The concept of group is often ripe for misunderstandings, projections, fears and misinformation. Some of these misunderstandings offer insight into the client's persona as well as the inner workings of group. The present article highlights perceptions and ideas that come up for many clients prior to joining group, sometimes expressed during initial phone contact and assessment interviews. I'll follow up in the next edition with perceptions that occur once clients are participating in group.
"I often find myself surrounded by people unlike myself in social and work contexts. It's frustrating and isn't it likely this will happen in group?"
Yes, it is not only likely but guaranteed to happen! The "here and now" concept of group dynamics suggests outside experiences always find their way into group. Thus in this case the potential group member will likely be sensitive to this dynamic and even be on the lookout for members who are different. If their curiosity can be evoked I would ask the following questions:
-Does this experience which sounds isolating "benefit" you in any way ("benefits" may include feeling better than others, liking the isolation as it is less demanding socially, feeling sure and right in one's observation, feeling judgmental, feeling disgust about how others lead their lives, etc.)?
-Are you holding back from saying anything that would let others know how you feel?
-Is there some connection to either how you grew up or how you have led your adult life?
-Is there a link to a goal you might work on in group, such as understanding how this experience is blocking progress in your life?
Group attracts a random set of people, although they are connected in the motivation to spend time and money working on their goals. There will always be commonalities and differences with other group members; both experiences will underscore important learning in the group. One can learn the most from people who are different than us which, when experienced, is often resisted. We can also feel more connected when we see ourselves mirrored in others. It is almost always a learning opportunity to come up against difficult issues and "difficult" persons, as it mirrors the outside world where we have similar challenges. The group is a "laboratory" and thus members get important practice and insight to help them understand and accept the complexities of similarities and differences that can translate into their lives outside of group.
"What if I don't get along with others?"
Not getting along with others may be an excellent opportunity! A primary purpose of group is to increase members' ability to speak and experience the group authentically. Exploration of not getting along with others can fruitfully underscore "core" issues which may include reminders of family members (whether one likes this or not!), feeling unseen/unvalued, and having critical thoughts that go unexpressed. A common group intervention: You don't have to like each other here in group (although it helps), but you do have to work with one another. To evoke curiosity and motivation as opposed to judgment, group members will be asked what this has to do with their original group goal ("nothing" is not the response one is looking for).
"What if I have nothing in common?"
An important tenant of group theory is that there is always, always a way to find commonality amongst members, even if it involves a bit of digging. Members are introduced to the concept of "joining," which is seeing what part of an experience we all share. At times this can be challenging given a common tendency to distance, get practical, or pass judgment in response to difficult experiences shared in group. It is not uncommon that a member will say, this reminds me of a part of me I would rather not look at! A statement such as this is reflective of progress, that good work is occurring in group.
"I hear most groups are just a waste of time."
Group is what you make of it. Critical feelings about the group are vital to verbalize and may include experiences such as boredom, disconnection, being overlooked and "dropped" (a common experience where a member feels they were left behind in a discussion that moved away from their share before being finished). Many group members avoid conflict and were raised to be polite but not necessarily intimate. Intimacy means including both critical comments and observations as well as the positive ones. If a group experience is feeling like a waste of time something powerful is being avoided and thus would be quite valuable if addressed.
"I've been in groups before where one or two people dominate and nothing is done about it."
When asked during the group assessment "what dynamics would prove most difficult were they to arise in the group" this is the most common response. A savvy group leader must be able to read the pulse of the group (but as I do, read it imperfectly at times!) in terms of who is sharing and to what degree. Thus addressing a group member who dominates is a responsibility of the leader and is also one that is shared amongst group members. Related themes a group leader will encounter are the ability to say something that may be critical, the ability to interrupt and focus group members on using "I" statements which often the "dominator" does not get in feedback because the frustration level with them has built up over time, often unexpressed. Another common response, often unspoken, is anger towards the leader for allowing this person in the group based on the idea that group members like this aren't appropriate for group. A reframe I prefer is that group members with these proclivities allow for excellent learning opportunities! A skilled group leader has several tools to address a dominator. Some examples might include asking who can join the dominator's topic, reading (and possibly interpreting) the silence in the group when the dominator is talking, or suggesting to the dominator that they might be "losing" their audience rather than gaining their active engagement, which is not the desired result.