Encounter Groups Revisited

By Susan Lindsay

I don’t know when I last heard of an Encounter Group. Looking back, this is incredible in the context of an Association of Humanistic and Integrative Psychotherapy (IAHIP) in the first few years of its existence. It is incredible because the name Carl Rogers was synonymous with Humanistic therapy in its infancy, as it was with Encounter Groups – the name he coined for his person-cen­tred therapy groups. So in the present climate, I am challenged to consider what has been lost and gained since the Encounter Groups of the early 1970s.

Has Humanistic therapy sold out on Encounter, or have we learned more effective ways of facilitating personal growth in groups? In attempting to answer that, I have been interested to discover myself coming full circle to a place where my recent interest in deep imagery, deep ecology and deep democracy (Mindell) meets my pre­vious passion for Encounter Groups and my present love of facilitating Humanistic Therapy Groups (as I now call them). So some of the newest expressions of Humanistic therapy seem to me to he returning to what was most fundamental to Rogers – trust in organic process.

Already it is apparent that, in using the term Encounter Group I am talking specifi­cally about the person-centred therapy groups devised by Rogers. He is very spe­cific about the process he is describing and the style of facilitation he considers to be the most effective.

Historically, and quite quickly, the term spread and was used to describe group processes as diverse in range and “T” groups and Synamon groups. The former was quite focused on group process interaction and the latter characterised by its intense confrontational style, considered particularly apt for challenging the denial which can exist in groups of addicts addressing their addiction. This was the way Lieberman, Yalom & Miles used the term in their comprehensive research published as Encounter Groups: First Facts by Basic Books.

I will return to some discussion of the groups they described and their findings. For now, it is sufficient to give three quotations from Yalom, Theory & Practice of Group Psychotherapy (3rd Edition 1985) from the chapter referring to Encounter Groups: “So although the movement is over and an encounter group qua encounter group is hard to find, more people than ever are having an encounter group experience…” and “… the encounter group persists and is employed by currently fashionable groups, both social (communication workshops, social skills training groups, psycho-educational groups) and religious.”


Trust in the group process could be the distinguishing characteristic of a Person-Centred Encounter Group.  Rogers trusted that the group would ‘develop its own potential ‘given only ‘a reasonably facilitating climate.’ His groups were characterised by the minimum of structure, beginning only with words such as: “Here we are. We can make of this group experience exactly what we wish.” [¹] This lack of structure is both the most frustrating aspect of participating in such a group and the most challenging.

Several people have said to me, and I’ve felt myself, that sitting through another peri­od of waiting for the group to process enough together to be able to decide some­thing just could not be borne. The challenging aspect is the challenge to all we pro­ject onto leaders and others. No-one is going to take the responsibility to make it happen for us, or, if they should happen to do it, will be apparent that they have no man­date for the job except our own collusion. On a superficial level, this upsets our commonest strategies for dealing with power, whether we lend to conform or rebel. The participants are obviously responsible to themselves for what takes place and the degree to which they take on the challenge.

Concern was often expressed that Encounter Groups could be dangerous, especial­ly for people in an unstable state. Rogers says: “If a very serious situation arises in a group, when an individual seems to be exhibiting psychotic behaviour or is acting in a bizarre way, I have learned to rely on the members of the group to be as thera­peutic or more therapeutic than I am myself. Sometimes as a professional, one gets caught up in labels and feels, for example. This is straight paranoid behaviour. As a consequence, one tends to withdraw somewhat and deal with the person as more of an object.

“The more naive group member, however, continues to relate to the troubled person as a ‘person’, and this is in my experience far more therapeutic. So, in situations in which a member is showing behaviour which is clearly pathological, I rely on the wisdom of the group more than on my own, and am often deeply astonished at the therapeutic ability of the members. This is both humbling and inspiring. It makes me realise what incredible potential for helping resides in the ordinary untrained person, if only he feels free to use it.” [¹]

Reasonably Facilitating Climate

Rogers identifies ways he behaves in the group that are more or less facilitating. He talks about listening to both the superficial and significant utterances of participants and how colleagues have seen how this validates participants. He assists safety in the group by personally ensuring that “there will be at least one person in the circle who respects (the participant) enough to hear him clearly and listen to (his) state­ment as an authentic expression of himself.”

He will be psychologically ‘with’ participants; if one is ‘frightened or hurting’, he will give some sign, verbal or non-verbal, ‘of being a companion to him.’ As a facilitator, he prefers to be gullible rather than suspicious and dislikes rules such as ‘we will only talk about the here and now.’ Whilst he will not make guidelines about the level at which he would like the group to operate, nor request that people take responsibility for themselves in what they say, he will tend to select the self-referent mean­ing from the participants’ contributions, such as: “You say we all do and feel thus and so. Do you mean that you do and feel these things?” [¹]

It is with regard to the use of self that Rogers is probably most radical and contro­versial. His aim is to become a participant as much as a facilitator.”This is difficult to describe without making it appear that I am consciously playing two different roles. If you watch a group member who is honestly being himself, you will see that at times he expresses feelings, attitudes and thoughts primarily directed toward facil­itating the growth of another member. At other times, with equal genuineness, he will express feelings or concerns which have as their obvious goal the opening of himself to the risk of more growth. This describes me too, except that I know I am more likely to be the second, or risking, kind of person more often in the later than in the earlier phases of the group.  Each facet is a real part of me, not a role.”

This genuine human willingness to be present as a participant is probably one of the core original contributions which Humanistic therapy had to make to the develop­ment of psychotherapy. It is still the most controversial question one can ask about behaviour that is appropriate for facilitators: is the genuine participation of the facil­itator more or less facilitative? It is certainly no surprise that Rogers would have seen himself as willing to engage more in risk-taking in the latter stage of the group when, presumably, the group would be more established and the confidence of its members would have grown so that they would be less likely to attribute excessive authority to his contributions.

From a more analytical perspective, this approach appears to ignore transference. It also minimises transference as the genuine participation of the facilitator inevitably demonstrates his or her vulnerability, and minimises the professional authority the group will attribute to him or her. Rogers doesn’t like the facilitator who withholds himself from personal participation in the group. “Such a person denies his own spontaneous feelings and provides a model for the group – that of an overly cool, ana­lytical person who never gets involved – which is the complete antithesis of what I believe in.”

Basically, he trusts “the feelings, words, impulses, fantasies, that emerge” in him and endeavours “to voice persistent feelings” in relation to an individual or to the group. He will confront people on specifics of their behaviour, but not by attacking defences in a judgmental way. Rather, if he perceives something that irritates or angers him,”I would like to face him with the frustration or anger that exists in me. To me this is very important.” Rogers is also explicit that it is not facilitative for a facilitator to push a group towards his own goals: “… if he has specific goals, he had best make them explicit.” Interestingly, and relevant to his trust in genuineness and in the group process, he says, “… spontaneity is the most precious and elusive ele­ment I know.” It is a further comment on the emphasis he places on a participative style that he comments on group process very sparingly. On the topic of group process itself, he says :”… group process is much more important than my statements or behaviour, and will take place If I do not get in the way of it. I certainly feel responsibility to the participants but not for them.”

Overall, then, we could say of Rogers’ style in trying to create a reasonably facilitative climate, that he is non-directive but by no means passive. Active as a facilitative participant, listening genuinely, aiming to ensure that participants are understood, he trusts his own process and reactions, including his irritations and anger. He will con­front people particularly on specific behaviours and he sees spontaneity as the ‘most precious and elusive element.’

Current Group/Workshop Processes Emphasising Trust in Process

The approaches I wish to discuss here are intrinsically different from Person-Centred Encounter Groups in that they focus on trusting the internal process of the individ­ual more than the group process. However, Process Oriented Psychotherapy does also include group process work which, while it offers more structure than Rogers’ Encounter Groups, also trusts in emotional encounter at depth, for conflict resolu­tion. Mindell [²] provides a very interesting variation on the process of encounter by encouraging participants not only to express their own voices and encounter the voices of others, but also to express different voices within themselves – with the result that one might actually change sides several times, depending on which voice within oneself is to the fore at any given time.

So an encounter might be taking place about man/woman issues, and at one time, I could be staunchly defending a particular aspect of womanhood and attacking male attitudes to others on an opposing side of the ‘hot spot’; and then suddenly realise another side to the story. At this stage, I would ‘cross the floor’ spontaneously and maybe shout back to the women (and men on the women’s side) that men are also oppressed in certain ways.

This process has the unique advantage, so far as I know, that is does not hold me to a certain reaction once I express it, and it helps me to honour – and the whole group to recognise – the many voices within all of us which make up our attitudes. It seems to incorporate awareness of the individual process from Gestalt Therapy and group process from other styles of encounter group. This has the effect of unfreezing cer­tain attitudes and demonstrating how, even when there are severely opposing posi­tions, the individuals probably have more in common than they are in conflict about, even though the conflict is in the foreground.

Deep Democracy

Rogers effectively demonstrated the power of his Encounter Groups in areas of cul­tural conflict resolution (Northern Ireland being one example), as Mindell does with his Process Oriented ‘World Work’ today. Mindell talks about ‘deep democracy’ where surface agreement to behave democratically is deepened to include the right of discordant voices to be heard. Deep democracy seems to take place when there is a genuine appreciation and acceptance of the integrity of the position of all the participants in the democratic process.

So the voices of those who are seen as oppressed or oppressor will be equally val­ued. Terrorist or elected leader – rebel or staunch upholder of the status quo – all these voices and people come to be seen as critical parts of the total system, all con­tributing something vital to the whole organism of society. In fact, in the process of a group working toward deep democracy, it might transpire that terrorists and lead­ers of the establishment actually find themselves changing sides in their conflict at times. This appreciation of the importance of the process itself in the unfolding of the total organism (or system) is not unfamiliar to Rogers.”To me, the group seems like an organism, having a sense of its own direction even though it could not define that direction intellectually”

Trusting the Process in the Human Organism

Rogers talks of trusting the group process for healing and change. Mindell is trust­ing that when each person can express the different parts of themselves authenti­cally and be heard, that the whole group can move towards reconciliation – not nec­essarily by resolving their differences, but more by acknowledging and allowing for differences.

The work of Andrew Weil (medical doctor and biologist), Spontaneous Healing: How to Enhance Your Body’s Natural Ability to Maintain and Heal Yourself, is about the auto-immune system and the individual’s organismic tendency towards healing. Stan Grof, who developed ‘Holotropic Breathwork’, trusts the whole organ­ism of the person’s consciousness and body to heal in its own way when, with the stimulus of evocative music and deep breathing, the participant allows him/herself to follow the flow of his/her own consciousness through experiences varying from the everyday to past lives and transcendental spirituality.

Encounter Groups – a Wider Picture

Apart from Rogers’ own persistent research into the effectiveness of his groups, Lieberman, Miles and Yalom undertook the most effective study of Encounter Groups. As I described earlier, this research was published in detail in 1973 as Encounter Groups: First Facts, Basic Books, New York. The groups they included in their research were variously described as: 1/ Traditional NTL (T-groups), 2/ Encounter Groups (Personal Growth Groups), 3/ Gestalt Groups, 4/ Sensory Awareness Groups (Esalen Groups), 5/ Transactional Analytic Groups, 6/ Psychodrama Groups, 7/ Synanon Groups, 8/ Psychoanalytically Oriented Experiential Groups, 9/ Marathon Groups, 10/ Encounter-tapes Groups.

I say, ‘variously described as’ because one of their first findings was that “The ideo­logical school to which a leader belonged told us little about the actual behaviour of that leader. We found that the leader of one school – e.g. Transactional Analysis – resembled the behaviour of the other T.A. leader no more closely than that of any of the other seventeen leaders. In other words, the behaviour of a leader is not pre­dictable from one’s membership in a particular ideological school.”

Through a factor analysis of a large number of leader behaviour variables (rated by observers) they identified four basic leadership functions. These had a clear and striking relationship to outcome. 1/ Emotional stimulation: challenging, con­fronting activity; intensive modelling by personal risk-taking and high self-disclo­sure. 2/ Caring: offering support, affection, praise, protection, warmth, acceptance, genuineness, concern. 3/ Meaning attribution: explaining, clarifying, interpreting, providing a cognitive framework for change, translating feelings and experiences into ideas. 4/ Executive function: setting limits, rules, norms, goals, managing time, practising, stopping, interceding, suggesting procedures.

“In some groups, almost every member underwent some positive change with no-one suffering injury: in other groups, not a single member benefited, and one was fortunate to remain unchanged.” So leadership style was critical.

The more caring and the more meaning attribution given by the leader, the more positive the outcome. Too much or too little of functions 1 and 4 (Emotional Stimulation and Executive Function) resulted in less positive outcomes. “The most successful leader, then, was one moderate in amount of stimulation and in expres­sion of executive function and high in caring and meaning attribution. Both caring and meaning attribution seemed necessary: neither alone was sufficient to ensure success.”

The research suggests that “the Rogerian factors of empathy, genuineness and uncon­ditional positive regard thus seem incomplete; we must add the cognitive function of the leader.” Maybe Rogers, in the way he used his emphasis on understanding, not only demonstrated that he understood the participants but also enabled them to understand their own experiences in a cognitive way. Whether he did or not, it seems we must note the importance of meaning attribution even though “the research does not tell us what kind of meaning attribution is essential… What seems important is the ‘process’ of explanation which, in several ways, enabled a partici­pant to integrate his or her experience, to generalise from it, and to transport it to other situations.”

In Conclusion

“Encounter Groups are dead. Long live encounter groups,” might be apposite. Although groups are seldom, if ever, called Encounter Groups nowadays, it is clear that there are still groups and workshops taking place with many of the same ele­ments as the original Encounter Groups. Trust in an organic healing process within individuals or within group process is a recurring theme, as is the question of the leader’s transparency and level of participation.

Should leaders hold the process by maintaining a certain professional distance or show more of themselves, thus reducing their power? Yalom has some interesting further comments: in relation to therapy groups for psychiatric patients, he says: “Group therapists are viewed far more unrealistically by their group members (than are encounter group leaders). In part, the therapists’ deliberately enigmatic and mys­tifying behaviour generates this distortion. The therapist has entirely different rules of conduct from the other members of the group, is rarely transparent or self-dis­closing, and too often reveals only a professional front. In part, however, the distortion resides within the patients and springs from their hope for an omniscient figure who will intercede on their behalf.” He is describing psychiatric patients, but his observations may be relevant in looking at the range of participants in any group, and they certainly should be taken into account in leadership. Whatever the con­text, leadership which is high in caring and meaning attribution, and balanced in emotional stimulation and executive function, seems likely to be the most effective.


“Can I be a Facilitative Person in a Group?” from The Carl Rogers Reader, ed. Kirshenbanm and Land Henderson. 1989. Constable, London.

Mindell, Arnold: Sitting in the Fire: Large Group Transformation Using Conflict and Diversity. 1995 Lao Tse Press, Oregon.

Yalom, Irvine D: The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy.  1985,Third Edition. Basic Books, New York.

Susan Lindsay is a member of Connect Associated, and a practising psycho therapist.