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Men's Groups

Stages in a Group's Life: Plateaus and Problems

from Talking with Our Brothers

Copyright © 1995 by George Taylor

 

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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 the bone.

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.

These activities are taken from a longer chapter in Talking with Our Brothers, about activities which you can use when your group appears to be stagnating or having communication problems. Sorry, the book is currently out of print. E-mail me if you eant to be notified if it is again available.

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