CHAPTER 9. Stages in a Group's Life: Plateaus and Problems
As months go by, the group can begin to feel stale and dull. Sometimes
a new member can bring in excitement, or doing new activities
can help, but eventually, my experience has shown me, the group
has to move towards introspection.
Members have to do a "gutcheck" and ask themselves if
they like what the group is doing. This self-analysis scares members.
It forces them to look deeply at their communication habits and
their ways of being intimate and being distant. It also requires
direct conversation between members.
This cycle of group life can lead to great awareness and revived
interest in the group, and to learning new skills that are invaluable
outside the group. If however, group trust and safety have not
been created, and if men don't feel bonded, the group can fragment.
This is a tough balancing act, but it is one that we do all the
time with other relationships too, so we have some experience
with this judgement call.
A couple of years ago, a friend, Andrew, was starting up a group
with some of his buddies. After a few meetings, I called and asked
him how it was going, and he said, "I can't believe how angry
I have gotten...First of all this guy, I hardly know him. Didn't
come two times ago. He called in to say that his girlfriend wanted
some quality time and it had to be on that night. We had just
agreed on meeting nights the week before...But that wasn't all.
There's this other guy in the group, very successful doctor...he
talks all night. Whenever there is a pause in the action, he jumps
in. He takes up all the time. I don't get to talk..."
I asked him if he felt like he could tell these guys about the
problems he was having. He said, "No. It just makes me want
to stay home too." I knew that he had joined the group to
get support about issues with his teenage kids, and to practice
interacting with people, so I said, "Do you see how the group
is doing its work? You feel like people can't hear you. You feel
abandoned by this man. And you don't know how to talk to them
without blowing up, just like your father used to do with you...I'd
say that the group is giving you a perfect opportunity to work
on the issues that you said you're there for."
"Yeah, I guess so," Andrew said. "It's just hard
to be vulnerable with this group of guys. Even though I've known
some of them for a long time, I don't know how to bear my heart
to them. There is such fear in me. And of course, I don't want
to talk about that, I'd rather be mad at the other fellows. I
see how that is my pattern of protection."
Andrew's group had originally met to talk about specific topics,
but inevitably group dynamic issues were raised. And Andrew was
wrestling with fundamental problems of safety and trust, within
this group of powerful men. My experience shows me that unless
Andrew's group could communicate some of these deeper group experiences,
the members would reach a plateau. Eventually general topics will
not hold the group together, because of the unspoken conflicts
which need to be aired.
Several clear signals indicate when a group is in a plateau.
1. Men are complaining outside the group about certain members,
or about the way the group is working.
2. Men leave the group meetings feeling uninvolved, or there
are long periods at the meetings when men are bored.
3. Men begin missing group sessions; other life commitments
become more important.
4. There is more expression of anger at the meetings, sometimes
with inexplicable causes.
5. There are no activities or conversations that bring men
into direct contact with each other, so a backlog of uncommunicated
feelings builds up.It is important to remember that what may be
a plateau for one man, a time when the group feels slow and stagnant,
may be a period of quiet calm and nurturing for other members.
These divergent voices must all be heard, so that men can reflect
on and communicate how the group is working for them.
The exercises in this chapter build on some of the interactive
exercises in Chapter 8. They ask men to tell the truth to each
other and about the group itself.
For example, in one group, we spent three sessions in a row going
around the room and saying to each other, "Blank, something
I have been meaning to say to you for a long time but I haven't
been able to is....." Many deep hurts surfaced, and some
men expressed their pain and anger. But the group provided a place
for an exciting experiment in conflict resolution, and after
the emotional clearing, we felt much more bonded and open to truthtelling.
Men should hold in their hearts the vision that they can clear
their judgements and old unspoken communications in a group setting
and thereby become closer to the other men.
After ten years of group work, I know that groups will deepen
as they begin to deal with conflict directly. The exercises in
this chapter give tools for this important exploration. They
help members confront their own deeply unconscious patterns of
withholding love and truth from others. Sometimes meetings which
use these exercises can be painful, but if men enter into them
with a heart full of hope and forgiveness, and with a mood of
exploration, they can create deeper bonds.
Here are some tips for these interactive processes.
1. These exercises should have a designated facilitator for
the night, since each man can get caught up in his own emotional
reactivity. An outside observer is very helpful.
2. When doing one of these exercises, the leader should help
participants take the focus off the other man whom the member
is talking to and about. The member should concentrate on his
own bodily-emotional experience. One of my teachers, Dr. Gay Hendricks,
says the goal is to make statements from our own truth which are
inarguable, such as the difference between "You let me down,"
and "When you act that way, I feel sad and distant, and my
chest hurts." The second statement is strictly my own truth--to
3. Members should always ask themselves what past wound or hurt
in their personal history is being activated, if they are feeling
reactive to another man, if they want to judge or blame, or if
they are angry with? These face-to- face talks go much better
when each person is trying to plumb the depths of their own patterns
of emotional experience.
4. The facilitator for the night must pay attention to the types
of statements that are being made: are they inarguable personal
truths, or are they accusatory or blaming? The easiest way to
tell is to listen to the response of the other man.