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Book review: Effective group leadership: Insights of a practitioner

Published by Orpen Press 2016 I
SBN 978-1-78605-017-5
Reviewed by Annie Sampson

Despite the proliferation of the use of groups in the helping professions in recent decades, there is a signal dearth of material on the subject. This very welcome volume on facilitation and group leadership is aimed at those working in such professions, particularly if the aim is the growth and progression of its participants. Though it has a wide potential audience, there is a great deal in this tight and powerful volume that may be of benefit to therapists.

The authenticity of the book is established from the outset, when the author discloses his apprehension at the idea of being published. On the one hand publication is greatly desired, a dream come true, on the other it carries an undercurrent of fear of exposure. The author realises he has no control over people’s reaction to the book – or whether they’ll react to it at all! He likens it to the feelings that many group participants report on entering a group for the first time. His experience of discomfort and even fear gifts him with insight into his clients, thus allowing him to develop empathic connection with them. Therefore, he grows as a practitioner, his own vulnerabilities often guiding him.

The author challenges himself throughout the book and also challenges the reader; by exploring how his clients feel, he can ask himself – and us – what is it they need? What do I, the group leader, need to bring in order to ease the clients passage into the group and facilitate their growth and empowerment? And why do we – the group leader – go in there? What is it we seek to do? And what do we get from it? What attracts us to a position where we act as leaders and influencers of other adults?

It follows therefore that a considerable theme in the book is the issue of power. The author calls on group leaders to have a clear and guiding vision underpinning their work. As he puts it, power can be used and abused, therefore it is incumbent upon us to be aware of why we seek a position where we have influence over others. This surely applies to all of us in the helping and therapeutic professions?

It seems everything the author encounters on his journey through a variety of groups – the good and the challenging – turns into an opportunity for reflection, growth and improvement. Throughout the span of this volume we see the elucidation of Carl Rogers’ (1961) principle that those working on the development of others ought to be in an ongoing process of development themselves.

I thoroughly enjoyed the numerous case studies sprinkled throughout. The author demonstrates a deep grasp of diverse theories, but the case studies really underpin the application of the theoretical and philosophical elements. We are then brought into the beating heart of a range of groups – psycho-educational, ex-prisoner groups, unemployment groups and a very powerful portrait of a women’s group where most of the participants seem to have experienced domestic violence and abuse. We are left with a vivid portrait of the application of a truly integrative approach.

It is worth noting that many of the case studies are of groups that run over a considerable period of time. Real and meaningful growth and change invariably takes time to achieve: trust, safety and cohesion are not built in a day. I was pleased to see the author’s anger and frustration with funding agencies that see value for money in terms of the maximum number of clients for the shortest period of time, an attitude that may do more harm than good, and is driven by the need to ‘tick boxes’. He does not spare incompetence and superficiality where he sees it – the section on evaluation has a few ‘laugh out loud’ moments while also making some important points.

It must be said that this is a beautifully written book. The author has clearly honed the text to achieve a lovely fluidity, making it an easy and pleasurable read. It is a dense book – a tremendous amount of knowledge and insight is packed into its 80,000 words. I really enjoyed how the author presents his flaws and the fact that he often does not, and cannot, know ‘the answer’. Too many books present as ‘all-seeing’ and ‘all-knowing’, which may simply leave the reader feeling inadequate.

I have found this a very stimulating and immensely useful read with a distinctly Irish flavour and setting, while its usefulness and applicability is not confined by borders. This book is a welcome and timely addition to the field and I highly recommend it to all.

Annie Sampson MSc MIAHIP maintains a private therapy and supervision practice in Limerick; is course director on SuperVision Training and works in the University of Limerick and the Tivoli Institute as a trainer and supervisor. She travels to Nepal every summer where she trains psychologists, NGO workers, etc,, in supervision, group facilitation and psychodynamic therapy.

Rogers, C. (1961). On becoming a person: A therapist’s view of psychotherapy. London: Constable

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