Strong Emotion in Groups

By John Mulligan

When asked to write this article I was given the title as violent emotion in groups. I immediately recoiled – another way of giving emotion a bad name, I thought. As someone who has been committed for twenty years to establishing the validity of emotion as a core social and educational activity, I did not relish the thought of undoing some of the change in mindsets already achieved. So let me put the record straight, I do not believe that there is any such thing as violent emotions and we do ourselves a disservice by using such terms. At best, violence may follow from the failure to separate emotion from action but I do not think it is helpful to stigmatise emotion for that. We need to look farther afield if we are to understand either emotion or violence in the context of human interaction.

In my early career as a care-worker and as a teacher in Ireland, senior staff and managers often regarded you as a weak or incompetent if you expressed emotion, especially upset, hurt, or fear. Anger, for a red blooded young male, was slightly more acceptable but even that was regarded as a sign of impotence or socially unacceptable in more refined circles. In the rarefied towers of university life in the U.K. where I spent fifteen of my more recent years, the story was little different. Displays of emotion, especially strong emotion, were frowned upon in the most tolerant and benevolent manner. Losing one’s cool, throwing a wobbler, falling apart or losing the head are patronising, though kindly, terms used to signify what was generally regarded as a loss of control and breach of etiquette. My work now in both Ireland and the U.K. as an organisational development consultant, group facilitator and personal coach suggests that we are still struggling with acceptance of emotion as a valued rather than pathological dimension of human functioning and social communication.

While I do not wish to dwell too much here on the possible reasons for all of this I would like to flag up one of them since it provides a backdrop of humanity’s relation to emotion relevant to the later discussion. I believe that we have been struggling as a race to develop our rational capacity to think for many thousands of years. It has been a complex journey and one not helped by our tendency to leap into action on the base of emotion. Domination and suppression of emotional response, and the accompanying tendency to react in fight, flight or play dead in threatening situations was a crucial factor in such development. Harding believes that the emergence of emotional response was crucial to the development of our thinking capacity in that it created a space and a time lag between perception and reaction, thereby creating possibility of choice and eventually deliberation..

Observers of young children will have noticed that emotion and action are often barely distinguishable. The capacity to contain emotion without acting it out is not yet developed; they do not yet have choice or control in the face of powerful emotion. Control of emotion appears to have been central to the evolution of our consciousness and not just the result of Victorian Britain or puritan religion. But control has been over-emphasised in some cultures, including our own, to the detriment of other options in managing our emotions. There are other constructive ones such as expression, catharsis, redirection, switching, transmutation, etc. (Heron) which are now beginning to find broader acceptance in social and developmental settings. Supported by this cultural change (Goleman), I believe we have some reasons for hope that the development of affective competence within our education system will in time become as important a part as the development of cognitive competence is presently.

Somebody once said to me that most of the painful and traumatic experiences we have in our lives occur to us in groups of one kind or another, so is it any wonder that people find groups problematic and even distressing?

On reflection I agreed with him without prejudice to the fact that many of our most pleasurable experiences also occur there. Our experience in groups can be complex, sometimes obscure and difficult to explain, which means it is difficult to predict the best way to behave in a given situation. Besides the current reality of the group environment and members, we all have to contend with what we bring to the group in terms of past experience with family, school and other social groupings. This past experience may help us or not and it is in addition to what is being created, emerging or taking form for the future within that forum. This complexity is one of the reasons that living, working and growing in groups is so challenging for most of us.

Emotion is often one of the more problematic aspects of this complexity. How we understand it will determine the way we value and manage it. As with groups, we need several different concepts and theories to reflect even what we currently know and I believe there is much more to discover. Most of us have our own personal understanding of emotion, though it may not have surfaced or reflected on our understanding and the consequences or implications of the views we hold. Emotion, often strong emotions, together with a low level of emotional competence often triggers many of the painful experiences which we encounter in groups. Like the child, we are often unaware of how we act out, disown or project our emotions rather than become aware of these states in which we find ourselves and benefit from them. Emotions, usually negative emotions, are generally not viewed as being of value in social intercourse and are therefore ignored, avoided or suppressed to the detriment of group functioning and productivity.

Unaware and unprocessed states of emotion often underlie much moralistic judgement and judgmental criticism. Blaming, rationalisation, attack, flight, denial, withdrawal, sublimation, transference, collusion, scape-goating, pairing, acting out, rescuing and inappropriate dependency are some of the common labels given to problematic substitutions for adequate emotional awareness and competence found in groups. Strong emotion abounds and these can be experienced as quite destructive by participants and are often the most difficult challenge for the facilitator and group alike. Some, myself included, believe that lack of emotional competence underlies many of our unresolved conflicts across the continuum from intra-personal to global which gives the goal of collective emotional competence an added sense of urgency.

What is emotion?

I often ask this question in training groups and the answers indicate that there is much confusion about the nature and function of emotion. Many describe it as a bodily feeling or a passion but few have explored this familiar experience very deeply. Most experience it every day but this does not automatically lead to an understanding of what it is or what its purpose might be. I do not think that any single concept of such a complex phenomenon can possibly describe or explain the awesome energy we call emotion.

I find the concept of emotion as an indicator of need most helpful; positive emotions (joy, delight, happiness etc.) as indicating needs which have been met, negative emotion (fear, anger, grief, etc.) indicating unmet needs. Understood in this way emotion becomes a doorway to our needs and can begin the awareness which will lead to their fulfilment. This concept is intimately linked with the concept of motivation and both Maslow and Herzberg offer useful models for understanding some of the needs behind the emotions. However, there is no direct correlation between any given need and a particular emotion. Heron suggests that there is a strong connection between certain needs and specific emotions which seems to hold but then so do many others. E.g. Anger is related to blocked choice, fear to blocked understanding and grief to blocked love.

Rosenberg would suggest that anger is not an emotion in the true sense but rather a mental picture because it usually implies an internal image of what someone else should or should not be doing to us. Either way, if you follow the feeling, through empathy and inquiry then you can usually identify the need underlying the feeling and do something to satisfy it.

Many ask the question – what is the difference between sensation, feeling and emotion? Jung described sensation as one of his four functions related to the perception of sensory data either internal or external. Emotions clearly have a physiological component. We experience an internal movement in our bodies when we are experiencing an emotion. Emotions are dynamic but the physiological response may not be of sufficient strength to enter into our sensory awareness. The terms strong or violent emotions are used when there is unmistakable turbulence in our bodies and when this leads to voluntary or involuntary communication of the emotional state.

There may be a tendency to confuse emotion with a physiological state. Feeling hot or cold is not indicative of an emotional state though they clearly have a physiological base in common with emotion. So while our awareness of emotion usually begins with awareness of a movement or disturbance of the physiological field, which could be called a feeling, it requires something further before we identify it as an emotion.

Rosenberg says emotions are ascriptive rather than descriptive. By this he means that we ascribe a value or an interpretation to them which is beyond the description of the physiological phenomena. This is confirmed by Jung’s view of what he calls the feeling function in so far as he views it as an evaluative or judgement function. In Jung’s view it indicates what a person likes or dislikes, a personal and subjective way of evaluating perceptions, perhaps an elaboration of the pain/pleasure response.

To add to the confusion created by our awareness process, some aspects of the English language tend to encourage us to view emotion as something which is done to us rather than something which is the result of our own internal response, generated by ourselves and for which we solely are responsible, at least according to modern psychological thinking. For example it is not uncommon to hear people say things like I feel insulted, abused, humiliated, belittled and so on. Such statements, Rosenberg suggests are not true emotions at all. They are merely statements of what someone else may have done to us and can often escalate conflict and emotional uproar in group settings. Such statements though prevalent in the language and often accepted as emotion, encourage a dissociation from, and lack of responsibility for, emotion and make it more difficult to access the underlying need. Nobody can make you feel an emotion and there is much to be gained by encouraging personal ownership and responsibility for one’s emotions. This is underlined by the approach of Rational Emotive therapists who view emotions as being a product of our own irrational expectations and beliefs and certainly the responsibility and creation of nobody but ourselves.

I also find helpful the concept of emotion as a process which we may use to discriminate between internal experiences, interact with the environment, learn, act, and so on. This borrows and builds on the Myers-Briggs descriptions of character types. I have written about seven of these processes elsewhere so will not repeat here. They are imagining, willing, remembering, intuiting, sensing, reasoning and feeling (Mulligan 1988, 1992). This is a particularly useful distinction in training and development groups as it offers a behavioural description of the internal behaviours entailed in each of the processes. Even in therapy or group work these distinctions can often help disentangle the elements of internal experience and free up and develop the functioning of the feeling process as well as that of others. Southgate’s Community Counselling Circles, and DeBono’s Six Thinking Hats, are further examples of how this approach can be used to great effect in groups – both integrating and harnessing the feeling life of the group.

James Hilman and other followers of Jung such as Mindell are of the view that emotion is much more than a personal phenomenon. He favours the old Greek understanding of emotion as an experience of being touched by a god and the whole concept of therapy as primarily emotional; the engagement – a sort of rapping with the gods. This explanation, a transpersonal or archetypal one, has something in common with religious notions of possession. It is the emotion which brings people to therapy, he says, and describes it as a ‘state of soul’ which has the potential to move the psyche to a deeper and epiphanic connection with the world. We can achieve a greater degree of relatedness through emotion not just to other people but to the world itself. This goes beyond any anthropocentric understanding of emotion as reflected in the models referred to above. This cosmic approach is picked up and elaborated upon by Mindell in his Process Oriented Psychology which treats emotion as an emergent energy, not just personal, and more akin to breakthrough rather than the breakdown or dysfunction traditionally associated with overwrought emotional states by the medical profession. The result is a kind of Lewinian field theory of group energy characterised by heightened emotional states signifying something which is trying to breakthrough into individual and collective consciousness.

Given the variety of ways of construing emotion, it is understandable that so many approaches to development have proliferated in recent years. Many of the therapeutic approaches have their origin in the abreactive and cathartic processes associated with the Freudian world view. Strong emotions are part and parcel of many of these approaches. I have identified three categories of group in which strong emotions feature but which require different approaches from facilitator and participant alike for them to function effectively. The first category are what I call special cases in that they are therapy or growth groups in which strong emotion features on a regular basis but it is contained by substantial amounts of preordained structuring which create safety, contain and mitigate the effects of individual and group affect. This category includes Co-Counselling, Bodywork, Psychodrama, Regression and Rebirth, Psychosynthesis, the more structured parts of Gestalt and Transactional Analysis and others. The likelihood of experiencing strong emotion is usually published in advance and expectations of participants prepared accordingly.

The second category are groups where there is a significant element of unstructured interaction implicit in the modus operandi of the various approaches. The absence of structure and uncertainty about what may occur in the group add to the tension and make the group more like an open social situation where the norms of engagement may be unclear. These include T groups, Gestalt, Encounter, some Process Oriented Psychology and Transactional Analysis groups, Marathons, etc. In these type of groups, while there is usually some preparation for the nature of the experience which people will have in advance publicity, the unexpected can also occur as it would be impossible to predict everything which might happen. Facilitators of these type of groups are usually trained to cope with the unexpected and normally do. But, for reasons of skill limitation or the complexity of the group dynamic, there can occur situations which result in unfinished business and which may fuel people’s fears of their imagined catastrophe fantasies coming true.

The third category could include any of the above but also experiential learning and training groups, task focused teams or communities of one kind or another. All of these groups have group dynamics which may give rise to strong emotion but may not have working with emotion as part of their overt agenda. This type of situation can often be the most difficult as it is the political dimension, how power is handled in the group, which may trigger volatile emotions in the first two categories and additionally the appearance of group dynamic and feeling issues in what some may expect to be a cognitive oriented group.

Besides the potentially shattering effect which the appearance of strong emotion in such situations may have on participants’ expectations, there is an added complication here. Facilitators of these type of groups may have little or no training in managing emotional volatility in the group and resort to control and containment when other options might better serve their purposes and the needs of the group.

These pen pictures of different types of group will serve as examples to illustrate the different kinds of issue raised by the emergence of strong emotion in groups. It will be clear from the way I have set up the categories that culture setting, creating appropriate expectations in advance, and good contracting are critical to best management of strong emotion in groups regardless of the type of group which you may be operating. Many people are less able to deal with the unexpected and have been socialised in a culture where hierarchy and those in authority dominate so they may react with either fight or flight depending on their disposition. You may feel helpless, resentful or intimidated if this occurs and it is much easier to prevent than to sort it out when it has happened. Heron (1989) offers some useful discussion of issues and techniques for culture setting and contracting.

Accurate and advance information on the nature and process of the group and the negotiation of ground rules which value and set the stage for working with emotion are recommended. Especial attention needs to be given to helping participants appreciate the meaning and implications of such ground rules if the environment or culture within which the exploration is taking place is not supportive or conducive to the valuing and expression of emotion. The same is true of participants who may come from such cultures or environments and who may have little understanding or experience of conventions or ways of relating others might take for granted. Clear contracts and ground rules provide a valuable safety net for both facilitator and participants within which most strong emotion can be contained, worked with and used to good effect.

Depending on the type of group you are part of, there are particular times when strong emotion is more likely to appear. Fear and anxiety are common in the early stages of many groups as people struggle with inclusion issues. Fears of rejection and exclusion may have been imported into the group from earlier experiences and it may take some time before old ghosts are laid to rest. There may of course be valid current reasons for such fears or anxieties and these may need some special attention. People are often reluctant to disclose these emotions and you may not know them sufficiently to gauge the strength of their feelings from their non-verbal messages alone which may be your main source of information. Having an attentive eye and creating lots of options for inclusion will help you gauge most feelings even if they will not share what it is in relation to.

It is when people come to deal with control issues in the Schutz model or in the storming phase of the Tuckman model that the strongest emotions tend to nourish. Some groups of course will back off from going through a storming phase at all or some individuals will make little or no overt attempt to influence or control. In such a case you may find yourself in a very subdued or even compliant group – the energy is likely to be low but this may be only a mask for powerful emotion. Heron suggests that it is beneficial to view emotion as if it existed in layers. On top you often find the socially acceptable emotions, usually positive, such as joy, happiness, delight, contentment and so on. A little lower and you may find boredom, embarrassment, and physical stress. With some release, amplification or contradiction other socially less acceptable emotions, such as fear, anger and grief, may emerge. In group terms this may need icebreakers, energy raising activities, permission and reassurance regarding the expression of such emotion and a deepening and slowing of the pace to enable participants to focus inward and honour the slower pace of emotion as against that of thought. Rosenberg’s non-violent communication processes can be quite powerful in eliciting hidden emotions and needs in such situations.

Sooner or later participants begin to try to get their needs met, directly or indirectly, or they leave. In the second category of group outlined above it is often the function of the facilitator to make the implicit explicit to raise to the surface hidden emotions and dynamics so that individuals and group can learn and develop. As the twin processes of participants jockeying for position in the pecking order and the surfacing of hidden dynamics occur, strong emotions are felt and often expressed or displaced. Energy is high and emotional turmoil can pervade the group and individuals. Fight and flight are common and many of the emotion substitutes referred to above appear. The group can polarise or sub group and get stuck recycling the same emotions over and over again. Progress is limited, many try to impose their own notions of how the group should be on other group members, often unawarely. The reactive environment of this stage of the group often results in participants spontaneously saying things which they would normally have kept to themselves.

Expression: Here we assume that the individual is aware of the feeling or could become aware of it with some elicitation. The intent is to enable the individual to express and communicate their state of emotion in a way which takes ownership and responsibility for it. Ideally they will also be able to get in touch with the underlying needs and be able to make requests or take other action to meet them. Some people may have difficulty discriminating between the different feelings they may be experiencing and the classic form of elicitation used in Non-Violent Communication (NVC) you feel, because you need, and you would like, is a potent empathic technique when used congruently. Emotion is a state of being, or a state of soul. Emotions are best expressed when you are experiencing them rather than historically yet this is what many find most challenging. Many approaches to direct communication in groups encourage personal statements saying ‘how you are’, using the present tense and speaking directly to the person to whom you wish to communicate. Such statements are likely to generate a compassionate response in the listener.

One of the most common shortcomings in the expression of emotion is that we fail to communicate the intensity of our feeling. It is common for people to say for example that they feel very upset or very angry but to say it in a manner that is at odds with what they are saying i.e. calmly and without affect. Such a statement to some one who knows you well may communicate the strength of your feeling if they happen to be attentive at that time. It will not however convey much to those who do not know you well how important an issue is to you. They are more likely to trust the non-verbal messages of calm rather than the verbal message of upset or anger. They may go away wondering what you were on about while you may go away believing that you had communicated how strongly you felt.

Generally it is best if you use words of appropriate strength to describe how you feel accompanied with appropriately weighted affect if you want to impress on some one how strongly you feel about something i.e. how important it is to you.

Catharsis: Here we assume a considerable build up of emotion at conscious, or more usually at unconscious, levels in the personality due to for example introjection, suppression or repression. Often this emotion and the underlying drive to fulfil frozen needs causes the pent-up emotion to leak out in the form of over-reaction, displacement, projection etc. within a group environment. It may also create a numbing dissociation which splits off the experience of negative emotion from knowledge of the event and generally dims one’s capacity to be sensitive to one’s own or others’ emotions. The latter can make such emotion difficult to access in a group and can result in poor attendance and time-keeping, low energy, poor performance and even emotional shut down. Left without attention such a build up of emotion can potentially become somatised into bodily symptoms, lead to fragmentation and mental instability or be acted out in an inappropriate manner.

Encouraging the individual to outwit the idiot control systems and release the pent-up feeling in an aware and non-destructive manner helps the person recover their sense of equilibrium and gain spontaneous insight into their dilemmas or the generative experiences which created the splitting and blockage. Such individual work in the group where part or all of the agenda is devoted to personal development can have a liberating effect on the energy of the group and can trigger further similar work in others. Emotional healing and integration of the personality, a greater freedom of action and response as well as increased insight and intelligence are some of the benefits to be gained from cathartic work.

From a group perspective however the opposite can also occur. Even in groups which have contracted to do this kind of work together, if the individual work is too deep or even shocking for a less experienced group, the emotional shut down can be exacerbated and the individual may feel isolated. But it is often the case in such groups that it is easier for the person doing the work to cope with their post cathartic experience than it is for fellow participants. They may be awarely or unawarely restimulated by the work of the focus person and may become fearful at the prospect of apparently losing control or entering deeply into their grief, anger or fear. It is important to take adequate reflection time to help the group integrate the effects of cathartic experience and to resolve the resulting inner conflicts raised to awareness and the tension between the kind of group culture needed to do this kind of work and the culture of society at large.

In groups where there is no explicit contract to do personal work or to deal with the feeling life of the group, intentional cathartic options are limited and if desired the group will need to be helped to establish a conducive climate. I say ‘intentional’ here because catharsis occurs naturally in groups in any case though it may not be recognised as such. Laughter is the most common mode of catharsis in social groups. Humour and jocularity are often used in such groups as ways of talking about highly charged issues which normally cannot be approached directly or seriously for fear of the consequences.  I find it useful to give a clear jargon free rationale about the importance of paying attention to the feeling life of individuals and the group, referring people to various ways of understanding emotion and its relevance to needs, learning, and group performance and development as appropriate to the group in question. It is unusual for a group not to value emotion when presented in this way and this can be the beginning of the group honouring emotion and creating space and time for the feeling life of the group. I find Rosenberg’s N.V.C. approach to eliciting feelings and needs particularly helpful in such groups and regular non threatening use of those techniques can make for a conducive culture. But it does take time, especially within head dominated cultures and organisations, so expect to make slow progress in such instances and to have to do a lot of supporting and explaining.

In task, learning, community and organisational groups generally where there is not a personal or group development contract, it is usually when there is conflict of some kind that strong emotions emerge into the fore ground and are a noticeable part of the interaction. This is not to say that people do not feel strongly at other times, simply that it is not so obvious in the group. I have already discussed the storming phase of group development where the diversity of needs and beliefs about how the group should be can create emotional volatility. People can get equally passionate about theories and ideas, values, interpretation of events and history, goals and strategies, ideologies and political viewpoints to mention but a few. The intensity of emotion can be an expression of how important the issues are to people or it can be an indicator of distress which they are earning and which is leaking out inappropriately. It may be invigorating, frightening or depressing depending on your stance. Passion about content can get enmeshed in group dynamic issues and be quite difficult to unpick. Expression get confused with catharsis where there is residual distress related to the content being discussed. Trying to find a balance between expression and catharsis, content and group process can be one of the greatest challenges the group and facilitator may face.

My view is that, in conflict situations, it is almost always best to deal with emotions before content and gaining an explicit agreement with the group to follow this path can make life easier for both group and facilitator. The problem with this approach is that where the emotion communicated is more cathartic in nature it may be enmeshed in inflammatory content and the opposing party or parties will want to jump in and deal with the content issues. In extreme cases, where the individuals have little capacity to distinguish between the cathartic and expressive elements or much realisation of how their communication is escalating the conflict, it may be necessary to separate them and help the individuals to deal with some of the cathartic and regressive issues before re-engaging in the interpersonal encounter. Often, while the encounter is occurring, the Inflammatory content can be reflected back as feelings and needs by either the opponent or the facilitator who do not respond at that point to the inflammatory content. This process of empathising will usually clarity the need and may defuse the emotional intensity or at least prevent it from escalating. As the emotional intensity subsides the content issues can then be dealt with more effectively through request and response or through joint problem-solving.

Switching: The assumption here is that the individual is not ready to deal with the emotion, it is the wrong time, or needs some respite from the emotional turmoil. Switching is a way of moving attention away from the emotion or the generating force so that the intensity subsides, fades into the background and is eventually replaced in the foreground of our attention by another focus. This capacity to focus our attention in and out of an emotional state is a key competence for engaging with and learning through the experience of emotion. We may not be able to decide whether or not to have an emotion or what emotion to have but we can choose whether to pay any attention to it or not. It is ven difficult to work with or learn from emotional states if your attention is swamped by or submerged in emotion. The best place from which to work with emotion according to Heron is with a balance of attention, i.e. being able to dip in and out of emotion at will, neither submerged nor disconnected.

Control: It is easy for control to get a bad name given that it has been overused and, for many, has resulted in their being unable to feel their emotions. For others however who have little control of their emotional states, it is a case of the tail wagging the dog. They seem possessed by their emotions and emotional hijacking of their will and capacity to choose is commonplace. According to Coleman emotion seems to create a feedback loop which in turn amplifies or escalates the emotion already being felt. This can be delightful when it is positive and can become infectious in a group but when negative it can restimulate or drain emotion and energy in a powerful manner. Switching internal imaging or external activity can be useful methods of control in addition to strong prescription, challenge or invitation to reflect on the experience.

We cannot prevent our selves from having emotions, so we have at least two options here which could be identified as control. One is to control or limit the build up of emotional intensity and the other is to prevent our action from being hijacked by our emotion and avoid impulsive reaction. Paradoxically both are more related to the development of the willing function rather than that of emotion, in my view, though some may see it as a pedantic distinction. Coleman’s reference to the marshmallow test is a case in point – are we able to postpone immediate gratification of our desires in pursuit of greater goals? Distraction or switching attention, internal self-talk, imagining the procrastinated fulfilment, breaking off eye contact with the desired marshmallow, and relaxing were ways the successful children used to control their impulses. Similar methods are among many which can be used to control our emotions. The part played by the will, and indeed other functions also, if understood could be of great benefit in the development of what Coleman terms, perhaps erroneously, emotional intelligence.

Will is the gate-keeper of the personality. It is the centre from which we make our choices and decisions. Ideally it functions independently of any of the other functions while using the contribution of each to contribute to decisions. Rather like the conductor of an orchestra it harmonises and draws on the capacity of the other functions with their co-operation and agreement. The reality is that for many people, one or other of these other functions can hijack the will and usurp its function as coordinator or conductor in the manner of the emotional hijacking described by Goleman. The same kind of thing can happen in groups. For a group to function effectively the diverse energy , emotion and needs of the group need to be brought into alignment. If any one person or need should become dominant to the exclusion of others then the group will become dysfunctional and emotions may become volatile. The equivalent function of will in the group is the decision making process – how power is handled in the group. Heron provides some excellent discussion of power and decision making issues in groups. From the facilitator’s point of view, contracting at the early stages about how the group will manage both decision making and the feeling dimension of the group will pre-empt the need for authoritative measures which are best used in a crisis situation. Paradoxically prescriptive and confronting interventions are much more common in the facilitation of catharsis.

Transmutation: This is where the energy of the emotion is transformed into some kind of creative art form. Rather than engage in any kind of analysis the emotion is expressed in colour, dance or movement, song, poetry, drama, etc. This is perhaps closer to Hilman’s notion of a generative state of soul. By mediating and giving form to undifferentiated emotion in this way powerful forms of creative expression can emerge  can be prescient and evocative for both the individual and the collective. The group can also engage in collective forms of creative expression which can have a transformative and illuminative effect on the group dynamic and on contentious issues in which the group dynamic is stuck and repetitive patterns of emotion or burnout are apparent. Creating collective images or metaphors of the blocked state and then of the desired state can free up the blockage and unleash much emotion and commitment for movement. Though not its intended purpose this option can also result in considerable understanding and insight for those so engaged.


There are of course several other options such as analysis, redirection or sublimation, among others. It is not intended to be exhaustive but to raise awareness of some of the options for dealing with strong emotion. I hope that I have given some leads for pursuing specific ways of working with emotion in groups and have given sufficient indication of the possibilities inherent in different theories and methods to support my view that an eclectic approach is called for.

I believe that the last hundred years of therapy and exploration of our emotional life has opened up new possibilities which our mainstream institutions are only just beginning to assimilate. It is my earnest hope that what is termed emotional does not become the professional domain or property of professionals whether psychiatric or psychotherapeutic and that its association with personality instability and mental illness is broken for good. We need a new social acceptance of emotion in the home, the work place and in education. Making groups, communities and organisations of all kinds fit places, which will value emotion of all kinds and enable it to flourish, is a worthwhile challenge for both those groupings and for the facilitators who are committed to helping them achieve it.

John Mulligan works as organisational development consultant, group facilitator,  personal coach in the UK and Ireland, and runs group facilitation training courses. He worked recently with the Glencree Reconciliation Centre


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