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Personal Development Groups
by Chris Rose
Many counsellors and therapists first encounter group work in the context of a ‘personal development’ group on a training course. Whatever happens in the personal development group has a powerful impact upon counsellors’ perceptions of group work. Some emerge with an interest and enthusiasm for group work, while others carry with them unresolved bruises that lead them to avoid groups both for themselves and for their clients. Looking more closely at the nature of the PD group will perhaps clarify why it can so often be a negative experience.
I see these as very challenging groups and I am interested in trying to understand how we can learn to use these groups, both as members and facilitators, in a more effective way. This article is a ‘thinking out loud exercise’ – not a comprehensive exploration but something that I hope will stimulate a debate among readers.
The title ‘personal development’ is applied across a range of groups but I want to focus here on those groups that are part of an introductory or training course for counsellors or therapists. ‘Experiential’ and ‘training’ groups sometimes have slightly different characteristics, not dealt with here. But even after limiting the field in this way, we are left with a confusing variety of groups.
The entry-level counselling training PD group is not the same as the PD group in a final-year training programme. A one-year group is not the same as a two- or three-year group. A group where the facilitator changes each term, or where there are a high number of drop-outs, is not the same as one with a fixed population. When you then multiply each variant with a range of different theoretical models, the potential for confusion is clear! And we still have not taken into account the uniqueness of each group, with its own particular blend of participants. Is there anything that this great variety of groups has in common?
Not therapy groups
One of the things that these PD groups have in common is their description of themselves as ‘not therapy groups’. The distinction between personal development and therapy seems an important, if sometimes wobbly, line to draw in setting a boundary for the group. Exploring this distinction can bring a clearer understanding of both types of group and highlight some of the difficult conditions that the PD group has to contend with. So how do these groups differ?
There are differences in composition and in motivation from the outset. People join a therapy group because they have acknowledged that something is problematic – they describe themselves as needing to resolve something, get rid of something, cure something; to alter significantly some aspect of their lives. Members of a therapy group come together for help. They have acknowledged that at this stage in their lives, they need something or someone to give them a hand. The members of a PD group are not overtly there for these reasons. Sometimes there is a sort of inverse assumption – rather than ‘we are all here because we need help’, there is ‘we are all here because we want to help’. Members of a therapy group have acknowledged to each other that they are vulnerable, just by their presence in the group.
Members of the PD group may or may not be living more satisfying lives than those in therapy, but their own sense of themselves as being ‘normal’ or ‘OK’ or ‘all right’ is not questioned simply by membership of the group. There is a tension between demonstrating one’s competence to practise as a therapist or counsellor, and acknowledging and exploring one’s vulnerabilities. At different levels and in different models, this tension may diminish but does not necessarily disappear.
There remains the difficulty in assessing what degrees of self-awareness are appropriate for the ‘good enough’ therapist. Hence the ongoing debate about the importance of personal therapy for counselling trainees and what role the PD group should play in the overall struggle towards self-development. Members of a therapy group, then, are at least clear that they want help of some sort and look to their experience within the group to provide it.
Members of a PD group, on the other hand, are presumably looking for the elusive commodity called ‘personal development’. What this means in practice may be spelt out to varying degrees in course outlines but even so there often remains a sense of confusion about what is required in this group experience. I have certainly sat through, as well as participated in, hours of conversation along the themes of ‘what are we supposed to be doing here?’ and ‘what’s this group for?’ Sometimes this is like a fire curtain, dragged across the stage to obscure a more interesting and challenging conversation that the group might be heading towards. Sometimes it is a genuine desire for clarity in a complex and ambiguous enterprise. Selecting members for therapy groups and PD group is another different activity. If it’s a PD group within a course, then membership of the group automatically follows selection as a student.
There are various pressures and constraints that influence the selection of course students, which do not apply in the selection of clients, and there are criteria for selection in therapy groups, which are not applied in the PD group. For example, in a general therapy group I would be looking for some balance in personalities and difficulties. I would also be very wary of suggesting group therapy in situations where one person differs markedly from all the rest of the group, in terms of gender, race, or disability, for example. Learning to communicate across these divisions is so important, but being identified as the ‘only man’ in the group, for example, can easily create a situation in which one person comes to feel persecuted and unheard. We all need allies in the initial stages of group development and to find oneself an ‘only whatever’ or ‘singleton’ can be a destructive rather than creative experience. In the PD group, however, this is a familiar feature, and one that gives rise to challenging situations. Some of these are creatively resolved but many become knotted and entrenched within the network of communication in the group.
Another difference concerns preparation. People joining a therapy group usually have an opportunity to explore their anxieties about group membership, reflect upon their previous experience in groups and ask questions about the process. Hopefully they make their decision to join the group having had some time and space to reflect upon the information that they have been given, and consent to group membership in a way which many trainees do not.
In the course setting, members of a PD group may have explored their ideas and attitudes about the course but not necessarily about group membership. It comes as a package rather than a feature to be considered in its own right, and this affects not only preparation, but connects us back to the discussion on motivation. The group is a compulsory part of many trainings and it is not unusual to find people sitting in the group circle who are only there because they have to be – they don’t like groups but they wanted to do the course. Some of these people develop into mature and self-reflexive group members. Others just sit it out. Even for those who are more open to the experience, there can be a feeling of resentment deriving from this compulsory aspect, which surfaces at some stage in the life of the group. It can also be a diversion, consciously or unconsciously, from fears of what full participation might bring. This ‘anti-group’ dynamic is one of the most prevalent obstacles to the group’s ability to become a healthy container for growth.
Differences in boundaries
There are differences, too, in the nature of the container and the type of boundary around it. On a course, there is no possibility of making the group experience entirely separate within a course setting. Members interact continually in seminars, work groups, practical sessions, as well as maybe having lunch together and meeting socially. There is none of the security, or discipline, that the therapy group member has, in accepting that their group relationships exist only in the group. In my therapy groups, as part of the preparation, I talk about the importance of interacting only in the group setting. Although ex-members often become good friends, while they are group members there is an expectation that they will not meet outside the group, or, if they do, this information will be brought back to the group. One of the reasons for this apparent restriction is to actually enlarge the scope of the group, in that the group has access to all the information about any relationship within it. If A and B and C meet outside of the group, then D, E and F are not party to the interactions and cannot comment. This sub-grouping activity is another major challenge to group development, whereby dilemmas are resolved by splitting up the group into factions rather than facing up to the more challenging task of open confrontation, disagreement, competition – whatever it is that the splits in the group prevent being openly discussed. Within the PD group there are almost inevitably subgroups and pairings that cut across the group boundary.
Crossing the boundary, too, are all sorts of course-related issues. The facilitator is likely to be a member of the course staff and to have other roles within the staff group. She or he easily becomes a representative of the course, carrying a weight of projections from the student members. Then there is the question of feedback. Does the facilitator discuss any aspects of the group with the course staff? Is performance in the group assessed? In what way? Does it matter how a student behaves in the group if their performance in other areas is adequate?
Groups are never truly isolated from their environment. A course environment is necessarily imbued with assessment and attainment and probably also with financial constraint, competition for resources and conflict with other forces within the institution. The institution itself is set within a wider educational and social environment, which has in turn its own themes – and so on. All these inevitably infiltrate the group itself; so, for example, the frustration of the course staff with the college management gets replayed as frustration of the students with the course. Of course, it is equally true that the therapy group cannot be isolated from its environment – but the special features of educational institutions can produce a level of competitiveness that is in open or covert conflict with expressed norms of cooperation.
This competitiveness is not just between students but between tutors, lecturers, clinical supervisors and managers, and between different aspects of the course. Sometimes the PD group itself is caught up in this, with competition for intimacy and disclosure from other course structures or members. In courses where there is also a large group, or a community group, this can present challenges to the boundaries of the PD group. What is appropriate work for each group? Does the large group provide a comforting environment, leaving the smaller ones to deal with difficult issues, or does it expose or engender conflict and expect the small group to pick up the pieces? Despite the course pronouncements, written and verbal, about the centrality and importance of the PD group, there can be another message that students detect. The PD group is held up as a crucial ingredient in the course, despite the lack of a consistent and appropriate room; an untrained facilitator; no offer of funded supervision; a timetable that is not rearranged when something ‘important’ arises, and so on.
In many ways, then, this species of group has to survive in inhospitable conditions. If we think of a group as a container, this one is relatively shallow, with no robust containing edge. Yet there are still many examples of movement, growth, sharing, disclosure, and understanding that come about within this environment. How does this happen?
Unfolding or healing
Of course I don’t know the answer to that, and I’m hoping that those interested will think about that question. What I suspect is that when it works, it is because of particular combinations of members and facilitators who create out of their own resources a container with sufficient depth to enable the participants to take productive risks. This more robust container may be provided by a very clear articulation of the task of the group, plus a facilitator who is able to steer the group towards the task until the group itself is able to do this.
In these circumstances there is a balance of security and challenge, just as in a therapy group. There are times in a well-functioning PD group when what is taking place is not distinguishable from what takes place in a therapy group. Given the labels, ‘therapy’ and ‘personal development’, this is perhaps inevitable. ‘Development’ derives from ‘unfold, unfurl’ whereas ‘therapy’ derives from ‘healing’. If what is unfolding has been damaged in some way, then in order to unfold it may need healing. If something has been damaged, in order to heal it may need to unfold. We have come, for now, to the other side of difference, into similarity.