How Groups Work

In general, it may take several sessions before members of a group begin to develop sufficient trust to be open and honest enough to disclose their concerns and feelings. For this reason, it's good for a group member to be open to experiencing the developental changes that come about for the group, as a whole. In signing up for a counseling group, we encourage you to make a commitment to use the group experience as an opportunity to bring about meaningful personal growth for yourself. This level of commitment requires regular attendance and active involvement in sessions.

How does one "use" group counseling effectively? The answer will be different for different people, depending upon the person's goals and their personality style. In general, it is good to take time before each session to think about what you want to accomplish during that meeting. This is your counseling process, so be active in deciding how to use the time. You alone determine how active and involved you will be. The intention is that, in time, members of a group experience the trust and security in the rest of the group to use the opportunity to overcome their personal challenges.

Groups often involve members talking about their thoughts and feelings as they come up in the sessions. Being active can mean doing this, or it can mean expressing your reactions to what another person is saying or doing, or it can even mean just listening to another person and perhaps asking for clarification when you don't understand. Being an active member can also be exhibited by giving support and comfort to another member or by seeking support for yourself.

It's unrealistic to expect yourself to be verbally active during every session. Sometimes you may feel more reflective than active and prefer to listen and to consider new dimensions of your personality. Unlike so many social situations, silence is acceptable as it allows for group members to take time to reflect on what is going on within them and the group.

Don't be surprised if your goals continue to change throughout the group process. This is one of the reasons group therapy can be such a powerful experience. As your self-awareness increases and as you listen to other group members, you will discover other issues you'd like to explore with the group. You might even find that the new concerns become more important than the original ones. Group counseling is an excellent place to experiment with different ways of behaving and expressing yourself.

Some Guidelines to Assist the Group Process*

  1. There is strong research based evidence that groups are helpful.
  2. Groups are particularly useful for addressing the interpersonal aspects of difficulties as well as the views one has about oneself.
  3. You will not be forced to confess your shortcomings. Groups progress at their own pace and you are in control of what you want to talk about.
  4. The more you get involved, the more you will get out of it. Try to be open and honest in what you say, and listen hard to what others are saying.
  5. The group can be a "living laboratory" to try out new ways of handling situations, to take some risks.
  6. The group experience itself can be an important part of the learning process. What happens between the members and between the members and leader(s) can and should be talked about.
  7. The role of the leader(s) is not to supply ready answers to specific problems but to help the group members explore their situations and consider how they might address them.
  8. We do not encourage socializing with other group members outside the sessions. The group is a treatment setting, not a replacement for other activities. The reason for this suggestion is that when two or more members have a special relationship outside the group, it gets in the way of dealing directly with each other within the group. If you should have any outside contact with another group member, you are asked to make a commitment to report it to the group at the next session.
  9. There are only a few formal group rules:
    1. Confidentiality is very important for trust building. No identifiable information about other group members should be discussed outside.
    2. Attend sessions regularly and on time. The group is not the same even if one member is missing. Coming late may hold up the group from beginning the session.
    3. An initial commitment to attend a number of sessions is important. It takes time to get comfortable with the group. It is not wise to drop out of group because of first impressions. If you do feel like dropping out, it's important to talk about it in the group first, rather than just not showing up.

All of the above items/issues will be discussed, not only at the first group session, but also at any later time that a member feels it's important to do so.

*Modified from Basics of Group Psychotherapy (1994) Bernard, H.S. & Mackensie, K.R.