Setting up the group
When, in 2014, my line manager asked me if I was interested in running a men’s group for our service, I leapt at the opportunity. Something about the concept spoke to me intuitively. Why was the concept of a men’s group so appealing to me? Was I unhelpfully biased in some way, which would undermine the impartiality of the group dynamics? Was there an anachronistic part in me wanting to avoid the female gender – reflecting vulnerable and undigested aspects of my past?
I originally set up the men’s group with fellow therapist David Sibley. We did our research, pointing out statistics that show male students are not as well engaged with student support services as female students and are also less likely to achieve their full potential academically.1,2 These two facts provided us with a rationale for setting up a group that tried to engage men in a meaningful way. But this did not explain my own excitement about the prospect of meeting in an exclusively male group.
I realised that I had a desire to discuss my own ‘male’ issues, which felt surprisingly opaque to me, despite years of counselling training, personal counselling and professional development. I felt that something was missing from these previous forms of self-development, and the men’s group concept seemed to promise the ‘something’ that was missing. In my enthusiasm, I began to talk to good friends and the usual party crowd in my friendship circles about the concept. I was surprised by the muted response. Time and again, I encountered the same stereotypical expectations of men’s groups, and what they might be about.
Many female acquaintances expressed a curiosity about what men might possibly talk about when they get together, with a general expectation that they would gossip about women. A feminist concern was that our men’s group might become a breeding ground for repressive male thinking, resonating with anxieties around secret male societies dedicated to the consolidation of social and economic power.
Male acquaintances also expressed their unease, particularly around the idea of revealing themselves emotionally to other males. The whole concept seemed to spark the usual laddish jokes, or polite, but muted, excuses. This reserve in male acquaintances towards taking part in a men’s group is mirrored by the level of students coming forward to join the men’s group compared with the women’s group at our service. At the same time, we live in an age where notions around gender are becoming increasingly non-binary. For my co-facilitator and me, this added to the pressure to justify our personal enthusiasm for our men’s group.
A thought experiment
Before continuing, I would like to share a thought experiment with you, which I have developed over the years to help participants in our men’s group find a voice for their own emotionality:
Imagine you are in a busy public space, such as a crowded town centre. There in front of you is a bench, clearly visible as people push by. You see a child sitting there, crying and sobbing. Check your feelings. What urge do you feel to respond to the situation? What thoughts are you experiencing that affect your behaviour? And finally, how do you think the people in the crowd would respond to the child?
Let’s consider the same setting again, but this time you see a woman in distress sitting on that bench, clearly in tears. Check how you are feeling. What urge do you feel to respond to the situation? What thoughts are you experiencing that affect your behaviour? And how do you think the people in the crowd will respond to the distressed woman?
Finally, imagine a man is sitting on that bench, deeply upset and crying openly. What are you feeling? What urge do you feel to respond to the situation? What thoughts are you experiencing that affect your behaviour? And how do you think the people in the crowd will respond to the distraught man.
In my experience, it is not unusual for men to respond that: a) they don’t feel they should approach either child or woman, as this may be seen as inappropriate, and: b) that they struggle to even imagine a man sobbing and crying, which is often the starting point for rich and deep conversations among ourselves.
The depth of conversation in our men’s group tends to achieve an emotional transparency that consistently goes beyond most other encounters with men in my daily life. Anonymous survey feedback from group members across different groups shows that they rate the men’s group as a venue for the increased understanding of themselves as well as others, including an enhanced sense of self-confidence.
What do men talk about together?
Sitting with other men and having deep conversations that include our emotional experiences touches a deep craving within myself as a male. Perhaps I know what it feels like to sit on that bench in a crowded public space, hurting but unseen. There is something profound in the group experience of feeling emotionally connected to other men, without the need to disguise our internal worlds – to share and to feel respect, appreciation and connection, delving into a deeper level of conversation and exchange. The men’s groups we run are not, strictly speaking, therapy groups, although this may be splitting hairs.3
As the facilitators of the group, we strive to be as open about ourselves as we hope group members will be. In order to avoid unwittingly being seen as ‘the experts’ by other members, we are as open about ourselves and our experiences as possible. Our roles as facilitators require us to attend to the timings and contracted parameters of the group, such as our basic group guidelines – honesty, respect, owning what we say, and so on – but not to position ourselves as somehow ‘other’ than the men who comprise the group. Observing students arrive, sharing their suffering resulting from isolation and a lack of contact and connection with others, I believe the men’s group has the potential to be highly effective in addressing what ails many of the students who join us.4 It has the power to make our own experiences feel real and valued in groups that can often appear very jumbled and diverse. Yet they seem to rival, if not exceed, one-to-one counselling sessions in relational depth and their ability to facilitate a sense of recognition and intimacy between members.3
True to ideas of intersubjectivity, I believe that as people, we are both a space for, and an actor in, other people’s lives.5 I am an inseparable part of my physical and social environment. I shape it, and it shapes me. Health geographers, Wilton et al, link types of masculinity to the social environments men inhabit, rather than to personality traits.6 In this context, biology is secondary, and ‘men’ are merely persons with a strong affinity for ‘masculine’ spaces and experiences. My work with transgender people, and those who do not define their gender or sexuality on a traditional male-female spectrum, has inspired me to be aware of and value the gender continuum I inhabit. I have been ‘Mami’ to my children when they were upset and needed unconditional love and holding. I feel male when I assert myself competitively. I feel more effeminate and ‘warm’ when I seek collaboration in social situations. There are times when I feel neutral and non-gender specific. To me, wholeness is about being diverse and living beyond stereotypes.
Studies do suggest that men and women process emotional information differently, and that women possess a higher level of emotional intelligence, but this may also be the result of men having fewer spaces where they can develop and process emotional awareness.7,8 After all, our brains physically adapt to changes in our environment, particularly during infant development, but also into old age.9 In my work, I have seen men cry as bitterly as women, and express their hurt and pain in ways that seem universal to me. When the environment is safe, and certain core conditions are provided, as Rogers suggested, a person can experience and connect with others through their emotions.10 But in a world of ‘women’ and ‘men’, social spaces may invoke conditions and expectations for how we experience ourselves and others, and what permission we give ourselves to express our inner worlds.
When in predominantly female environments, I easily get ‘strokes’ for taking on tasks that may be thought of as traditionally male, such as DIY-related jobs or lifting heavy objects. I think stereotyping is a natural and essential part of the social psyche that allows us to judge whether others, particularly strangers, are a likely threat or will be responsive to our needs. However, the world we live in is dynamic and changing, and stereotypes regularly seem to outgrow their usefulness. I cannot expect to walk through the entirety of my life as a ‘man’ without encountering dynamic social spaces where my notion of manhood demands development and awareness. University is such a space. For many young men I meet, the university environment marks a significant departure and transition from previous expectations about their male identity.
I passionately believe that, because identity-conflicts mirror changes in social environments, students need safe and non-judgmental spaces where they can develop as human beings.11 Yes, as a man, I may enjoy many spaces and activities that have traditional connotations with masculinity. Yet I am also a feeling and emotional being, and as such, I need spaces where I can connect with my vulnerability without feeling restricted by social stereotypes, such as my ‘manhood’. Paradoxically, this may be the reason why the men’s group works so well, because when people feel, appear or sound similar, it may let us forget that we are different and make it easier to feel connected.12
I wonder if this explains some of the schism in the way friends and members of the public view the men’s group from the outside, and the way the men’s group appears to its members from the inside? From the outside, the group is for ‘men’, and this resonates with traditional stereotypes of masculinity. Men in our society don’t normally sit down and share their emotions and vulnerability, or they risk being seen as effeminate. In the context of traditional (and expected) forms of masculinity, men don’t cry. They prefer to display strength in social situations, which can be reassuring to some and intimidating to others.
The group: inside and outside
Yet, from the inside, the men’s group dispenses with the need for displays of strength, and it is home to men from all sexual orientations, and cultural and ethnic backgrounds. We do get the occasional ‘alpha male’. But since we are all challenged to speak for ourselves and avoid generalisations in the way we present our thoughts and feelings, the narcissist seeking adoration finds little nourishment in the group. The members who persist with the group seem to find a voice for what has been unspeakable and unconscious in their lives. To those students, the men’s group is a space that is unusual because it is safe and open to the expression of emotion and vulnerability. Other group members are easy to relate to because they too are men (therefore, ‘It is OK for me to be a male in this space’) and they also bring emotional content (so, ‘I am not the only male experiencing difficult emotions’).
We recently started using a talking stick to help group members include others in the conversation. As the stick is passed around, group members are free to comment on what has been said before, or on what they experience within themselves. This simple device seems to have made a significant improvement to the sense of connection in the group. In the past, we have had discussion topics centred around deconstructing the male psyche, including, among others, topics such as relationships, fathers, and what it means to be a man. But most students seemed to struggle to connect with such a programme. As facilitator, I see my main contribution to the group as ensuring it is a safe, boundaried and respectful space; and, as a member, to share here-and-now content of my own emotional world. I think most men don’t practise sharing their emotional worlds because they don’t expect anyone would care. In my experience, most guys do care and want to show that they do. Some men may need support in referring to their own emotional responses rather than falling into advice-giving and fixing behaviour, which can mask and avoid emotional content.
Where the group and its members achieve consistency, it is a space where difference and diversity become secondary, because irrespective of cultural, ethnic, or sexual differences, when another person shares something of their vulnerability, we feel touched and connected. This sense of intimacy reverberates through the group with a sense of euphoria and reverence. Regardless of differences in the group relating to ethnicity, social background, or sexual orientation, members seem to relate and connect to each other beyond stereotypes.
The men’s group: a safe space for men
Therefore, the men’s group provides a space where we can meet others, and experience shared emotional realities, not, primarily, as ‘men’ but, more fundamentally, as human beings. It is a space that develops our emotional literacy through deep conversation. As such, the men’s group is for men, not so much because of what happens in the group, but because of the transitional journey many men need to make, from a conditioned social environment with its accompanying stereotypes, to the unconditional acceptance in the group. Once a member has acclimatised to the environment of the group, difference and diversity cease being barriers and become points of interest and connection.
The men’s group, then, is a space that opens me to the emotionality and vulnerability of others, whoever they may be. It is a starting point where, as a male, I can find my emotional voice, allowing myself to be seen beyond stereotypes and social-role projections, not just with other men, but as a human being in all aspects of life. Perhaps because so much of what it means to me to be male is shaped in the company of other men, I find it both liberating and empowering to know a space in my life where my emotionality does not hit a wall of ridicule and is not limited by the expectations of others, particularly other men. For me, the men’s group is a social space where my thinking and feelings are challenged, but my emotionality is not.
Philipp Grote is an integrative counsellor working part time at the University of Plymouth, where he has helped develop and run men’s groups; and at the Plymouth College of Art, where he is taking part in pioneering the single-session therapy approach. He has a lifelong passion for portraiture and expressive art.
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