Groups and Groupwork




In the previous issue of Nurturing Potential we described briefly the development of the T-Group from the experiments conducted by the National Training Laboratories Institute in Bethel, Maine, based on the work of Kurt Lewin.  [You can refresh your memory of that description by clicking on the url: ].

This powered an enormous drive into group work and developed several strands, including encounter groups, that attracted such luminaries as Carl Rogers, and gave a base to much of what subsequently matured as team building.  The aim of the T-Group was to offer people options for their behaviour in groups, to allow both participants and group leaders to discover how their behaviour acted on others.  It was a humanistic movement that built on the desire to consider the needs and feelings of others.

From its beginnings it developed into ways of

  1. Developing an understanding of group behaviour and group dynamics.

  2. Exploring the social processes underlying the surface behaviour of a group.

  3. Improving interpersonal skills.

  4. Improving the participants' ability to give and receive feedback.

  5. Learning the art of facilitating groups.

  6. Experimenting with changes in behaviour.

  7. Learning how to manage and resolve conflict and crisis situations.

The T-Group thus gave participants an opportunity to learn about themselves and the effect they have on others.  It also showed them how best to function in group and interpersonal situations.  But it did not have the aim that is usual in discussion or problem-solving groups.  It was not task-oriented.  It was - and is - specifically process-oriented.  The object was not to achieve a result other than the explorations of the participants' (including the facilitators' or leaders') own processes in a group context.

This was achieved by participants focusing on the here-and-now, on what they experience as a need for structure, for emotional security, for a need to share.

Gradually, by opening themselves up, by self-disclosure made easier by a growing sense of safety and bonding with other participants, what is beneath the tip of the iceberg is revealed, anxiety about authority and power, being accepted by the group, and sharing intimacy within the group is loosened and certain effects are revealed:

  1. Participants discover that their perception of the behaviour of others in the group is not necessarily shared by them; their responses and concerns may differ considerably from one's own.

  2. This will encourage participants to try new behaviours: being more open, rather than restrained; being more talkative rather than silent; asking for and accepting feedback from others.

  3. Participants often then enjoy a cathartic experience and a dramatic but welcome emotional release.

Lest it be felt that we have leaned too far towards romanticising the T-Group concept, we need to balance this with some words about possible problem situations caused by the T-Group process.

  1. The openness and self-disclosure fostered by the T-Group may lead to difficulties if participants seek to adopt group behaviours in their "normal" lives.  What may be appropriate and safe to divulge in a group of relative strangers, who may not meet again except in the T-Group setting, might produce disastrous consequences in another setting.  This possibility was ultimately addressed by the T-Group movement and the T-Group techniques were modified and/or combined with other knowledge and new disciplines.

  2. Unless the group is expertly facilitated, participants may take on board a number of painful and potentially dangerous emotions and beliefs that are perfectly manageable within the safety and security of the T-Group surroundings, but could later reveal themselves in a very disturbing way.  It has been known to lead to breakdowns in relationships and emotional distress.

Finally it may be salutary to reproduce here a set of rules for working with groups experientially which appeared in N. Miller, Perspectives on experiential group work, in Using Experience for Learning, 1993  (quoted by David Jaques: Learning in Groups, 2000).

  1. Minimize/simplify structure.

  2. Use inter-group as well as interpersonal communication - in order to enable people to explore structural as well as individual similarities.

  3. Import (selected?) bits of the real world into the laboratory environment.

  4. In designing laboratories, keep in mind at all times how things work in "real life".

  5. Encourage intervention/confrontation (e.g. through the asking of questions as well as self-disclosure).

  6. Use metaphors . . . to explore interpersonal behaviour.

  7. Remember that past and future are experienced in the present.


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For a really detailed and absorbing history of the National Training Laboratories we recommend a visit to and an enjoyable browse.