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Five 'outside the box' strategies for your group

December 15, 2015
by Izaak L. Williams
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One of the most fundamental tasks of effective group leaders entails extending the group process toward therapeutic ends. A clear set of group agreements is needed, with life skill and recovery tool lessons carried out in a manner that strikes a tone of positive psychology. Additionally, clear-cut objectives drawn up on the whiteboard are essential to the group process, as this lays out a roadmap for both the facilitator and the group participants to chart a therapeutic course. Members need to be left with a strong sense that the facilitator is thoroughly prepared and means business, to ensure that by session’s end they come to think of the experience as worth their time.

What follows are five “outside the box” techniques, process strategies and interventions hewed from direct experience as a group facilitator, some of which have been sown into the group format.

Forgiveness circle

This one comes from a colleague, Michael J. Taleff, PhD, MAC, CSAC, who has 40-plus years of experience as an addictions clinician. In one of our monthly “coffee talk” meetings in which we discuss all things under the sun of addiction treatment and prevention, he shared his most memorable “outside the box” intervention. Mike offered the following explanation:

“Decades ago, while working in a classic 28-day treatment program, I managed to create an emotionally powerful group experience. As I recall, it often elicited significant member change, but I would only conduct it if the conditions of the group were right. As part of the standard treatment practice of the time, we asked participants to share some portion of their active addiction history, and do it within the confines of a group. It was a scary, but courageous, thing to do. Often as a member finished the wrenching task, they could not look the other group members in the eye. They voiced overwhelming guilt and shame, and kept their eyes closed or glued to the floor, often sobbing. It dawned on me that these participants could not leave the group with such exposed emotional wounds. To disclose all that pus and simply walk out of the group was wrong.

I would bend over and softly ask the member if they would be willing to do one small task. All said yes. At that point, I would ask the participant to stand in the middle of the group. Then I asked the group members to form a circle around him/her. Gently, I asked the participant to simply look at all the eyes of the group. Then I asked if the participant saw any judgment, any scorn. No one ever did, for there was none to be seen.

About this time, the emotional heat of the group was palpable, but the exercise was only half done. I then asked the group to take one half-step closer to the participant. Again, I asked the member to look at the eyes for any signs of negative judgment. Again, none was observed, but what became evident at this point was compassion and love from the circled group members. The heat was physical at this juncture.

One last time I asked the group members to step closer. Shoulder to shoulder, everyone sobbing or crying, I looked the member dead in the eye and said, “We made our move, what are you going to do?” Without fail the member reached out and grabbed the closest group member, while all the others crushed gently around that participant, all crying and sobbing.

It was always a moment beyond words, where the participant saw that they were not judged as a person, but more importantly learned they could reach out for help and succor even in the depths of their pain. And, if they could achieve this once, they could do it again and again.

I often observed following this little exercise that the bond between these people was extraordinarily strong. All seemed to know deep inside that forgiveness was possible and, despite the years of addiction, one could reach out and still touch, really touch another human.”

Musically cued

In understanding the spectrum of different personality types that make up a group, facilitators can build into the structure of some of their groups a check-in procedure with personal reflection time and space for introspection. For some members, merely attending group on time and being prepared is a challenging transition coming into group. Other members start the session preoccupied with feelings and thoughts that detract from being mindfully present, while others feel anxious or diverted by other emotional states. To ease members into the group process is to encourage them to settle in to a slower tempo and to gain composure, which essentially means devising time for self-reflection.

Some participants, especially those with an introverted disposition, may need an inwardly focused warm-up activity that affords personal headspace to compose thoughts and feelings before jumping into group. One way to do this is by harnessing the power of music in tandem with a “group process self-reflection check-in sheet” (a combination of open-ended and fill-in-the-blank questions, such as a three-to-five item gratitude list and “I am ________ , the world is___________, others are _______________”). The group is instructed that the check-in will be timed by one or two songs lasting several minutes and when the music stops, members still working on their sheet can set it aside and revisit it during break time.