It’s not our problem – it’s the group’s problem!
Last week I had the pleasure of working with a number of seasoned group therapists around advancing their practice in group facilitation. It is a rare opportunity (and luxury) to all get together and explore what is frequently a solitary job. Busy clinics can leave little time for practitioners to reflect on and process what they do. But it is more a necessity than a luxury to reflect in and on practice (in the words of Donald Schön).
We kicked things off talking about two questions relating to group facilitation:
In other words, what are areas where things are going well, and where are you (individually and collectively) struggling or feeling challenged?
That second question in particular evoked lots of conversation, and I started to make a list. Here are some of the things that people came up with: participants who talk too much or not at all; disruptive behaviour; group engagement (lack thereof); lateness, attendance and drop-out; peoples’ diverse needs, expectations and abilities.
Then something interesting happened. The conversation started to shift to challenges like: balancing group content with process; agenda-setting; fostering trust and cohesion; appropriate disclosure; boundary-setting. The dialogue moved from focusing on participant behaviour to facilitator behaviour.
This is common in clinical supervision teams – it is so much easier to look at others’ behaviour – yet the most productive troubleshooting stems from identifying what we, ourselves, can do differently. The energy in the room changes too. Focusing on difficult client behaviour feels frustrating, hopeless and stressful. Focusing on new strategies that we can experiment with and implement feels productive and inspiring.
One of the biggest “aha” moments was how we group facilitators tend to take on all of the participants’ behavioural issues or concerns as our problem to solve. It’s kind of like the song “The Weight” by legendary roots rock group The Band: “Take a load off Fanny, take a load for free. Take a load off Fanny, and you put the load right on me!”
Addressing and dealing with stuff that comes up is really the whole group’s responsibility (and problem!). Of course, we are part of the group, but so are the participants. Asking open-ended questions and offering complex reflections about group process (not content) tends to be more productive than asserting our authority and directing traffic. In short, it’s not our job to single-handedly solve every problem that arises. It is our job to facilitate collective problem-solving and dialogue in a supportive and respectful space.
I’m thinking how closely this all maps onto classroom teaching. We’re not doing therapy in the classroom (although sometimes it can feel that way). The best teachers – like the best group therapists – demonstrate agility in creating shared accountability for positive norms and behaviours, and do so with authenticity, compassion, partnership, humour and deep acceptance.