds of group training - at the moment I typically only regularly run two types. One is a fairly prescriptive "Autogenic Training" skills learning, stress management style group, which I have written extensively about on this website. The other type of group that I regularly run is the "Relationships & emotional intelligence" group. The first could be classified as a "structured" group and the second as more focussed on "process". A leaflet - "Group therapy - background information" explains "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."
My sense is that running structured and process groups make rather different demands on the therapist facilitator. With the transfer of skills and knowledge at the heart of structured groups, one can think of therapists as being rather like swimming instructors walking up and down the side of a pool calling out instructions to the trainee swimmers. Running a process group is different. Emotional and interpersonal authenticity and openness are a key ingredient of what the "Relationships & emotional intelligence" group explores. It doesn't work at all well if the facilitator walks around the side of the pool while expecting everybody else to have the courage to plunge in. We need to do our best to live and be what we're trying to teach - including our embarrassment, anxiety, mistake-making, and tentativeness. We're not on the side of the pool, we're swimming in the river with other group participants. A difference is that we've swum in many rivers, we know a lot about swimming, and we've already experienced so many of the interactions and events that may suddenly emerge round a bend in the stream. As the background information leaflet explains "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. A therapist's role varies with the stage of group development."
Despite evidence suggesting that group therapy can be as effective as one-to-one work (see Burlinghame et al, below) and group work's obvious advantages in certain areas (like exploring interpersonal skills), developing personal experience and training as a facilitator isn't easy to do. Opportunities are scarce. As a knowledge base, I use Irvin Yalom's great book "The theory and practice of group psychotherapy" (see below). The peer groups I've written about on this website are a tremendous learning arena for personal experience of groups - see for example the series of blog posts about this year's Spring Mixed Group and those on last year's Autumn Men's Group. Additionally, next March, I'm running a five day professional training in Group Work facilitation for Strathclyde and Caledonian universities. Details are on pages 12 & 13 of their "Psychological therapies knowledge exchange programme" brochure. Book in the next month and you get a reduced rate!!!
Burlinghame, G.M., MacKenzie, K.R. & Strauss, B. (2004). Small-group treatment: evidence for effectiveness and mechanisms of change. in M.J. Lambert (ed) Handbook of psychotherapy and behaviour change. NY: John Wiley, pp.647-696. [AbeBooks] [Amazon UK]