Last updated on 27th March 2012
I'm a member of three different groups, all of which meet occasionally in the evening. Since two of the groups only get together about every six weeks, it's unusual for all three group meetings to occur in the same seven days. In fact I can't remember it happening before. It's happening this week though - hence the trigger for this blog post "Different kinds of group, different kinds of friendship".
The group that meets pretty much every week is probably the most straightforward. We've been getting together for many years to play badminton for a couple of hours. It's great. I hugely enjoy it. It's warm too - we're friendly and we joke a lot. We encourage each other and we're very competitive as well. However with most of these guys, I hardly meet them except to play badminton. I could tell you very little about how their lives are going, or about how they're usually feeling.
In a previous blog post "Relationships, self-esteem and health" I've mentioned Sheldon Cohen's fine work. Cohen has convincingly proposed that social intimacy, social integration, and social conflict all make independent contributions to our health and wellbeing - we want higher scores for intimacy and integration and (usually) lower scores for conflict. I've put together a simple three item questionnaire - the "Personal community activities scale" to get some idea of how people are doing in these areas. It's not hard science, but it's a pretty good rough & ready assessment tool (for fuller assessment methods see the "Relationships in general" page). The second question looks at "social integration" stating "For wellbeing, most people ... appreciate sharing activities, interests & having fun with others (for example, eating together, working on a project, going out to theatres, films & concerts, walking, sport, learning, creativity, voluntary work, having a drink, coffee or tea, etc) - have you had enough of this shared activity time in your life?" The question asks for an estimate on a 0 (none) to 100 (perfect for me) scale how the last week (or other agreed time period) has been for these "social integration" shared activities. Playing badminton hits this spots very well.
The badminton doesn't really contribute much though to the area highlighted by the first question on the scale, which asks about "social intimacy" - "For wellbeing, most people benefit particularly from emotionally close relationships where they can talk meaningfully and feel understood & valued - have you had enough of this emotional closeness in your life (with people who you can relate to in this way, who are available and who you make enough of the right kind of time & place for)?" Again the answer is scored on the 0 (none) to 100 (perfect for me) scale.
The second group I'm involved with straddles both social intimacy (emotional closeness) and social integration (shared activity). It's a book group. We got together a couple of days ago on Sunday evening. Good talking. Good sharing about the reading we had been doing. Lots of affection, humour, smiles, interest. We've been meeting for years. It's lovely and also gets us reading a whole load of literature we wouldn't otherwise have explored. The conversation does become more personal at times, but that's not the aim of the group. Deeper personal sharing only happens "tangentially" as people reflect on what the author has been writing about and the thoughts and feelings this has triggered in us. Fun. Delightful. A great group.
Last night I also got together with another (overlapping) group of friends. We call this the "Enquiry Group". It evolved some years ago from an urge I had to meet up socially with other "expert therapists". We spent a fair amount of time over the initial sessions exploring why we might want to meet and how we might spend the time. Eventually we settled on this "enquiry" focus that we have used pretty consistently ever since. As with the badminton and book groups, the membership evolves over time as some people drop out and others join. Most of us are therapists, but not all. At the moment there are 9 in the group - soon probably to be 10. This size of group may be a little too big for purpose (for limited evening time slots), but usually we can't all get to every meeting. The "enquiry process" could be designed for "social intimacy". After checking in as a whole group over a cup of tea, we split into subgroups of 3 to 5 people. Typically we will have come up with a question or area we would like to explore. Subjects we've chosen over the meetings include "Death and dying", "How I feel being here with you guys", and most regularly "How I'm feeling right now is ... ". Last night we worked with "The new year, the new decade ... ". We each got only about quarter of an hour - 10 minutes or so to speak about "The new year, the new decade", and 5 minutes or so for the other 3 people in the subgroup to comment, give feedback, and ask questions. I think in the original enquiry method, the suggestion is that the speaker is uninterrupted and the rest of the group just listen silently. After the 10 or so minutes talking (the timing depends on how long we have and how many are in the subgroup), the listeners have maybe 5 minutes to respond. The suggestion is that the responses focus mainly on simply asking questions that might help the speaker reflect more deeply on what they have been saying. Actually we know each other pretty well and we're - well I certainly - am an inveterate "rule breaker" in these kinds of exercises, so often the feedback deviates from this "simply ask questions that could deepen the speaker's reflection" instruction.
It's full of riches. I give clients psychotherapy sessions that run for between 60 to 75 minutes. In the 10 minutes we each had to talk last night, most of us seemed to go as deep emotionally as one might in a really precious psychotherapy session. It's like dropping down a well or over a cliff. I've tried in the past, talking from a more intellectual, "heady" space. It's dissatisfying, at least for me. So in this enquiry process, I very deliberately sink down into my body and my feelings, sharing what emerges - a process of "not knowing" and "finding out". These are at levels five to seven on the well-known "Experiencing scale". This kind of "intimacy" and closeness soaks into my body. It profoundly changes me. I said last night something like "For me, it feels as if we somehow perform some kind of magic ritual, a mystery". An apparent paradox is that this deep, personal, witnessed, inner exploration also links us deeply with each other. It takes courage. It's also helped by our experiences and familiarity with working at emotional levels. Great. Joyful.