Groups and Groupwork

Part II

Working With Groups



1. The theory of groupwork [1]

2.  The practice of groupwork [2]

3.  Working with therapy groups [3]

4.  Working with Encounter Groups [4]

5.  Working with self-help groups [5]

6.  Working with Learning Groups [6]

7.  T-Group Training [7]


1.  The theory of groupwork

The Structural Approach.  In establishing the structure of a group we need to check out 

(a) considerations such as the patterns of relationships that apparently exist between members of the group;

(b) what sub-groups may be operating within the main group, and how they may be related;

(c) whether members are being constrained at all by the way in which the group was set or structured;

(d) if there is a particular model that is influencing the structure of the group.

Processes and Stages.  We also need to consider

(a) the stage of development that the group has reached;

(b) how far the group has progressed towards its objectives;

(c) whether the natural lifespan of the group is approaching;

Group behaviour.  What can we elicit from:

(a) any changes in the behaviour of the group following the attainment of early objectives;

(b) issues that may have arisen in interaction between group members;

(c) distractions being introduced into group process by one or more members of the group;

(d) the contributions members are making and what light this might shed on the roles allotted to them.

Rules and functions.  How have we

(a) accepted and performed within the boundaries that have been established for the group;

(b) developed a hierarchy of members with the power to change existing rules;

(c) evolved and are we continuing to evolve;

(d) adapted to the need to accept the rules and carry out our functions;

(e) acknowledged and fulfilled the roles that have been allocated.

Dynamics.  Is there any indication that

(a) any one member is dominating normal interaction;

(b) the agenda is not being followed, or that pressure is building to change the agenda;

(c) the group is beginning to concentrate on the here-and-now, or the what-has-been rather than the aims;

(d) there is any diminution of the shared sense of purpose.

Interactions.  Is the group functioning in such a way that

(a) interactions relate directly to the purpose of the group;

(b) interactions are functional rather than dysfunctional; 

(c) emotions and thoughts are expressed;

(d) emotions and thoughts are repressed.


2.  The Practice of Groupwork


As an effective group member you have to take responsibility for yourself and also manage your relationships with the other group members.  As roles and responsibilities within a group are undertaken, they become an obligation not merely to yourself, but also to the rest of the group.  This means:

(a)  being clear about task objectives;

(b)  respecting and valuing the ideas and contributions of others;

(c)  being prepared to negotiate and compromise for the benefit of all;

(d)  meeting all obligations;

(e)  keeping all group members informed of your status and progress;

(f)  maintaining your focus on tasks to which you have committed;

(g)  encouraging others in their tasks;

(h)  resolving interpersonal problems;

(i)  being actively engaged in the group process.

What skills and responsibilities need to be developed?

(a)  Interpersonal skills.  Being able to listen to others and communicate effectively with them.

(b)  Respect for diversity.  Keeping an open mind and being prepared to adopt new ideas.

(c)  Time Management.  Maintaining specific time frames in order to achieve objectives.

(d)  Flexibility.  Being willing and able to negotiate and compromise where and whenever necessary.

(e)  Decision-making.  Making decisions based on the ideas, expertise and goals set by the group.

(f)  Problem-solving.  Finding the best means to achieve group outcomes.

(g)  Personal responsibility.  Making an adequate contribution to the group process.

(h)  Conflict resolution. Identifying conflict and working the issues out as a group.


3.  Working with therapy groups

What is Group Therapy?  

Group therapy commonly is practised by about 6 to10 people meeting with a trained group therapist.  During the meeting, members decide what they want to talk about.

Members are encouraged to give feedback about their own feelings and about what others say or do.  Interaction between group members is highly encouraged and individuals are given the opportunity to try out new ways of behaving.  Members are also given the opportunity to learn more about the way they interact with others.

Important aspects of group therapy sessions are to provide a safe environment in which to foster a level of trust between participants, so that they may talk personally and honestly to and about themselves and each other.  It involves making a commitment to the group and to the confidentiality of the sessions and the material disclosed at the sessions.

What is the benefit of Group Therapy?

1.  The free interaction between group members helps them to recreate those difficulties that brought them to group therapy in the first place.  Given the expert guidance of the group therapist, they are able to give support, offer alternatives, and comfort members in such a way that difficulties become resolved and alternative behaviours are learned.

2.  The group dynamic allows members to develop new ways of relating to people.

3.  During group therapy, people begin to recognise that they are not alone; that hope and help are available; that others have similar difficulties, or have already worked through a problem that deeply disturbs another group member.

4.  Because of the climate of trust and the bonding that develops in the group, people ultimately feel free to care about each other.  As they begin to feel more comfortable, they are able to speak more freely.

5.  The psychological safety of the group which encourages the expression of  feelings that are often difficult to express outside the group, ensures that members are confident about asking for the support they need, and are encouraged to tell others what is expected of them.

6.  The individual members are given to realise that control rests with themselves as to how much they reveal and they are never forced to disclose their deepest and innermost thoughts.


4.  Working with encounter groups

What are encounter groups?  

 It has been said that therapy groups tend to involve sick people wanting to get well, while encounter groups attract well people wanting to get better.

With its main period of development in the 1970s and 1980s,  encounter  groups consisted of between 7 and 20 individuals getting together with the aim of discarding the inhibitions imposed by the requirements of conventional society, letting their hair down, and expressing their true feelings. The emphasis was on verbal interaction, games, and other activities that encourage open displays of approval, criticism, affection, dislike, and even anger and tears. Sharing with person-centred therapy, as they did, the belief that positive growth by the individual depended upon resisting restrictions on open behaviour imposed by society and interacting with others honestly and openly, it is not surprising that the encounter group movement owed so much to the influence of Carl Rogers.

Carl Rogers himself wrote: Because of the unstructured nature of the group, the major problem faced by the participants is how they are going to use their time together - whether it be eighteen hours of a week-end or forty or more hours in a one-week group. Often there is consternation, anxiety, and irritation at first - particularly because of the lack of structure. Only gradually does it become evident that the major aim of nearly every member is to find ways of relating to other members of the group and to himself. Then as they gradually, tentatively, and fearfully explore their feelings and attitudes towards one another and towards themselves, it becomes increasingly evident that what they have first presented are façades, masks. Only cautiously do the real feelings and real persons emerge. The contrast between the outer shell and the inner person becomes more and more apparent as the hours go by. Little by little, a sense of genuine communication builds up, and the person who has been thoroughly walled off from others comes out with some small segment of his actual feelings. Usually his attitude has been that his real feelings will be quite unacceptable to other members of the group. To his astonishment, he finds that he is more accepted the more real that he becomes. Negative feelings are often especially feared, since it seems certain to each individual that his angry or jealous feelings cannot possibly be accepted by another. Thus one of the most common developments is that a sense of trust slowly begins to build, and also a sense of warmth and liking for other members of the group. A woman says on Sunday afternoon, ‘If anybody had told me Friday evening that by today I would be loving every member of this group I would have told him that he belonged in the nut house.’ Participants feel a closeness and intimacy which they have not felt even with their spouses or members of their own family, because they have revealed themselves here more deeply and more fully than to those in their own family circle.

Thus, in such a group the individual comes to know himself and each of the others more completely than is possible in the usual social or working relationships. He becomes deeply acquainted with the other members and with his own inner self, the self that otherwise tends to be hidden behind his façade. Hence he relates better to others, both in the group and later in the everyday life situation. (a)  

What are the benefits of encounter groups?

Encounter groups typically have a leader experienced at getting people to open up. The group may meet for several hours a week over some period of months, or it may meet as a marathon group for 24 continuous hours or more, with individuals dropping out for naps. It is thought that the intensity and prolonged time of the marathon group will break down social resistance faster, and accomplish as much as groups whose meetings are interspersed over longer periods of time. The goals of encounter groups include examining one's behaviour and values, learning about people in general, becoming more successful in interpersonal relationships, and developing conflict resolution skills.

Most people in encounter groups do not consider themselves involved in psychotherapy. Rather it is thought that anyone can benefit from the experience in encounters where there is complete candour.   Concern has been expressed, however,  that these group experiences may trigger serious disturbances in some of the more emotionally disturbed participants. To a large degree their success will depend on the skills of the leader and the personalities of the people involved, and it would be as well to establish that the leader is properly trained and well respected before joining such a group.


5.  Working with self-help groups

What are self-help groups?  

A self-help group typically comprises people who have personal experience of a similar issue or life situation, either directly or through family and friends.  Sharing experiences enables them to give each other a unique quality of mutual support and to pool practical information and ways of coping.  In essence they offer acceptance, solidarity, encouragement and support.

Groups may hold regular meetings, be it weekly, monthly or quarterly, and may be help in public places such as hospitals, clinics, community centres, or privately in people's homes.  They may not even meet physically, but may be maintained through correspondence, telephone calls, or the internet.

Possible the best-known of all such groups are those organised by Alcoholics Anonymous.  This, however, is by no means the only organisation devoted to self-help with problems of alcohol abuse.  Alcohol Concern is currently piloting a small grants programme to encourage and sustain the development of self-help groups for people with alcohol-related problems across the UK.  This experimental scheme would enable people with alcohol problems, or their families or friends, to join together to build lives that are not dependent on alcohol.

Some self-help groups have facilitators.  These are people who have experienced the situation with which the group is involved and whose role is simply to co-ordinate the group's activities: dealing, for example, with the practical aspects such as publicity, room availability, organising refreshments.  They are not experts - this would be contrary to the self-help group ethos - but are group members with additional responsibilities.


"Members of self-help groups share a common condition or life circumstance. Group members work together to overcome the difficulties they experience. Those directly affected are the ones who control the activities and priorities of the group. Self help is not self care or therapy. Self-help groups assist members to manage their personal situation or condition, but they are not set up and run by professionals..." 

Collective of Self Help Groups, Melbourne, Australia.



 What are the benefits of self-help groups?  

Attending a self-help group is an excellent way to meet others who have been through similar experiences. In meeting others, the isolation that so many feel, is inevitably relieved.  Those who attend groups find out how others have coped with a similar problem and enables participants to develop relationships with others who really do "understand", and can offer mutual support and respect.

Personal sharing is important to self-help. An environment of trust and safety allows group members to share more deeply with others. People must feel that information will be kept confidential before they can safely share their stories. Some groups describe confidentiality as the anchor of mutual aid.

Amongst the benefits to group participants may be numbered:

(a) being seen and being heard;

(b) being recognised and experiencing empathy;

(c) being reassured and feeling valued;

(d) being informed, gaining knowledge, and learning of solutions;

(e) experiencing the self-esteem that comes from helping others.


6.  Working with learning groups

What are learning groups?  

Adult education has long used group learning as a fundamental tool, providing the basis for much informal learning both inside and outside institutional boundaries.  On the other hand, "groups can encourage conformity, squander time and energy on ritual combat, revel in failure, and generally engage in all sorts of fantasy tasks that have little or nothing to do with learning." (b)

The type of learning that occurs in groups varies according to the learning tasks and goals.  There are several categories of group learning, such as

(a) Cooperative, where the focus is on the subject matter rather than on inter-personal process.

(b) Collaborative, where there is emphasis on process and an exchange of ideas, feelings and information.

(c) Transformative, where participants engage in critical reflection as a means of examining their expectations, assumptions and perspectives.

One of the questions raised by group learning is whether the primary purpose is to serve the needs of the individual members or the group as a whole.  With the cooperative category, the focus is explicitly on the learning of the individuals.  In the categories of collaborative or transformative learning, there is a less obvious distinction between the needs of the individuals and the group.

David Jaques has put this succinctly in the preface to his Learning in Groups (c), where he defines the three categories by the descriptions of content, process and structure.  "Content relates to the subject matter or task on which people are working.  Process refers to the dynamics of what is happening between those involved . . . [and] . . . I have added a further ingredient which I regard as a very enabling one, to content and process, and that is structure . . . a consideration of ways to structure group activities. . . "

The role of the facilitator

When group learning involves the education of adults, the teacher's role is as a facilitator.  This individual has a very responsible role, having to maintain a low profile while ready to intervene whenever it is felt that this will benefit the group learning process.  The facilitator must be ready to foster, assist, support and help the group to accomplish its learning tasks by sharing responsibility with the individual members.

Cranton (1996)(d) suggests that the roles and responsibilities of the facilitator change to correspond to the group's purposes and goals.  In cooperative learning groups, for example, the facilitator develops exercises and activities and manages time and resources; in collaborative and transformative learning groups, however, the facilitator is more of an equal partner in the learning, although in the collaborative learning group, the facilitator must assume the responsibility for maintaining the group process.

Essentially, the groupwork facilitator has to keep a low profile, yet be prepared to intervene as required to assure that the sessions are productive for all members of the group.  Jacques [ibid] maintains that the role of the facilitator "when authority conflicts occur would seem to be to aid the students' growth by refusing to join battle, and to help them understand the consequences of their action . . .   [it is important] for the teacher to create the conditions in which the students can make conscious choices of alternative courses of action, supportively but firmly bringing such issues out into the open."

[A light-hearted look at the facilitator's role using Tarot cards as a model is provided by John Rowan in this issue of Nurturing Potential: Click here

What are the benefits of learning groups?  

(a)  If adequately facilitated, the group learning experience will develop relationships among the members as well as between the members and the facilitator, and focus on acquiring a specific type of knowledge.

(b)  Following on from developing relationships and the opportunity for each group member to learn from the others and take advantage of the divergent skills and knowledge of each, will come a pooling of resources, mutual support, and enhanced decision-making.

(c)  Ultimately group members will develop new perspectives, and will learn to adopt a more critical attitude to previously accepted assumptions.

(d)  They will learn both emotional independence and also the ability to connect emotionally  with a given task and with other participants in the task procedure. 

(e)  An important outcome of the group learning process is the ability to identify with others sharing a common aim, sharing ideas, and the habit of democratic decision-making.


7.  Working with T- groups

What are T-groups?  

The T-group is a group which sets out to study itself and its process as it happens.  The "T" stands for "training", and the groups are involved in training in human relations skills, whereby individuals are taught to observe the nature of their interactions with others and of the group process.

This, it is felt, enables participants better to understand their own way of functioning in a group and "the impact they have on others, which would enable them to become more competent in dealing with difficult interpersonal situations."(a)

The T-group, in its origins, developed out of the ideas of Kurt Lewin, but became a practical force only after his death in 1947, when it grew out of conferences on small-group dynamics held at the National Training Laboratories Institute in Bethel, Maine.  The goal was to offer people options for their behaviour in groups and it proved a great training innovation upon which much of what we now know about team building has been based.

The new method that was developed helped leaders and managers create a more humanistic, people-serving system, and permitted them to see how their behaviour affected others.  It developed a deep concern for people and a desire to create systems that took people's needs and feelings seriously.

The way in which the T-Group evolved between Lewin's input in 1946 and his death in 1947 bears repetition as an interesting example of serendipity.  Ronald Lippett(e), who had collaborated with Lewin, described a training experience in 1946 as follows: "Some time during the evening an observer made some remarks about the behaviour of one of the three persons who was sitting in - a woman trainee.  She broke in to disagree with the observation and described it from her point of view.  For a while there was an active dialogue between the researcher, the research observer, the trainer and the trainee about the interpretation of the event, with Kurt an active prober, obviously enjoying this different source of data that had to be coped with an integrated.

" At the end of the evening, the trainee asked if they could come back for the next meeting at which their behaviour would be evaluated.  Kurt felt this was a valuable contribution rather than an intrusion, and enthusiastically agreed to their return.  The next night at least half of the 50 or 60 participants were there as a result of the grapevine reporting of the activity by the three delegates.

"The evening sessions from then on became the significant learning experience of the day, with the focus on actual behavioural events, and with active dialogue about differences of interpretation and observation by those who had participated in them."


How do T-groups work?

The T-group is primarily process rather than content oriented.  Focus will be on feelings and the communication of feelings rather than the communication of information, opinions, or concepts.  This is accomplished by focusing on present time and specific behaviour of participants with non-evaluative feedback and comment on the impact of behaviour on others.  Each participant has the opportunity to become a more authentic self in relation to others through self-disclosure and feedback.  The Johari Window is a model that looks at that process.

The training is marked by a lack of structure and limited involvement of the trainers; this provides space for the participants to decide what they want to talk about.  The beginning of a T-group session usually has a certain predictability as participants search for structure, safety and direction.  By failing to provide responses to these needs, the T-group ultimately begins to notice what is lurking beneath the surface of their interaction.  This is habitually the case in any group, the difference in the T-group being that the participants begin to experience anxiety about authority and power, about being included and accepted in the group, and about intimacy.

As individual participants begin to experience some degree of trust in themselves, in the group, and in the trainer, several developments typically take place:

(a) Participants may find that their feelings and judgements about the behaviour of others is not generally shared; that what they found supportive or threatening was not experienced by others.

(b) A participant experiencing this may now begin to try a new behaviour, such as being quiet and still where previously  a need was felt to fill silence with sound.

(c) Participants begin to ask for feedback from the group and how their behaviour is impacting on others.

(d) Participants may experience a much lower level of anxiety than they had anticipated; they may exhibit a more secure form of behaviour, in effect contributing leadership and helping the group to develop.


The role of the trainers

(a) To help the group and individuals analyse and learn from what is happening.

(b) To offer theory, a model, or research that may be related to what the group is experiencing.

(c) To encourage group behaviour that serves the learning process, such as focusing on the here-and-now rather than the then-and-there.

(d) To offer feedback on skills, but to withhold feedback on structure or agenda, remaining silent while the group experiences its anxiety about acceptance, influence, etc.

(e) To be completely open with the group; to be willing to reveal themselves; to be prepared to challenge a participant.

(f) To avoid become too directive, clinical, or personally involved with any participant.


The benefits of T-group learning

The T-group is intended to provide an opportunity for:

(a) Understanding group development and dynamics.

(b) Understanding the underlying social processes at work within a group.

(c) Gaining skills in facilitating group effectiveness.

(d) Increasing interpersonal skills.

(e) Experimenting with behavioural change.

(f) Increasing awareness of and taking responsibility for one's personal feelings.

(g) Increasing sensitivity to the feelings of others.

(h) Increasing ability to give and receive feedback.

(i) Learning from one's own and the group's experience.

(j) Improving one's ability to manage and utilise conflict.




(a) Encounter Groups, Carl R. Rogers, 1970.

(b) Hearing Yourself Teach, B. Knights, 1993. 

(c) Learning in Groups, David Jaques, 2000.

(d) Types of Group Learning, P. Cranton, 1996 

(e) Ronald Lippett  is commonly credited with having invented the training exercise called "brainstorming" in conjunction with Eva Schindler-Rainman, another expert in group dynamics.


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