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Peer groups: Wiston autumn group – third morning

So yesterday was the second full day of the group and it went roaring along - like holidays where initially time moves slowly and then seems to accelerate.  Here the "train" of group memories seems to gather pace for me by this second day.  My sense has been that for all three of the mid-size groups of 12-13, the first day was at times quite a struggle - what are we here for?  Do I really emotionally trust these other people?  Do they like and accept me?  Is it safe to take risks and be vulnerable here?  Might I end up feeling rejected, humiliated or abandoned?  All of these seem totally sensible questions to me, and I think they need to feel answered on a gut, not just a head level.

Precious time.  The small support groups of four seem to be functioning really well from feedback dropped into conversations by many different people.  They are an opportunity to provide a kind of "family" or "brothers-together" style safety and to have personal time to check in each day.  Maybe this is especially important for those who don't yet feel strong personal friendships with others in the group.  For me, these small groups of four also cut across friendships very helpfully.  We spend 75 to 90 minutes of really high quality time each day being with three other members of the group, where this small group membership was drawn out of a hat rather than chosen because of old friendships.  This helps new relationships develop and breaks up potential cliques a bit.  Of course I still often choose to talk deeply with old friends at the many breaks for tea/coffee, mealtimes, walks and so on.  The small groups help to air the soil of the group though, and because each group of 12 has been randomized into three of these 4'somes, the sense of connection and safety in the 4's seems to feed the increasing sense of connection and safety in the 12's.

Certainly this has been true for me.  We met after breakfast for 75 minutes in our 4's, took 15 minutes for coffee, and then formed our groups of 12 for about two and a quarter hours  The groups of 12 now seem to have moved to the next phase.  People had already begun doing deep emotional work on the first day, but now the digging down became regular with that special cross-fertilization of the work.  So if someone works deeply on the struggle to lead a really busy successful life while still making time for rich personal relationships, or the huge potential for hurt (and love) in step-families, or on the challenges of their marriage - if they are really exploring/struggling to be deeply emotionally honest, then others of us in the group are touched by that.  We too may be triggered into feeling linked challenges and experiences that are crucial issues in our own lives.  If one person has the courage to work very vulnerably and honestly, and we see how richly and caringly they are treated by the rest of the group, it gives us courage to jump into the working space too.   Both research (see for example the "Experiencing scale") and my personal experience suggests that working at a deeply emotionally engaged level is usually much more helpful in these groups than staying too much up at the level of intellectual discussions.  Three key roads into emotionally charged material are 1) working on strong feeling linked with our past histories.  2.) working on issues raised by our interactions with others in the group.  3.) working with how we are feeling in the present (see for example the literature on focussing).   In our group of 12 we dug deep into the first of these areas - and also the third.  Fascinating the emotional intelligence skills this teaches.  It's no accident that, when I asked 40 to 50 doctors, counsellors, nurses, psychologists and other health workers who have been to these peer groups over the years, how helpful they had found this experience for themselves as health professionals - their average rating was 8.4 on scale from 0 (no use) to 10 (extremely useful).  Of course, "emotional intelligence" is certainly not just for health professionals  All of us need large dollops of it to make and maintain close (and more distant) relationships with others (and with ourselves).  The "hothouse" of these groups is usually a fantastic learning environment for this.  As I've described before, relationships are so centrally important both for maintaining health and for nourishing wellbeing.

I talked about the group feeling, in a way, like a cluster of lumps of butter in a saucepan.  The group environment is the saucepan and also the heat under it.  We, the participants, are the lumps of butter.  By this stage in the group, we're starting to soften, melt, merge a bit.  It's easier to work through the ups and downs and stages of this if, like many of us here, we've been through this journey, played this sequence of "music", many times before.  Hopefully it is helpful for relative newcomers to be around old-timers as we go through this process.

Then lunch, good conversations.  Closer one-to-one conversations after lunch too.  Amongst other things, it's important that if like me, one has sponsored a newcomer to the group, one checks in regularly to see how they're doing - a kind of buddy system.  Then some ferocious, hugely fun, table tennis.  We show other sides of ourselves in these competitive games and that's potentially more grist for the group mill and more beads on the necklace of our shared experiences.  Then again the groups of 12-13.  Events of the day and echoes from the morning groups feed into what people bring to the afternoon group.  The increasing sense of safety and the brushfire cross-triggering encourages more people to take risks and open up further.  There are apparent paradoxes here.  The more people show their humanity, their vulnerability, and risk the possibility of being judged or rejected, the more they tend to be seen and accepted and cared about.  I suspect that this often may be the single most important healing aspect of these groups - feeling known more fully than one usually ever risks, and then feeling deeply held, valued, respected, cared for, and understood.  As has been said, this is a kind of "sacred work".

Again a break, this time for the early supper.  Then we moved back to the full group of 37.  This gave me a chance for personal work.  I think often when one has been to a whole series of this kind of group, many of the skeletons in our cupboards of old emotional pains and patterns have lost much of their sting.  Other factors may become more important aspects of learning in the group - see a previous blog post on therapeutic factors for examples.  The conflicts, misunderstandings, and difficulties that I think are a pretty much an inevitable occasional part of longer term close relationships (see the conflicts & disagreement blog) are also a rich resource in these groups.  A metaphor I often use to describe this is of the group as musicians meeting to play together.  Sometimes the music we make is stunning, creative, beautiful, and sometimes there are discords.  The discords often contain more concentrated opportunities for learning than the beautiful flowing patches, but mining the discords to extract the gold from the dross - that can be a real challenge.

So in the full group I was challenged strongly.  Stretching, difficult challenge to work with the feelings that surge up in "real time".  Trying to be very honest and knowing too that there are so many ways of being honest - so many ways of expressing anger or hurt or other feelings - and that some ways seem more often to lead to helpful outcomes, and some ways lead more often to deeper upset and divisions.  When I first came to group work in the early 1970's there was a big vogue for "letting it all hang out", for "getting out the shit".  I was pretty good at it.  I'd played a lot of rugby and boxed as a kid.  If I choose to, I can easily be aggressive loudly and in someone else's face.  In the 1970's I spent quite a lot of time in groups exploring that.  Maybe it was helpful in knowing that I could do it and the world didn't fall apart.  Mostly however it didn't seem to get me very far.  I listen much more carefully to challenging quiet feedback from somebody who I feel knows and loves me, than to full-on shouting aggression or put-downs from somebody who seems to be more wanting to hurt or dominate me.  If we're exploring hurt and interpersonal distance in a strong, open, vulnerable way this often feels more helpful - particularly in ongoing close relationships.  So that's what we did in front of the full group of 35 others.  Graduate work!  And afterwards the opportunity to get feedback, appreciation from mutual friends who had been supportive witnesses, and also an opportunity to go back to talk more one-to-one with the person I'd had the difficulty with.  I rarely find strong disagreements resolve fully in just one exchange.  For me there often needs to be two or three bites at the cake at least.  For me very precious and potentially useful.  Issues around power, influence, respect, feeling heard and valued.

Then after much talking, a whisky, a bath, to bed at nearly 1.00am and up again a few hours later to write this and to do some yoga.

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