Last updated on 7th November 2014
I have been involved with interpersonal group work since being blown away by my first experience at a weekend workshop way back in 1972. Although I was pretty much a paid-up hippie at the time (and a medical student as well), I had little experience of people deeply & honestly stating how they were genuinely feeling. 70's encounter groups sometimes seemed to err on letting it all hang out a bit too much for participants' own good; they were certainly however a gale of fresh air blowing through my buttoned-up upbringing. By the end of that first weekend, I knew this was something I very much wanted to explore a lot further.
And I did - pretty quickly attending workshops with many different group leaders and participating in a couple of leader trainings as well. Back then enthusiasts felt that group participation of this type could change the world - a little like mindfulness training is presented at times now. As with new "wonder drugs", such hype hopefully evolves into an understanding that for certain needs, interventions like group work or mindfulness may (when applied skilfully) be of very real use. Neither is likely to be the answer for the all the world's or even the individual's difficulties, despite the naive suggestion back then that getting national leaders to participate in a group together could really help move cooperation & understanding forward. Maybe. Encouraging them to meditate together might help as well. I don't think either are likely to happen any time soon.
Nowadays I'm involved with groups in a number of ways. I teach occasional "Lifeskills" and "Opening Up" groups for clients - exploring key self-care skills for "stress, health & wellbeing" in the former and development of greater emotional & interpersonal intelligence in the latter. I facilitate an annual five-day group leader training. And I'm involved in a variety of peer, "leaderless" interpersonal groups. This weekend's Scottish Mixed Group is one in a network of linked, residential, leaderless, peer groups that began with a small group of enthusiasts back in 1991. That first network peer group was a UK Mixed Group. Fairly rapidly UK Men's and Women's Groups emerged ... and then a variety of more regional groups around the country, of which the Scottish Men's and Scottish Mixed Groups are a couple of examples (for links to an extensive series of blog posts about these peer groups see the fifth paragraph of the post "Update on website traffic: my own favourite top 15 (6-10) - therapist feedback, relationships, conflict, groupwork, & walking"). Although these groups are primarily about personal work and friendship, their effects are also intended to spill out into our lives and broader social communities. As Gandhi put it "Be the change you want to see in the world", and a straw poll of health professionals involved in this network resoundingly highlighted how helpful they found experience in these groups not only personally but also for their caring work as well.
I find peer groups, where we cooperate in managing the group, are often wonderful. Like cooking at home rather than going out to a restaurant, you can both eat very well and also develop immensely useful experience & skills. There are definitely some advantages of peer groups over groups led by a paid 'expert'. There can be costs though. Eating at home, you get left with the washing up! At the start of a peer residential group, there's often a tentative, somewhat scratchy period while we're feeling our way in. How are we going to organize ourselves? How come to decisions? This initial aspect of group work tends to be simplified & made more 'efficient' if there is a recognized (probably paid) group facilitator. Without someone 'in charge', it takes time. There's plenty of potential learning in this process, but it can be rather early in the life of a peer group to be struggling hard with these key issues right at the start - especially in larger groups. Yesterday evening with eighteen of us trying to sort out arrangements on a Friday after long weeks at work, it felt a bit uncomfortably & unproductively laboured to me. Now it's Saturday morning. A bunch of us meditated together. It's a sunny September day. Wonderful. Time for breakfast and for finding out what this new day will bring ... see tomorrow's post!