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7 Ways To Overcome Challenges of Group Work

Beautiful and messy lessons from psychotherapy school


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Lisa Bradburn

3 years ago | 9 min read


Adults meeting on a dock at the la
Adults meeting on a dock at the la

Put yourself in this situation:

Congratulations!
You’ve been accepted to a five-year psychotherapy program. Now it’s time to meet the cohort and become an integral part of the group. The people you encounter are from a wide age range, from different socioeconomic backgrounds, careers, passions, ethnicities. For you, this experience feels like a mixed bag of marbles. Many appear shiny with gold flecks, others a little dull or more worn with age. While a gravitational pull exists with a few of the marbles, there’s also a desire to move away from a couple of the more gritty ones. You discover the purpose of this group, some of whom you’ll stay with for 5 years, is to experience deep personal growth and develop your capacity to be with others. Once school is complete, the end goal is to become a registered psychotherapist.

This has been my experience in the last two years studying Gestalt Psychotherapy. It’s messy, beautiful, excruciating, joyful and unlike anything, I’ve encountered before. The body and mind are treated as an elastic band; in a stretching motion. And like any hardcore workout, over some time you evolve into a new way of being; growing in your ability to work with people you never thought imaginable while also feeling the impact of the change.

Group work inspires a rainbow of emotions in people. Some love it, others despise it. How we feel about it largely depends on experience. Mine wasn’t a bed of roses — more like a bag of rusty nails. In Junior High, I recall being tormented by a bunch of mean girls who read my diary and wanted to beat me up. Being in a group dynamic feels uncomfortable and at times, unnatural for me. Yet I continue to show up because I desire the outcome and am willing to endure growing pains along the way.

The following describes the challenges I’ve encountered in transformational group work and strategies used to overcome these difficulties.

  1. Entering the System

    A system is a world or universe. How we enter the system will set the tone for our experience. The psychotherapy group feels like a galaxy far from the corporate work I’m engaged with. At the onset, one of my greatest obstacles was (and still is to a small degree) entering into the group after working a full day in a corporate financial office where feelings are repressed and intelligence is rewarded. Once I’m inside the circle, the system asks me to connect my mind and body while sharing emotions. This is no easy feat! What’s helped me on the path of overcoming this challenge is ensuring I don’t dive from one environment to the next. Walking my dog outdoors helps bridge this gap. On the taxi ride to school, I use the opportunity to meditate, breathe and center myself before joining the group. My current focus is learning how to unite the fragmented corporate and psychotherapy masks into one — and to ensure the most authentic version of me shows up no matter where I go
  2. Team Norms or Experimentation

    During the day I work with agile software development teams within a large corporate enterprise. In this world, when new labs are created, we establish ‘teams norms’ as early as possible. Team Norms are collective agreements or guidelines that shape the interaction of its members with one another. In the psychotherapy group, team norms don’t exist. And I suspect this is on purpose. Two of the guiding principles of Gestalt is experimentation and experiential learning. This allows people to live without constraint and to see what evolves and enters into the field. I’m a proponent of Team Norms and suggest any group outside of Gestalt psychotherapy consider their use. Here’s an example of why:

    A. Group Using Team Norms:
    On a mature team, consensus-building techniques are used and the group decides upon an appropriate time to show up. The decision is documented and posted in a highly visible area. If/when people do not conform, the circle is given the space to speak to the individual in a mature and responsible manner. There is accountability.

    B. Group Without Team Norms:
    This situation may be handled by the group in many different forms because this is the wild, wild west of experimentation. Individual responses from the group may vary from outright anger and resentment towards those that are late to the other end of the spectrum where tardiness doesn’t matter. People will react in a wide array of emotions and all feelings are permitted into the field. Time and individual processing will reveal how the situation will be dealt with. There are unknowns.

    The above example is not to say one method of dealing with being late is correct over the other. It is to demonstrate how two different approaches will have a different set of outcomes. A group meets to watch a sunset from a forest
  3. Expectations

    Dictionary.com describes expectation as the degree of probability that something will occur. In all aspects of life, I try and show up with zero expectations of others. It took forty years to get to this state and yet, at times, it still rears its ugly head. Take last week. The group had a four-page research paper due and I expected the hand in date to be March 19. I submitted my paper in on time, yet the due date was extended for those who hadn’t completed theirs. This triggered me. Again, I expected the class to take the paper seriously and finish on time. When this didn’t happen, guess what emotion I felt? You bet — disappointment. All I can control is my world and not the lives of others. It took a couple of days for me to realize my focus was in the wrong place. Rather than looking at what other people were or weren’t doing, I shifted my attention to taking responsibility for my actions.

    Eliminating expectations of others takes a strong conscious effort every day, hour and at times, each minute.

    If you expect nothing from anybody, you’re never disappointed.
    ― Sylvia Plath
  4. Lone Wolf Syndrome

    Not everyone falls into the ‘Lone Wolf’ bucket. I do. Through the psychotherapy process, I’m working on developing this creative adjustment and improve how I engage with the group dynamic. A colleague of mine has another term for old wolfie; she calls it her ‘Army of One.’ Whatever term you apply, some belief systems include:

    - I don’t require support from others
    - I am more comfortable on my own
    - I distinguish myself from the pack
    - Observing on the sidelines allows me social safety before I speak or act
    - I believe in myself and in developing my talents and capacities

    While the above list embodies strong, empowering characteristics, the challenge comes if these beliefs are taken too far. When done so, the Lone Wolf may become egocentric and closed-minded. Personal awareness goes a long way to avoid this type of situation from arising.

    Wolves are social creatures, they belong in a pack. They’re known for trusting their gut instinct, possess intelligence, loyalty, and freedom. Wolves also want peace.

    Despite common belief, these evolved creatures have a basic aversion to fighting and will do much to avoid any aggressive encounters — wolfsongalaska.org

    Two years ago I entered the psychotherapy group as the peaceful Lone Wolf and continue to learn how to integrate into the Wolf Pack. Now, more than ever, I allow the support of others to filtrate through previously imposed barriers. This is a new way of being which requires practice until the habit becomes fully formed.
  5. Nothing to Contribute? Say so!

    Throughout a highly emotionally charged weekend with the group, I remained quiet. Some people expressed Niagara Falls level grief and I didn’t feel the need to articulate myself at the time — for fear it may make tensions worse. A colleague highlighted my silence. It was later, I reflected upon my lack of response. Our instructor helped me through the challenge and suggested two different ways to respond when this type of situation next arises. One simple statement gets to the point:

    “While I don’t have anything to contribute right now, I hear everyone and feel your sadness.”

    In the first example, there is an acknowledgment of hurt people. This reply demonstrates I’m not a dead fish and can feel the sadness of others. The passive, non-existent voice becomes active.

    A second response type takes the active voice one step further:

    “I feel the pain in the room and emphasize with you. The level of grief reminds me of when my parents divorced at the age of 12. It was Christmas and my Dad fell apart. I was there to take care of him and tell him everything was going to be OK. While I was strong at that moment, I felt our mutual sadness long after.”

    Here I acknowledge the grief of others and demonstrate how the sadness in the room meets my own. I’m not a hot poker stirring up the embers of the fire, rather, I provide an equal place to meet based on my own experience.
  6. You Don’t Have To Be Best Friends With Everyone

    In any group dynamic, some individuals won’t float your boat. A few may even cause you to row away fast. In the last two years, I learned the people whom I don’t particularly jive with, are those who I’ve grown the most from. Talk about an epiphany! For example, in Year One, a man in our group expressed a biting tone. He was a little frightening. I avoided working with him and found I wasn’t able to hold eye contact with this individual. Over the summer before entering year two, I did a lot of personal work. When our group rejoined in the fall for Year 2, those old fears no longer existed. I even found myself caring for this man! The internal work allowed me to hold space for him with compassion and understanding.

    As mentioned, my ultimate goal in joining the group is to become a registered psychotherapist. I don’t pay 4K+ a year to acquire a new pool of friends. If healthy, platonic relationships are created, this is the icing on the cake.

    Besides, can you imagine trying to be best friends with everyone? The sheer amount of energy expended sounds exhausting. Plus you’d annoy the crap out of half of the people.
  7. Group Work is Not the Only Avenue to Find Support

    Reliance is the act of possessing the confidence of trustful dependence. This can be a positive experience when reliance exists within healthy boundaries. When the lines are crossed, issues arise in group work. Some people sense the neediness from others and repeal against it. From my understanding, the more I move away from individuals who exhibit high degrees of dependency, the further it feeds into their belief system of not being good enough or believing there is something wrong with them. It is a delicate dance. Two years of psychotherapy group work has demonstrated there must be room made for all people along the rainbow of reliance. Instead of rejecting people, I aim to meet people where they’re at with compassion and empathy while ensuring my boundaries are not crossed.

    For our mental health and well being, it’s important to give and receive support from multiple sources rather than create a reliance on a sole group of people. In establishing a network of positive, like-minded friends and associates outside the circle, I’ve opened the door to allow in wider discussions to life’s challenges. While not everyone has the benefit of possessing a large social circle, with time and effort, new friendships can emerge outside of group work.
  8. Action and Contemplation

    Group work is not easy, because humans are complicated. Consider a group you’re in right now. Pause and contemplate the following ten questions based on the 7 challenges.

    A. Who are you when you enter into a group? Is it the real you or a version of yourself conforming to how you believe the group should receive you?

    B. At the start of your group work, do you have the ability to create Team Norms/guidelines or will your circle be organic, experiential and free-flowing?

    C. What expectations do you have of the group?

    D. Is the group aware you expect something of them?

    E. Has the group agreed or come to a consensus to aid you in your expectations? If not, what outcome do you think will transpire?

    F. If you were to describe yourself as an animal, how do you exist in the group? Are you a Lone Wolf, a Slow Turtle, a Gentle Lion, etc?

    G. Try on the skin of a different animal and see how this feels. What will happen if you show up as this new animal to your group? For example, if you’re a Lone Wolf, place the fur of a Fast Rabbit on and encounter what this is like.

    H. When you have nothing to say during group work, how do you communicate with others?

    I. In group settings, is it important for you to be liked by everyone? Or are you selective in establishing friendships or do you live on the sidelines?

    J. Apart from group work, where else do you find support in your life?

    In reading this post, my hope is you’ll walk away with a renewed perspective on how you encounter group work. Feel free to share your experience below for an interactive dialog.
Empty raft on a lake surrounded by trees
Empty raft on a lake surrounded by trees


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Lisa Bradburn

Sr Scrum Master Transitioning To Agile Coach | Heart-Centric Leader | Gestalt Psychotherapist-In-Training | Writer on Medium | Brand Ambassador Plentyworld.com for Mental Health Awareness | Editor, Being Well and Medika.Life


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