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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:

 

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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.

 

Related

Reflective listening 101

 

 

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The stages of group development can help us see where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’re heading

 

Why are some classes a pleasure to teach, while others test every skill and fragment of an instructor’s patience and fortitude? How can things seem to start off so well, and then proceed rapidly downhill? I have found it helpful to remind myself of the stages of group development as a rough heuristic for making sense of the classroom climate over the course of a semester.

 

Having a “big picture” sense of the terrain I am navigating with students gives me a general road map and guide. Where did we start, where are we now, and where do we want to go? These are the questions I am asking in reflecting on my teaching practice. The principles of group dynamics state that groups tend to progress through five specific stages in the process of developing cohesion and productive functioning:

 

  1. Forming: Getting to know each other, as people determine the degree to which there is safety in risk-taking. Groups that get stuck at this stage tend to remain at a superficial level, and there is minimal group cohesion and community. Keep challenging their assumptions and encourage students to step beyond their comfort zone in engaging with one another and with the course material.
  2. Storming: Characterized by interpersonal conflict, as group members test implicit and explicit norms and boundaries. This stage can really stretch our skills as we help the class navigate through rough waters. Hold steady. You (and they) will get through it. And pat yourself on the back for successfully supporting the class’s progress past Phase 1 – that’s not easy to do.
  3. Norming: Developing positive group norms, values and behaviours is the reward for getting through the conflict and challenges of the storming phase. As a community of learners, what values do we stand for? How do we enact them in the classroom? Guiding students to examine and internalize positive group norms shifts some of the heavy work from the instructor to the class.
  4. Performing: This is when it’s easy to remember why you are passionate about teaching. High functioning classrooms happen when students are committed to their own and others’ learning, and are willing to dig deep and make mistakes. Here is the laboratory where transformative learning happens. Congratulations, you earned it.
  5. Adjourning: Saying goodbye can be tough, and guiding the class through this transition means honouring and celebrating their collective experience and acknowledging that this is ending.

And then you get to start all over again!

 

 

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Here’s what the ultimate teaching challenge might look like…and in the future it may be the rule rather than the exception

A new book, Motivational Interviewing in Groups (Wagner and Ingersoll) outlines motivational approaches and strategies in group facilitation. While the book’s emphasis is on clinical practice, the principles and applications are also relevant to education settings.

The book’s authors present a table illustrating different types of group format, structure, composition, size, length and admission arranged along a continuum of difficulty (for facilitators) from easier to harder:

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This looks different for educational groups, but the essentials still apply. Here is my modification of Wagner and Ingersoll’s framework calibrated for teaching and learning:

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In other words:

Elective courses are easier to teach than mandatory courses. Students generally take electives out of interest, as opposed to being forced to take mandatory courses. Teaching students content that someone else thinks they ought to know is tougher than content in which they’re already interested.

Instructor-led courses presuppose a “script” (i.e. lesson plan), versus collaborative or student-led curricula. Paragogical approaches posit peer-to-peer learning and individual autonomy, and demand a proportionately higher level of finesse and facilitation.

Classes where students share more similarities than differences can be easier to work with than heterogeneous class compositions. For example, students who differ widely in age, ability or pre-existing knowledge and skills present more of a challenge in ensuring that all learning needs are met, and establishing an inclusive, cohesive and positive community of learning. Of course diversity, including culture, sex, gender and lived experience, enriches everyone’s learning exponentially – but demands artful facilitation on our part.

Student engagement and interactivity are more straightforward in classes of 25 or less. As class size increases so does the challenge of promoting opportunities for practice and integration of knowledge and skills.

It’s easier to keep peoples’ interest and attention for a single class of 2 or 3 hours than it is for a whole day or for multiple days. The latter demands both a varied menu of instructional strategies as well as formidable stamina (on the part of the instructor and the students).

Strict and highly competitive admission criteria can yield the “cream of the crop” of high-achieving and highly motivated learners. On the other hand, classes where admission is unrestricted means addressing the needs of the best and the brightest alongside those with academic struggles and other challenges.

Like any framework, this conceptualization tends to oversimplify and blur the many complexities and nuances of artful classroom teaching. Real life is always messier than the manual (if there even is a manual). But in general, teaching a mandatory class using a student-led curriculum, among a highly diverse cohort of 100 students or more, over a multi-day course that is freely open to all could well represent the ultimate teaching challenge.

We haven’t added the layer of classroom-based versus online teaching and learning, but does this scenario represent what may well be future of higher education…MOOC 2.0?

 

 TO LISTEN

Ears + Eyes + Undivided Attention + Heart

Zen rocks lake

Group facilitation is more about listening than speaking

Facilitating groups is a delicate art: groups progress through certain well-defined stages of development, and our style as facilitators needs to be pitched to where the group is at. Furthermore, facilitators need to respond to the “two clients” – the individual, and the group – and attend to both content and process. This multilayered complexity, whether in education or clinical contexts, is a big part of what makes groups so energizing and exciting.

What is reflective listening?

In its simplest form, it’s a response that paraphrases or mirrors the spoken content of a person’s statement. Reflective listening is a way to check back and make sure that we’ve understood what someone else tells us. This type of response is also a good alternative to the “Righting Reflex”!

Done artfully, the skill of reflective listening looks easy but is far from it (at least in my own experience). Really impactful reflective listening goes further than paraphrasing, and mirrors back the implied meaning beneath a person’s words; exploring the emotions, assumptions, ideas, hopes, concerns or wishes. These types of complex reflections demand our full listening attention and focus on the other. We all want to feel understood, and reflective listening helps bridge the communication gap in a respectful and validating way.

Here’s an analogy: simple reflections are like the tip of an iceberg – the content “above the waterline” – while complex reflections go deeper.

This video example of an angry client demonstrates how the practitioner uses lots of reflective listening to establish understanding and build rapport.

Reflective Listening in Groups

Reflective listening in groups ups the ante because of their interpersonal complexity. But, looked at another way, groups give us even more options and opportunities to use this important skill. I’ve come up with three general categories for practicing reflective listening in groups (and I’m sure that there are more):

1. Simple versus complex reflections

2. Reflecting an individual’s comments versus content taken from the group’s overall contributions

3. Reflecting group content versus group process.

Note that a facilitator might decide to use any one of these approaches (and within each category are a myriad of alternate ways of responding)…that’s the artful strategy part!

Here’s an illustrative example of a hypothetical client who is coming to the first session of a support group for people living with heart disease. The facilitator has asked group members to share their goals for attending, and the last client to speak says:

“I’m only coming to group today because my doctor and my wife are both pressuring me.”

Reflect 1

Reflect 2

Reflect 3

Notice how each reflective strategy builds on the next – but they aren’t sequential (or prescriptive for that matter). Just some pretty powerful tools that are appropriate across a spectrum of clinical, educational, professional and other kinds of groups. Because in the end, the best facilitation is more about listening than talking.

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