Empathic failure is an incident in which a client/s feels the therapist hasn't adequately tended to their needs, feelings, etc. Most therapists are aware of empathic failure in the course of therapeutic treatment. The intricacies of group make empathic failure much more likely given the limits of time and the inherent personality differences represented in group. Group leaders can benefit greatly by embracing and working with the experiences of empathic failure. Encouraging group members to name these experiences and allowing time for their processing may support the possibility of a repair with an individual group member and the group as a whole. Common pitfalls in group leadership include being defensive and not taking responsibility for the role the leader has in empathic failure.
An offshoot of empathic failure is when a group member interacts with the group and subsequently feels "dropped" when they don't get their needs met for a variety of reasons. This can occur when the therapist or another group member moves on to a different topic, perhaps too soon or without knowing the previous group member had more to say and/or wanted something from the group. This issue may surface across all types of groups - be it psychoeducational, support, process group, etc. - and can often be missed until it is named. By calling attention to being dropped (sometimes it is the group member themself and at other times an observing group member feeling empathic) there is an opportunity for repair.
Psychologist Louis Ormont created bridging techniques to grow support and bonds among group members, energize a group and better incorporate participants. When a facilitator asks a group member directly how they are doing or what they know of a particular subject it sometimes yields a limited response. Using a bridging intervention a group leader may inquire from another group member what they observe about the first member. The sometimes surprising and helpful response has the potential to bring a different energy to the group. For example: "Mary, I'm wondering what you think is going on for Tom right now as we are talking about divorce." Mary has previously shown she has particular insights about Tom, and Tom has appreciated Mary's comments and observations, which allowed him to be better noticed in the group.
Yvonne Agazarian, EdD founder of Systems Centered Group Theory, has provided the field with a variety of valuable techniques. One popular intervention is to ask a group member when they are sharing an issue, "Do you want to explain or explore?" The exploration is often what provides the essence of group interactions, though explaining an experience that took place outside group is of course useful and necessary as well.
Joining is a commonly occurring and inherently positive experience in group that leaders should always be on the lookout for. Successful joining heads off the potential for scapegoating, which can derail a group. It can also support group members in feeling a sense of shared experience and unity, bridge isolation and may help some rest in a basic sense that they are okay. I will often introduce the term "joining" to group members to help them understand there is always the likelihood another group participant will be available to understand, accept, and hear them, as this may be the opposite of their experience. Some group members will eventually start referring to joining in their group interactions as well. One example of joining may look like the following: "Whom in the group understands and identifies with part (or a good deal) of what Jan is sharing right now?" Joining is not always obvious and the group leader may need to encourage joining by suggesting what they think it might be. For example, "So far, no one has joined Anthony, but are the rest of you saying you never ever lost control of your temper and made a scene that you later regretted? So none of you in this group has a temper?" In this example, group members are "nudged" to join which can sometimes lead to specific critical feedback to the therapist, which of course, is always welcomed. At times, the nudging can also be humorous and can create an entry into an otherwise sticky subject.
Subgrouping is a powerful alliance that can underscore acceptance and understanding in a group. We inherently have particular commonalities with others (e.g. gender, race, age, socioeconomic status, experiences with betrayal, alcoholic parent, etc.). By speaking to these connections a group member can feel both particularly understood and also helped by another group member. This positive connection helps move the group forward, particularly if a second (or third) group member can articulate the issue in a different or elaborative manner than the original group member.
At a recent group training I attended a senior group leader said if you aren't making five mistakes in each group you aren't working effectively. Some of us secretly rolled our eyes and/or silently gasped at this outrageous concept. However, with further exploration the concept underscores our inherent and available imperfections, and how by normalizing and identifying them group can become more intimate, feel safer and lead to increased trust. One recent mistake of mine (of too many to illustrate!) was failing to understand a particular client's complex psychological issues that made joining the group more of an obstacle than helpful, which created a dynamic where he left group prematurely. As with empathic failure, the group leader will benefit from normalizing their mistakes with group members and not being defensive.
Many of these interventions underscore the vital component of feeling not alone that group experience fosters. The common goal of increased understanding and acceptance of oneself and others is clearly furthered by these interventions.
Suggestions for further reading:
Agazarian, Y. (2004). Systems-centered therapy for groups. London: Karnac.
Furgeri, L. & Ormont, L. (2003). The collected papers of group treatment: The technique of Louis R. Ormont. Madison, CT: Psychosocial Press.
Ormont, L. (1991). The group therapy experience: From theory to practice. NY, NY: St. Martin's Press.