Recently I attended a 7 day residential workshop at Findhorn Foundation in Scotland. The two middle aged co-leaders were very experienced in running this workshop, but had never worked together before. Ineka was Dutch and Annis was from the UK. The twelve participants from varying professional backgrounds were of various ages from mid twenties to mid 60s, from all over the world and with several using English as their second language. Although clearly stated in the application form, this was NOT a therapy group however three people had slipped through the screening process and arrived with diagnosed mental illnesses. Two were on medication but the third, Barbara, was not. The higher the level of an individual’s psychological pathology e.g. depression, anger, anxiety the less able he or she is to develop and maintain caring and enriching relationships (Johnson & Johnson 2009). This was my second visit to Findhorn, the earlier visit being 34 years ago.
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The purpose of the workshop was to introduce the members to the work of the Community, a World Heritage Eco Village and a spiritual community which runs many human development courses in its college every year. There was a second purpose of which I was unaware – to experience and work through a wide range of emotions to increase positive interrelations. I was strangely obtuse about this second purpose and concentrated only on the first.
Entitativity is the perception that a group is cohesive with members bonded together. The stronger the joint goals, shared outcomes, interpsersonal bonds, the greater the apparent entitativity of a group (Welbourne, 1999). Our group had incomplete entitativity, I for one feeling detached throughout. The leaders appeared unaware of the dislike many participants had for Annis, who frequently exhibited unnecessary controlling behaviours. Her autocratic style of leadership was rejected, while Ineka’s equally autocratic style was acceptable because she was a more agreeable, more authentic person. This conflict was not brought into the open, instead being discussed within subgroups, during recreational times. Annis’s controlling behaviour impacted on the group’s cohesion; there was entitativity amongst the group AGAINST Annis. We found a bond in our mutual rejection of her though that bond, for me, was not sufficient to make me feel part of the group for many reasons.
Socializing outside the group can increase the group’s cohesion but we divided along age lines. I couldn’t get interested in the younger ones, their beliefs, interests and stories. Counterproductive socializing did not happen, nobody feeling excluded from cliques. One detrimental aspect of our group was our refusing to challenge one another for fear of jeopardizing newly forming friendships, and relying on the group as the source of our current social life. We were a long way from home, in an unknown setting, and needed each other for emotional security.
Communication was autonomous rather than allonomous in its style of interaction. We talked directly to each other, rather than via the leaders. There was much praising, supporting and offering of help from us all. We all took care to understand and be understood by those who did not speak English well even when this required considerable effort. Gibb, 1961, established that evaluation, superiority, certainty and control produce defensive communication. There was a defensive reaction to Annis’s control and certainty. There was evaluation and superiority expressed by participants, but mostly the leaders, against the non-Findhorn world. We were enlightened insiders educating and influencing the ignorant outer world. These attitudes I rejected, which impacted on my commitment to the group.
Much respect for each other and each other’s contributions to the group efforts were articulated. The more accepting and supportive participants were of each other, the more likely they were to reveal ideas, feelings and reactions. The more trustworthy our group’s response to such disclosures, the deeper and more personal the thoughts a participant will share (Johnson et al, 2009). We had revelations of bisexuality, of partnering with a paedophile, of terror at failing to cope with motherhood, of being overwhelmed with the exposure of self – revelation. Clearly the group was achieving its goals for some of us, but not for me. I revealed more than I ever have before, but my core emotional wounds I kept hidden. I was astonished by such revelations and wanted to rescue those in distress, lacking any other response to such pain.
Corey, Corey & Corey, (2010) explains that if someone finds it too difficult to witness another’s pain, the supportive individual attempts to offer pseudo – support rather than a genuine expression of concern, and empathy. I felt helpless the first time Barbara howled with pain.
I postulate that there may also be pseudo pain. The second time Barbara lay in foetal position and screamed in agony, I was astonished to see her sit back on her chair calmly, well satisfied with the attention she received. The third time she ‘performed’ I felt a little exploited. Thus I remained an outside observer, wondering if I should feel guilty for not being more empathetic.
Power may be directly or indirectly expressed through group norms and values. Norms are agreed modes of conduct and belief that guide the behaviour of group members (Johnson et al, 2009). Our group obeyed the direct power exercised by the leaders. We were also systematically educated in the norms expected of us by the Findhorn Community. This was done in discussion and by the leaders’ modelling expected behaviours. At one point Annis gave us a lecture on the rules of group sharing sessions, the only time I thought she was directly criticising us and I didn’t agree with those rules, wanting to give feedback to the person who had just shared but this was not allowed. Sharing was to be received in silence. The first time Barbara broken into howls of anguish, and shared a nightmarish experience she had had while on a group nature walk, she concluded with “Now I feel foolish”. I believed she should have been reassured that we had not found her behaviour foolish. I too felt ridiculous after completing a task ‘to show a side of me that others haven’t seen yet” and I demonstrated my three year old self having a tantrum. I needed feedback.
I was aware that energy is tied up in withholding feeling. When released, people typically reported terrific physical and emotional relief called catharsis. Barbara appeared not to. While expressing emotions may be culturally inappropriate in some situations it was not at Findhorn but later I questioned whether she actually was experiencing the healing of catharsis. Catharsis alone is limited in regard to producing long-term change. Barbara needed to understand her experience by putting into words those intense emotions but this was forbidden by our group norm which made discussion taboo (Corey et al, 2010).
Every individual and group uses a mixture of learning styles, namely experience, reflection, conceptualisation and active experimentation (King & Kiely, 2004). Our programme used all these adult learning styles in its varied tasks. We played games, danced, walked in Nature, meditated, listened to lectures, drew, made collages, sang, watched films plus much more. However the programme used mainly structured rather than unstructured exercises, which King & Kiely (2004) claim is predominantly used for psycho-educational groups. As our leaders were very experienced they had developed their own toolkit of creative exercises though one participant began to cry during the first morning’s session of encounter games designed to bond the group and I felt uncomfortable, and quite disgruntled, at having to take part in these role plays as they were outside my expectations. They were too physical, too unpredictable, for me to feel safe in the group at this stage.
Our group had no procedures to seek out dissenting opinions. Group think is the collective striving for unanimity so that there is no appraisal of alternatives. There is lack of reality testing, a weakening of rationality, judgemental thinking and the ignoring of inconsistent external information. Groupthink censors discussion of disagreements or arguments (Quinn & Schlenker, 2002). Our group felt strong pressure to agree with one another, and failed to engage in effective discussion.
If the leaders believe in members’ capacities to make important personal changes participants may consequently see the group as a valuable conduit to personal growth. If the leaders listen non-defensively and communicate that they value members’ subjective experience, members are likely to see the power in active listing. If the leaders are genuinely able to accept others for who they are, participants will learn to accept people’s rights be themselves and be different. Modelling behaviour in groups is one of the most effective ways to teach members how to relate to one another constructively and deeply (Corey et al, 2010). These were our leaders’ successes, with the exception of Annis’s need for too much control. If members feel that they are deeply understood they are more likely to trust that others care about them.
A misapprehension of invulnerability, indicated by unjustifiable optimism and too much risk taking was present (Keyton, 2006). The norms of the group meant we were above attack and reproach. One participant, Elka, learned that her lover committed suicide while she was with us, and as a diagnosed depressive herself who had attempted suicide 6 months before, was vulnerable after hearing such news. The leaders offered her no feedback, as per their norms, and welcomed the fact that she opened herself up to this ‘challenge’! They stressed that they were not a therapy group but I claimed Findhorn attracted damaged people and its leaders should be trained in crisis management. But there were no contingency plans available for when participants became unstable.
Absence of disagreement is the primary cause of groupthink (Courright, 1978). I kept my criticisms to myself in group time but talked about them privately to some participants as similarly did others about Annis’s controlling behaviour.
Members learn how they function as a person in the world by looking at the patterns they use in the group session (Corey et al, 2010). I protected myself from vulnerability by taking on the role of critical assessor, probing for information, attempting to give advice and paying attention to the dynamics of individuals and the group. Instead of paying attention to how I may be affected in the group, I shifted the focus to others, thus I was left behind as the group developed (Corey et al, 2010). The leaders did not sensitively block this defensive behaviour. They could have pointed out to that I was depriving myself of the maximum benefit from the group by paying more attention to others.
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Schutz (1958) identifies 4 stages in group development. The first, inclusion, assesses individuals as pondering where they fit in, feeling vulnerable, excited and often fearful. The second stage, control, is the jockeying for leadership, control and power. Who is marginalised, who is threatened, who frustrated with authority problems, who projecting onto the leader? This is where I fitted in, as I became frustrated with the group’s unwillingness to express negative thoughts or give personal feedback as per the censoring demands of the leaders. My defensive role of critical observer anchored me to this stage. The third stage, affection, is a time when participants feel a sense of belonging, happiness, love and harmony with each other. The others in the group were able to feel this with each other, but not with Annis. The last stage is termination.
Creating an effective group requires an appropriate balance between support and challenge but our group lacked appropriate challenge. Our norms were supportive and several participants used that to take risks but that in-itself was not sufficient. Groups that use confrontation to strip away the defensive behaviour of members often consequently have increasingly defensive interaction. Leaders are best to refrain from highly confrontational involvement until they have developed a trusting relationship with participants. Once interpersonal trust is achieved group members are usually more accepting of challenge (Corey et al, 2010).
Theasaurus to here: ie done above.
I never gave up the safety of my defensive detachment nor did others in the older sub-group. Resistance is a normal process that can lead to productive exploration in the group. The defensive style may take various forms such as conflict, detachment, distrust or diverting but the underlying fear is of getting close and the vulnerability this implies. The most successful way to deal with difficult behaviours is for the leaders to simply describe to members what they are observing and let the members know how they are affected by what they see and hear. Showing a willingness to understand the member’s behaviour is the gentlest form of confrontation. Using such a strategy in our group would have been helpful (Corey et al, 2010). When feedback is given honestly and sensitively, members are able to understand the impact they have on others and decide, what, if anything, they want to change about their interpersonal style. Feedback has been associated with increased motivation for change too (Morran & Wilson, 1997).
Group leaders need to teach participants how to give and receive feedback. Members are more likely to consider feedback that may be difficult to hear when there is a balance between positive or supportive feedback and corrective or challenging feedback. Members can benefit from both if the feedback is given in a clear, caring and personal way (Morran et al, 1997).
Positive feedback should be emphasised during the early stages of the group. However positive and corrective feedback should be balanced during the middle and later stages (Moran et al, 1997). However this did not happen for us. Corrective feedback is more credible, useful and increasingly more accepted by members during the working and ending sages. Leaders need to assist in establishing appropriate norms that encourage the giving and receiving of corrective feedback. (Morran et al, 1997). Our leaders modelled positive feedback but not corrective feedback and the group’s success was inhibited accordingly.
Our final session involved tasks to put what has occurred in the group into a meaningful perspective and to plan ways to continue applying changes to situations in our daily lives. At this time members need to express what the group experience has meant to them and to state where they intend to go from here. Members need to face the reality of termination and learn how to say good-bye. The potential for learning permanent lessons may be lost if the leader does not provide a structure that helps members review and integrate what they have learned but our leaders did this (Corey et al, 2010).
We exchanged email addresses and these emails became a valuable support system, particularly for Elka who returned home to find her lover had killed himself the day before. We all emailed her with our empathy and, in my case, good advice as to seeking help for herself. I remained a rescuer! Assisting members in creating a support system is a good way to help them deal with setbacks and keep focused on what they need to do to accomplish their goals (Corey et al, 2010).
There was an evaluation sheet that allowed participants to say what was helpful and what was difficult about the group and ways that the sessions could have been improved. It asked for feedback on the leadership which I didn’t give! Even at the very end I remained uncommitted to the group processes. This request for post workshop evaluation was a valid request but not sufficient. Evaluation should have been more frequent, with assessment of the group’s needs occurring throughout the programme.
Keyton (2006) explains that some members enjoy the group experience so much that they do not want it to end. This was particularly true of our younger members. They felt happiness and pleasure at having had a good group experience, but they also felt sadness and loss that the group was over (Rose, 1989). The final night saw us enjoying a celebratory dinner. Keyton, (2006) claims that celebrating success solidifies individual’s connections to the group and helps members gain closure.
I found such expressions of sorrow irrelevant, never having moved from the control stage of the group so for me, overall, the group did not achieve its second goal. It was, however, successful in regard to this goal for the younger ones. For us all, the goal of being introduced to aspects of living at Findhorn was achieved.
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