Group Work

Why Group Work Is So Valuable


We get a lot of calls from people who are exploring the possibility of doing inner work with us, and one of their major concerns (often unspoken) is about entering a group of strangers and sharing personal issues. Since we don't usually get a chance to examine this matter in depth on the phone, we think devoting some website space to it is worthwhile.

The truth is that everyone has some fear about entering a group-especially a group whose members are getting together for personal exploration, healing, and expansion. The truth also is that significant growth doesn't happen without some measure of risk and vulnerability. The person who refuses to expose himself or herself to some amount of vulnerability has to play it safe, and playing safe involves repeating the "same old" over and over again. It's not about growth.

In our culture-and this is particularly true for men-we're not encouraged to share honestly, in depth, about what is going on inside of us. That's very unfortunate, because when we are having troubles, and all of us have troubles at times in our lives, we tend to believe we are alone. Worse yet, we have a tendency to believe that some formless personal flaw is at the root of our troubles-because everyone else seems to be doing okay (because few others talk openly about the troubles they are having!).

Seeking therapy is viewed by many as a statement of weakness, whereas just the opposite is true. It takes no courage to hide out and put on the mask that "all is well." It takes no courage to sit back and make up excuses for not seeking help. It takes a lot of courage to open up in front of others and allow personal vulnerability.

In a group, everyone starts out with some fear. The amazing thing is that after a few hours of observing and testing the waters, the fear turns into excitement. When things are out on the table in a clear and nonjudgmental way, everyone experiences relief. Instead of feeling fear, participants begin to feel liberated. And it's never boring! After all, what is more fascinating than the human drama-that of others and of ourselves? And what lessons are more important to learn than the skills of intimate relating?

There will always be those who denounce group therapy, or at least feel an urge to lampoon the process. While no therapy is without its shortcomings, when you get past the masking level of these critics, you frequently discover a person who has never entered a well-led group and, deep down, is terrified of doing so. Anybody who has actually experienced skilled facilitators knows that too many good things come out of group work to be able to pass the process off with old, platitudes about therapy.

One-On-One Versus Group Work

Many individuals believe one-on-one, hour-at-a-time therapy is the most personal and thus the most effective approach to well-being. Actually, with regard to small groups like ours, we don't agree with that reasoning. For one thing, group therapy moves much faster. In the typical one-on-one session, an individual (or couple) needs to struggle with quickly getting down to his or her particular issue in some forty working minutes (figuring at least 5 minutes to settle in and another 5 minutes to close off). Perhaps an intervention that hits the mark can come forth in that time-or perhaps it doesn't. In any case, after the session is over, a long time passes until the issue gets addressed again in a focused way with outside input.

In a residential group environment, a much wider variety of issues gets worked on in a much shorter period of time. Each individual soon realizes that every group member has a little piece of himself or herself, and as each person in the group comes to a particular realization, everyone in the group benefits from it. There is a certain magic in the way each issue that arises leads to just the right discovery for everybody else in the group.

Sometimes it is much easier to "get" a particular insight while observing someone else nearby who has the same issue. The truth is that we all have difficulty seeing ourselves clearly at times. But when we get the opportunity to see ourselves through someone else's shared experience, we can arrive at realizations that would have been difficult to arrive at in any other way.

In group work, each person gets a chance to digest new insights, perhaps while the group focus shifts over to someone else for a period of time. But unlike hourly private sessions, in which you have to wait days, weeks, or even longer to take another step, in a group, you can pick things up again whenever you are ready to continue pushing forward. To be sure, one-on-one private sessions might feel safer, but for most people, they are not more efficient.

One-on-one sessions, spread out over a number of months, do have positive aspects, but group work, especially in a residential retreat setting, is where breakthroughs commonly occur much more quickly. It's the difference between focusing on a problem for an hour a week (and let's face it, that's about all the spare time we have these days if we don't make an unusually determined effort) and putting full energy into an issue from sunrise to past sunset, five days in a row. Furthermore, the typical office environment is not usually conducive to actually experiencing the feeling levels on any given issue, so feelings are typically more talked about than experienced directly. We've heard it many times: a week-long retreat with us is the equivalent of at least six months of one-hour-a-week therapy.

While we're at it, let's talk about another comment we frequently hear: "I/we don't have the time or money to do this kind of work." After people pass through this barrier, they often realize that the fear of becoming vulnerable was really more what was holding them back. To be sure, coming to a residential group is a significant investment, but we remind people that the costs of either living a less-than-fully satisfying intimate life or (in the case where couples have let things slide for too long) getting divorced are a lot higher.