Group Problem-Solving Strategies, Part 1
A number of problems can occur during the formation of the group and afterwards. Some of these difficulties involve group members while others are related to group processes. One of the best ways to handle group problems is to prevent them. Where prevention is not possible, the group members and the group therapist can work together to bring about resolution (Gladding, 2003).
Dealing with people problems
Despite careful screening, some group members display difficult behaviours early in the group processes. In dealing with people problems, group therapists are encouraged to avoid labelling individuals. Labelling simply stereotypes individuals into a certain behavioural range and therefore may not always be appropriate.
With this in mind, it is important not to stereotype group members into being a certain type of ‘problem’. Instead it is important to view the problem behaviour as a particular approach that the person has chosen to use, whereby the problem does not define the person, but rather it defines the behaviour the person has chosen to execute at that time. The person may be fully aware of their chosen behaviour or they may not.
Below is a list of problem behaviours that group members may choose to use within the group process. Each of the problem behaviours listed below are defined, and an overview of how to deal with each of them is also provided.
4. Remaining silent
5. Use of Sarcasm
6. Excessive focus on others
Group members who choose to manipulate will often apply a subtle use of behaviours and feelings to get what they want. At the beginning of the group, someone who is manipulating will often struggle with the group therapist for control. The therapist should not allow this to occur otherwise either the group therapists function or the group will fail. Those who choose to manipulate will often have a lot of anger, bringing to the group unresolved issues focused around issues of control. For example, a manipulating group member may threaten to leave the group therapy if he or she is not given what they want.
Some of the strategies that a group therapist can use to deal with this problem behaviour is reframing (Gladding, 2003). Reframing involves the therapist conceptualising problems behaviours in a positive way. For example, if one group member is vigorously accusing the group of breaching confidentiality and using that as an excuse not to disclose, then the group therapist could reframe this behaviour by saying “sounds like what you want from this group is specific help in learning how to trust them”.
Those who choose to resist do not participate in group exercises or tasks. For example, a resistant group member may refuse to share their experiences with the group as they may feel that it would not help their situation if they did choose to share. Resistance usually stems from distrust in the process of group therapy. It can also stem from distrust in the group members and/or the group therapist. When resistance is occurring, the group therapist can use an affirmation approach whereby they help resistant group members to build trust by encouraging them to participate in group activities but not insist that they do so. Another way of working through this behaviour is to confront and interpret in a reflective manner what is happening with this particular resistant client.
Individuals who monopolise will usually dominate the conversation in a group and not allow other group members to verbally participate. Monopolising can often offer relief to other group members especially at the beginning stages of group therapy as they are able to focus attention onto the one monopolising and away from them selves. Hence in the early stages of group therapy, group members may encourage the monopolising behaviour. As the group progresses, monopolising does become a significant source of irritation and frustration for group members. Those who monopolise are usually dealing with underlying anxiety.
Group therapists can help members of the group who display this behaviour by helping them realise how their behaviour is hurting their interpersonal relationships and what actions they can apply instead. An effective technique to use is cutting off. As the name implies, cutting simply prevents the member from rambling on about themselves. By using this technique, the therapist helps to ensure that the group remains on task and that every member has equal opportunity to participate. For example, if the therapist notices that one group member tends to monopolise, the therapist can say “now we need to move on to the next person to ensure everyone has the opportunity to speak”.
4. Remaining Silent
Silent members are those individuals who may or may not become involved in a group. Members who are silent are often non assertive, shy, or deeply self reflective. If a group member remains silent throughout the group they may not benefit from the group process to the same degree as more active members. The best way for the therapist to ascertain the meaning of silence is to give the person a chance to respond.
To elicit a response and usher in participation with the rest of the group, a therapist can invite the person to share their thoughts, feelings and opinions. For example, the group therapist may ask “what do you think about what other members have been saying?” It is a fine balance of respecting the person’s desire to remain silent while also ensuring they have every opportunity to speak up if they want to.
5. Use of Sarcasm
Those who may choose to use sarcasm often do so to mask their feelings through the use of clever language and humour. Sarcasm can deflect from confronting real issues. The therapist can help those caught up on using sarcasm to express feelings more openly and directly. The therapist must identify what is happening in the group member’s life by helping the group member explore their feelings authentically and openly.
6. Excessive focus on others
Those who focus excessively on others become self appointed “group leaders”. This behaviour is often exhibited by the member questioning others, offering advice and acting as if they do not have any problems. Therapists can help them overcome this “others focused” behaviour by teaching about the benefits of self disclosure and promoting a culture that encourages self disclosure. The therapist can use techniques that divert the focus back to the group member by asking questions like “if it was you, what would you do?”
Useful Procedures for the Beginning Stage of the Group
Each group is unique. As such, no one technique is appropriate for all aspects of a group as it begins. However, there are some universal procedures that seem to work well in most groups especially at the beginning stages. Gladding (2003) has outlined some of these, and include the following:
3. Cutting Off
4. Drawing Out
5. Clarifying the Purpose
This is a process in which the group therapist connects with members of the group both psychologically and physically. This involves both the group therapist and group members making some effort to find out more about each other. The most common way of joining is through the use of icebreakers. Ice breakers are also called warm up activities and energizers.
Ice breakers aim to encourage connections through creating a positive atmosphere, helping people relax, breaking down any barriers, motivating to be engaged in the process and encouraging people think outside the box.
As one small example, Animal Sounds is an activity that can be used. In this activity everyone is blindfolded and then given an animal name. After being allocated an animal name each group member is asked to recognise the same animal allocated to another group member by the sound their respective animal makes. This helps to break down initial barriers as a consequence of the whole process of the exercise.
Linking involves connecting people with others by pointing out to them what they have in common. Linking strengthens the bonds between individuals and the group as a whole. This technique should be employed through the life of group therapy but it is especially powerful at the beginning of the group. One example of linking involves the group therapist pointing out how two individuals are dealing with similar issues and may encourage them to “share” with each other about their experiences. Or it might involve finding out that two group members like the same type of music, live in the same suburb or share a similar interest or hobby.
3. Cutting Off
Cutting off is used to serve two purposes. Firstly, it is used to ensure new material is not introduced into the group too late into the session where the group would have inadequate time to deal with it adequately. For example, a group member may want to share some secret with the group 5 minutes before the end of the group session.
The Therapist will cut off this member by bringing the member’s focus to the limited amount of time that is left in the session and invite the member to bring up the secret information next time at the beginning of the next session. Secondly, it is used to keep members on track and prevent them from derailing off the task.
4. Drawing Out
Drawing out is the opposite of cutting off. This involves the therapist asking for more information, or encourages the group member to expand and clarify or to bring others in on the issues being raised and shared whereby they are asked their opinion, reaction, thoughts and feelings on it. This strategy encourages members to invest more of themselves in to the group as a well as helping them to recognise their feelings and thoughts.
This encourages greater connection between group members through active participation and self disclosure. One way to apply the strategy of drawing out might include the therapist saying something like, “we haven’t heard from you about this matter. Would you like to share your thoughts with us?”
5. Clarifying the Purpose
Sometimes members unintentionally bring up material that is not appropriate for a beginning session or for the overall purpose of the group. In such instances, the group therapist should clarify the purpose of the group with both the individual and the group as a whole.
The therapist might say something like, “I appreciate what you’re saying, but I’m not sure where you’re going with it, in the context of what we’re discussing... “. This can help the group to stay focused on tasks in order to achieve the desired group objectives.
In Part 2 (next edition) we’ll explore potential problems that can arise from the Storming and Norming stages of group development.
- Gladding. G.T. (2003) Group Work: A Counselling Speciality (4th ed.).New Jersey: Prentice Hall.
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