Brunel University Counselling Service (BUCS) has always looked for new and innovative ways to reach out to staff and students, beyond the primary activity of one-to-one counselling. This has often taken the form of group intervention and frequently focuses on a specific issue such as dealing with exam stress.

In February 2010, an experimental workshop programme called Tools4Life took place. The aim of the programme (as advertised) was to ‘provide participants with opportunities to explore themselves, their attitudes and relationships with a view to improving their appreciation of self, life and others and make positive changes in day-to-day living’. Workshop themes were taken from the field of positive psychology and wellbeing and chosen for their usefulness – not just for students – but for anyone. Eighteen months later, three programmes for students have been completed and another for staff is planned for the autumn.

The programme was designed to offer participants ideas that had practical applications (hence the word ‘tools’ in the title) and was set up to promote and foster wellbeing. Although it was hoped the group would be therapeutic in the broadest sense of the word, it was not designed to be a therapy group. It was not necessary for participants to have a ‘problem’. As Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi1 note, traditional psychology understands: ‘quite a bit about how people survive and endure under conditions of adversity. However, psychologists know very little about how normal people flourish under more benign conditions.’

We offer this article not as academics or researchers, but as two interested and curious practitioners who hope others might be inspired, encouraged or stimulated by it.

The programme

Tools4Life is a topic-based workshop series. Each two-hour session of the five-week programme addresses a different issue, but on the understanding that these issues overlap and connect with each other. The four main topics addressed are: personal strengths, assertiveness, optimism, and relationships. These were chosen as they seemed to fit well with the aspects of wellbeing identified by Ryff2: self-acceptance, positive relations with others, autonomy, environmental mastery, purpose in life and personal growth.

What follows is a brief outline of the series, as currently organised:

Week 1: Introduction and discovering personal strengths

In the first week, about 25 minutes is given over to introducing the programme and helping participants get to know each other. The notion of personal strengths is introduced. Fortunately each group so far has readily agreed to the idea that everybody has at least one personal strength. The task therefore becomes one of participants discovering their own strengths – rather than arguing for their existence at all. Exercises are designed to enable participants to identify their own strengths as well as having them identified by others in the group. People are then invited to envisage these strengths becoming stronger and more influential and to imagine how this process would manifest itself in their everyday lives.

Week 2: Assertiveness

Participants are invited to consider the differences between passive, aggressive and assertive ways of responding. After some discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of each, the group is offered some simple guidelines to assertive behaviour and invited to imagine applying these in a situation in which they were previously passive or aggressive.

Week 3: Optimism

After the notion of optimism is itself discussed and clarified, the possible benefits of a more optimistic approach to life are considered. Thinking patterns of optimists and pessimists are then considered and contrasted and the ‘myth of pessimism’ (imagining and anticipating a negative outcome means that you are better able to deal with it, should it happen) examined. A few provisos around total optimism are considered before the session ends.

Week 4: Relationships

Participants are invited to consider the range of relationships they encounter and the various needs that are met by different relationships. The qualities of good and bad relationships are considered, along with their consequences. In the light of these qualities, people are invited to consider the relationship they have with themselves. Connections between relationship to self and relationship to others are discussed.

Week 5: Making it happen

The final week is an opportunity to revisit some of the key elements of the topics covered. Participants are also encouraged to set very specific and individual goals for themselves as a way of projecting their learning from Tools4Life into the future. The final session presents a chance to carry out some programme evaluation exercises and get verbal and written feedback.

At the end of each session, participants are invited to continue exploring that topic in the coming week and to consider especially how they can apply the skill practically in their day-to-day lives and with what consequences. Participants are given a Tools4Life notebook in which they are encouraged to record any thoughts or observations. Fifteen minutes is allocated at the start of each workshop to allow participants to share experiences, observations or discoveries arising from their exploration of the previous week’s theme.

Evaluation

Assessing whether the Tools4Life workshops made a positive impact on the lives of its participants was a crucial consideration right from the outset. Not having a background in research, it was important to assess the impact of the workshop on those who attended. A questionnaire that measured participants’ general mood before the start of the workshop and again at completion was used. Comparing before and after scores generated some interesting findings.

Some outcomes

  • Every group so far has recorded more negative than positive feelings in the week before the start of the workshop series.
  • Every group so far has recorded more positive than negative feelings in the week after completing the workshop series.
  • Eighty-eight per cent of participants recorded experiencing more positive feelings after completing the workshops.
  • Over the three completed workshops, the negative feelings that participants experienced less were: stress, lack of energy and anxiety. The three positive feelings participants experienced more were: happiness, pride and feeling relaxed.

Participant evaluations

In addition to the before and after questionnaires, participants were invited to complete an evaluation form:

  • Seventy-five per cent of respondents ‘strongly agreed’ that they would be able to apply what they learned in the workshops
  • One hundred per cent said that they would recommend the workshop series to a friend or colleague and would be interested in a follow up.

Two things stood out when participants were asked to comment on what they had found most helpful about the workshop series:

  • the benefits of sharing and learning together in a group
  • the practical nature of the content.

While the evaluation tools created for the Tools4Life programme do not claim to be scientifically rigorous, group after group has provided feedback that has encouraged the continuation and development of the series.

Why set up Tools4Life?

Martyn: For many years, my primary counselling model has been solution-focused brief therapy3,4. Working from the perspective of identifying and building on client success, I was already well disposed towards ideas from positive psychology, wellbeing and flourishing. I was so interested that I applied for a place on a master’s in applied positive psychology at the University of East London. I later regretfully declined the place, having decided that two years of rigorous academic work at the same time as holding down a full-time job was likely to have serious and damaging consequences for my own positive psychology!

The notion of setting up a group based on promoting a positive attitude to self and others continued to percolate in my mind. One of the obstacles to getting any new initiative started is finding the time and energy to ‘get the ball rolling’. When Irene joined the team, with positive psychology of her own by the bucketload, it was only a matter of time before our shared excitement for the project, combined with encouragement and support from management and colleagues, drove things forward.

Irene: Having facilitated groups in previous counselling settings in the field of domestic violence (Woman’s Trust, Ealing Survivor’s Group), I was delighted to be asked to set up a workshop series that promoted a positive and health-oriented approach to self and relationships. We agreed that although the series would be governed by therapeutic boundaries, it would not be group counselling. We also decided that the main aim would be to foster participants’ appreciation of self, life and others and so encourage a self-support system within each attendee by exploring themes introduced by Martyn and myself but discussed and processed by the individuals in the group.

Interests and surprises

Irene: The reason I enjoy group work is to be able to observe, be part of the group dynamics and go through the stages of ‘forming, storming, norming, performing’5 during each encounter and over the course of the whole series. Although I work mostly from an integrative approach, at my core I hold the person-centred belief that every being will endeavour to fulfil its potential in whichever way possible, and this is reflected in my style of facilitating groups. It is my aim to create an atmosphere in which attendees are able to discover their opinions according to their own beliefs, free from fear of being judged in any way. I try not to make assumptions about any particular process that might occur within individuals but have realised whilst running Tools4Life that most members surpass any expectations I might have unconsciously held for them at the start, and this is also reflected in the figures collated in the statistics and feedback from the attendees.

To see how easily groups took to working together, in small and big groups, and witness how individual members used each other’s findings to devise their own opinions and integrate these into their lives between workshops, has been most surprising. Over the five workshops, members became more active and able to take the risk of ‘being seen’, having had the opportunity to work through exercises and case discussions. Also, group members reported being more self-supportive and feeling more confident in everyday life, which suggests a heightened self-awareness and a developing sense of self-esteem.

Martyn: Having originally trained in group work at Westminster Pastoral Foundation, I found how quickly group participants became mutually supportive – one of the most pleasing and rewarding aspects of the programme. Striking the right balance between experiential and didactic elements is something that Irene and I find ourselves constantly reviewing. Paying sufficient attention at the start of the programme to having the participants get to know each other does seem to pay dividends. The group format allows participants to be as interested in the wellbeing of others, as in their own. This I have found both heart-warming and rewarding.

Modifications to the programme

Martyn: A change that we made early on was in the order of topics. Originally, we started the series with ‘optimism’ (in order to strike a positive note from the start!). The first workshop, however, includes time for introducing the Tools4Life programme, clarifying expectations and boundaries and some warm-up exercises. The topic of optimism seems to generate quite a lot of debate, though, and this could not be properly addressed in the time remaining. We therefore made ‘discovering your personal strengths’ the first workshop: a much more experiential workshop that generally creates a ‘feel-good factor’ at the start of the programme.

From the very first, we provided participants with notebooks to record their thoughts and discoveries between sessions. As the programme has developed, we have found ways to incorporate these notebooks into the workshops themselves, either for participants to record their own insights – or even to record thoughts and observations into other participants’ notebooks.

Irene: Setting out to develop Tools4Life, Martyn and I arranged an array of meetings during which we quickly established our different approaches to group work, Martyn being more solution focused, where I am more person centred. For Tools4Life to work we needed to be willing to stay open to each other’s perceptions and combine our methods for a strong working alliance. During the first run of Tools4Life, we divided the workshops between us, each developing and later taking the lead in facilitating them.

However, now, having run this series a few times, we share the lead during each workshop equally. In my experience shared facilitation opens a more effective dialogue between facilitators and offers a more vibrant energy level overall as well as demonstrating teamwork ‘in action’.

Future changes

Irene: In my view Tools4Life is evolving with each run and its development is driven by the collaborative efforts of group members and facilitators alike. It has been important for both facilitators to pay attention to the energy flow during each workshop and adapt accordingly to create a better ‘flow’ throughout the series. Other changes have been initiated by participants during individual workshops or through feedback at the end of Tools4Life. For example, a reoccurring comment has been that students wanted more exercises and fewer PowerPoint slides, and this has led to shortening the dry theory part and giving more time to experiential learning.

In the current changing climate within the HE sector it seems vital to keep an open mind to students’ needs and integrate these into any future Tools4Life workshop series. Its potential lies in its ability to easily adapt to different requirements and thus it needs to be constantly revised.

Martyn: Some participants have requested more specific ideas for between-session tasks (our preference has been to keep these fairly open, such as: ‘Notice how you make use of your personal strengths in the week ahead’). Although we will introduce more specific ideas for tasks, we will also keep the general tasks. A key aspect of Tools4Life has been expanding participants’ choice, and creating more options. Another thing we are keen to do is to arrange longterm follow up to see whether the benefits of Tools4Life are sustained over time. Plans to run a Tools4Life programme for staff are already in place and we look forward to seeing what differences, if any, emerge from that and how staff respond to the workshops. It is an exciting prospect! 

Martyn Lloyd and Irene Stone are counsellors and supervisors at Brunel University counselling service.

References

1 Seligman MEP, Csikszentmihalyi M. Positive psychology: an introduction. American Psychologist. 2000; 55(1):5-14.
2 Ryff CD. Happiness is everything, or is it? Explorations on the meaning of psychological well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 1989; 57(6):1069-1081. View publication via DOI: DOI:10.1037/0022-3514.57.6.1069
3 de Shazer S. Words were originally magic. New York: WW Norton; 1994.
4 de Shazer S. Clues: investigating solutions in brief therapy. New York: WW Norton; 1988.
5 Tuckman BW. Developmental sequence in small groups. Psychological Bulletin. 1965; 63(6):384-399.