A Facilitator’s Experience

By Paddy Logan

In coming to write this article I feel it is important to recognise that it reveals something of how I as an individual therapist work and is in no way meant to reflect or comment on any specific model or theory. In fact it may well serve to demonstrate the gaps in my own understanding of these.

To this extent where I write “the therapist” I am referring mainly to myself and not necessarily therapists in general.

Some Qualities

I have been fortunate enough to have experienced working with a wide range of group environments. These have included music groups, art groups, experiential groups in body work, ritual work, workshops and seminars on meditation, native-American teachings, drawing as a psychodynamic language, training groups on com­munication and counselling skills, supervision groups and therapy groups on pro­fessional training courses. If I ask myself are there any common denominators for me as a facilitator across this variety of groups, some qualities suggest themselves to me as having been present in the more successful ones.

For example: where I have remained who I am and resisted superimposing myself as any sort of ‘expert, where I have trusted my own experience even the ‘not know­ing’ bits and revealed this, where I have been able to hold with the truth of my own self identity without ignoring, placating or shutting down the other person’s.

There are other aspects which could be added to this. The essentially humanistic nature of what seems to have worked best within group environments in general is in keeping with when I see myself working most effectively as a therapist.

Therapy Groups

No amount of theory or practice can prepare you fully for the live experience of individual work and in the same way the experience of facing a living group process can be a daunting prospect. As with individual work, there are models and theories which help inform and educate and guide a therapist in navigating his/her manner of participation with a group. With the merging of theories and practice over time an individual style emerges which the therapist can begin to relax with and learn to explore and expand into. For me this has proved true for individual and group set­tings.

This is not to imply that the cutting edge of the unknown is not always present with its attendant anxieties for all participants, yet the therapist can be at an advantage in a number of ways in which the participants are not. He/she has for example knowl­edge about the evolution of group dynamics, has consistent experience of meeting the impact of the unconscious, has presumably deepened his/her own capacity to experience fluctuating degrees of emotional charge, is familiar with the experience of opening up to internal defences in the presence of others.

There is a broad degree of cohesiveness in how therapy groups evolve, although each group is unique in forming its own dance of interaction. The initial stages of seeking to determine a structure including confidentiality and other boundaries also invokes a reliance on the therapist’s experience. In respect of the therapist’s assumed experience by the group he/she is generally looked to at the outset as the one given charge of the rudder.

There are different reactions within a group to the allocating of this position. How this is perceived and experienced by different participants is underpinned by a range of responses and reactions from within the psyche of each individual. This is also true of how each participant observes others in their way of interacting with me as therapist. The therapist’s position is very much perceived as active in this stage and contributes unavoidably to the environment that begins to emerge. What the group members perceive as limitations or potential will be set to some extent by how I meet moments of challenge or disclosure or stuckness etc. in the group – what my interactions convey in terms of, for example, capacity for safety, honesty, open­ness, skill, holding, understanding. This can be a delicate formative time where peo­ple are in different places internally and can also be strained collectively in the face of the unknown of the group.

Power and Influence

How I as the therapist respond to being aware of my position of power in the group is also a design factor. How do I choose to interact or not? Do I seek to influence the group in taking the direction I want it to take or seek to prevent it taking a direc­tion I am uncomfortable with? Do I renege on a position of power and risk throw­ing the early group into a withdrawal? Do I demand that the group take immediate responsibility and risk inviting a consensus of abrupt negative transference prior to any basis of trust in the therapeutic relationship? Are these issues in themselves which should be included in the group – are they part of the group? Am I part of the group? As a person who practises humanistic psychotherapy, the interface of the relationship between me and the group is always an interactive one. I am not with the group to objectify or diagnose it. I am not there as a participant only. I am not there as a therapist only There is much of a journey of identity for me in what may evolve in a group to the extent that I am willing to be present in a therapeutic way that includes who I am. In this way I try to become available from as many aspects in myself as I inevitably hope others will risk making available to the group and to themselves. All of this is of course a developmental process which can go awry or get bogged down and needs and takes time to unfold.

As these dynamics begin to appear they bring into view the question of to whom or to what is the therapist response? Is it to the individual, the group, the individual as a reflector of the group? The question in this was put quite succinctly for me in a student assessment statement -” I ask myself are we a group of individuals or a group of individuals’.”

How one answers this question can depend on what model/models one chooses to place trust in, also how they reflect and support one’s experience, the type of supervision one receives and not least the direct evidence of one’s own experience. One fact is self evident – a group can have no existence without the presence and participation of its individual members. In this light whatever manifests in the group context is a result of individual process – as it is reflected outward – within and as a result of the group setting in which the person finds themselves. This movement of participation gives the group its emerging collective form/identity. My own ongoing experience and method of working leads me to accept that both the parts and the whole are interrelated and interactive and as such both need to be held and attend­ed to.

Relationships

The group environment which the participants create is a complex netting of rela­tionships – for example:

(i) with the internal version of a self – between the observing ego and the experi­enced presence
(ii)  with a self which emerges in relation to others in the group
(iii) with a self that presents to the group as a whole
(iv) with a self which interacts with me as facilitator

Each of these versions of Self can be influenced by an archaeology of the psyche which provokes transference relationships. Common issues include family, power/authority, sibling influences, school experiences, gender/sexuality. There are then the deeper earlier character formations of limited versions of the Self which may become visible over time, for each individual, the group contains a wide range of options for exploring numerous levels of connection and disconnection with self and others. The question for me as a facilitator is how can I navigate a therapeutic course through such a potential landscape? Its obvious that theoretical knowledge is essential, as is a strong clear ego self. The most available teacher is of course one’s own experience of being in group therapy – as client then as facilitator. In Humanistic/Integrative psychotherapies there are some basic guidelines which pro­vide me with a type of internal compass which I continually find valuable.

The major points on this compass could be aligned with congruence – patience – empathy – observation. I find that if I maintain a flexibility to move between these parts in myself, then I am most freely available to meet and experience any individ­ual or combination of issues which arise. I don’t want to give the impression here that I always manage to stay alert to this compass. I continuously learn most from my ongoing mistakes. Yet when I can stay with these parts of myself the experience I have with the group is always more authentic and accurate. Another basic tenet of humanistic practice is its focus on the interactive nature of the therapeutic relation­ship. What takes place between us is a central area of attention.

Aligning with this I have found that to the extent I am willing to enter a relationship as myself with the group then the complexity of reactions experienced by individ­ual members towards me does not infringe upon my own sense of self – to the extent I can remain myself there is no conflict between my experience and my observa­tions.

Meeting the group

The consequences of being available to be met are generally demanding on me as a facilitator. This is perhaps a common experience. Being available in an authentic way means I tell the truth and this is not always easy. For example sometimes it is diffi­cult to know how to convey my experience to a version of the other person which I see as being in front of a deeper emerging self and which version I expect might distort or misuse my communication to the detriment of the contact between us. There is always a choice which I can make theoretically but do I keep the expecta­tion hidden from the person? In this sort of place I rediscover the challenge of Rogers’ description of congruence and the value of struggling to maintain a broad observing ego. By observing ego I include the theories and the processed experi­ences as well as my own internal supervisor, insights and truths.

Through this I can gather a sense of what is congruent to the situation and the rela­tionship along side my experienced sense. I find that when I include all of this in responding (rather than part of it) that the interaction continues to develop. Any input from me as the therapist is generally more sought after and swallowed whole in the early stages of a group. Again this is a common experience. In this way the observing ego of the group seems to be held extensively by the therapist who can mirror back themes which are connecting the group members in less recognised ways.

This can be an act of bonding which can verify the developing/growing aspects of the relationships that form the group. As the group begins to expand and contract around the therapist, the developing group identity can support movement towards a separation from the therapist. Here again there are many layers of the psyche at work and many individual themes can impact upon the group. As a facilitator I watch for signals of this separation and recognise the potential in it for others in the group to participate in holding the observing ego aspect.

As one person works their way out from the fog of the unconscious and finds fur­ther insight and self observation, they demonstrate to others the individual and col­lective capacity for engaging with and surviving such work and they also adjust the level and quality of observation available to the group. I can see how the quality of the observing ego as it succeeds in emerging within the group influences the degree/level of participation, challenge and demand for relationship across the network of the group’s dynamics. Individual experience and process is reflected back towards the group environment and in this way strengthens the group identity as a collec­tive environment capable of responding to itself and to individual expression.

A mature group, for me, includes the capacity to meet the therapist as him/herself and make use of the therapist in observed issues internally or externally. As the unconscious doesn’t appear to ever completely empty itself, this stage is perhaps always an ongoing direction. It is always part of what’s on my own horizon through­out the life of a group.

Roles

The nature of the therapist’s participation changes throughout an evolving group with a movement towards a less asymmetrical position. In this there will be people at different stages of awareness. To the extent that I can develop contact with the group members’ process, I can support their observing ego to activate itself and fol­lowing from this the opportunity for more authentic contact increases – within the person and therefore within the group. This process of contact is mirrored by dif­ferent people in different ways and the manner in which it is negotiated among peo­ple influences the level of trust and depth of disclosure which takes place. As the therapeutic experience within the group deepens so the holding ability of its par­ticipants grows collectively in confidence.

A stage can be reached where the therapist is accompanied by group members in facilitating another’s process or the group’s process. In this way a passing of power, invested initially in the therapist, back to the group can evolve to a considerable extent over time. As this takes hold of the group consciousness Individuality can re-emerge with a much more authentic and available presence in the group. A group can successfully look after itself and make use of the therapist as needed. This is not to say that the unconscious is neatly packaged, that conflict or anxiety or confusion disappear. What it strongly suggests to me is that to the extent that the truth can be survived in the group and by the group, then the tolerance for illusion is lessened to that same degree. Letting go of our illusions is rarely an attractive option yet in a cli­mate of trust and encouragement it can become a stated aim in a group. When and if a group evolves to this stage is a result of collaboration on many levels:

between the therapist and the person who is the therapist
between the person of the therapist and the individual
between the individual and the collective (group)
between the collective (group) and the person of the therapist
between the collective (group) and itself

It is not possible in an article to convey anything more than a skimming of the sur­face of facilitating groups. I am also very aware as I stated at the outset that my cur­rent way of working is not necessarily in tune with other models of group dynam­ics.

The onus is on me to develop further in understanding these and my own experi­ence.

Being influenced and encouraged by the humanistic schools, I continue to recognise that if I am putting myself forward to meet the unconscious then, by implication, I claim to be conscious enough to be there for that meeting. To that end I am chal­lenged to be in contact with that part of myself that observes with wisdom, honesty, truth and to act from that part. For me this is an ongoing struggle and challenge.

Paddy Logan is a psychotherapist in broad private practice who is also involved in training programmes.