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Group work

I think of group work as complex, multi-layered, always changing, a process both planned and spontaneous in equal measure, full of unexpected moments of difficulty and inspiration, a process of interaction and reflection, of support and daring, a reminder of what we have and who we are, and sometimes an adventurous invitation to be more…

My aim in group work is for participants to experience something powerful, energetic, moving,…some experience which adds ‘something’ to their lives, some thought, strategy, idea, feeling or just a sense of ‘a worthwhile experience.’

Yeah. Okay. Kind of elaborate…but that’s how I see it. So in an attempt to give you some idea of how I approach group work, let me give you an example and then go back and explain why I did what.  And yes, there are many ways to run groups. This is just one way.

This is the context: The title of the group is: ‘My Life My Journey’. Or as it was (humorously? vulgarly?) renamed on the first week: ‘My Bum My Seat.’ It was held at Belmore Youth Resource Centre and run over 5 weeks, one afternoon a week. It was for young men (mostly mid to late teens), most of whom have settled in Australia from other countries. Its general aim was to explore the things that help people be part of the world in which they live and grow well in their new lives. We started with about a dozen young men and finished with around 23. You can check out a wee pic/vid of this group here.

To start to explore ‘Who we are’ we did an activity about Heroes. Here it is in some detail.

 The topic:     HEROES

 The introduction went something like this:

‘We’re going to take a look at heroes…those stand-out important people in our lives. To kick this off, let me present to you someone who many people regard as a hero:  Sydney Poitier; actor, human rights activist and all round fine human being.’

Here, courtesy of Youtube, is a lovely little piece from ‘Guess who’s coming to dinner’ the 1967 film about ‘race relations,’ which introduces Sydney Poitier as both an actor and activist.’

The part I played was just the first part which is the actual film. The rest, while it may be important, was much less relevant to the Life My Journey group.

And here is a second hero. One found much closer to home in my life. And we all have those; people in our lives who we look up to, who we admire. The person I want to introduce you to was a  teacher from when I was at University. I sat in on all the classes that were optional and chose my teachers according to who they were as people not what subject they were teaching. The person pictured here is Frank Flanagan who I chose as my teacher because he was someone who clearly cared about his students.

And I choose well and was much influenced by this man. He was my teacher, and then my colleague, and over the years, we became very close friends.

So…Think of your heroes…people, from the present or past, but people who you admire…look up to…find inspiring…and secondly, think of heroes closer to home; people who are in your life who you know personally, who have been or are, important to you. These are also people who you admire, respect…and with these two heroes in mind…imagine that you are going to invite them to dinner. Decide now on two things:

  1. 1.      What would you feed them?
  2. 2.      What would you talk about?’

Here is one response:


And a discussion developed around people’s responses to questions like:

  •       What is there about the people you chose that you admire?
  •       What sort of person do you respect?
  •       Why do you respect…?
  •       How do you show respect?
  •       How do people show you respect?

 The relevance of the Hero activity

Asking young people about their heroes, both in the wider somewhat more magical world as well the day-to-day one, raises questions about who and what they look up to, and possibly want to emulate. Who we admire tells us something about ourselves

 In group work terms…what is this activity all about?

Mutuality: The idea of Mutuality suggests equal (though different) involvement from the group leader. The group leader, by offering (perfectly appropriate) examples of heroes both from the wider world and the more personal, joins the process of the group and makes a contribution without in any way overshadowing the work of the participants. Their contribution comes a little later and stands alone to be explored and developed

Engaging with the idea: Presenting concrete examples which are relevant and interesting in themselves – as well as brief – helps group members connect with and understand the idea before they are asked to develop their own responses. Which avoids confusion and, the worst death of all in a group –ESPECIALLY for young people – embarrassment!

From ‘playful’ to serious: While the idea of inviting heroes to dinner is light-hearted, the connection with the topic is genuine and lays the base for exploring just what people value in others, what they want to be as people, how they want to be seen, how they want to travel through life….

Content of the group: This group was particularly focussed on young men from other parts of the world finding ways of being part of their new worlds and lives in Australia. Elsewhere on this website I explore the importance of the elements of wellbeing in people’s lives and how they will, in one way or another, surface in therapeutic conversations. These same elements featured throughout the 5 week group programme, and discussions and activities clustered around them. So there were many explorations about the notions of belonging and connecting, the importance of relationships, the idea of being clear about who you are and where you fit and seeing yourself as an active participant and decision-maker in your own life.

The content of this group was broader than these concepts, though they were an extremely useful background framework. They are explored a little more in the pages that follow.

 So put briefly…

…that is some of what is my mind when planning and running a group. The following gives you a little more of the background thinking and further activities that can be used to help develop a group.

Group Work – A few more ideas

 Groups come together for all sorts of reasons. Some of these groups tend to be a little harder to facilitate.

 More straightforward (Though not always!)

  • Information or skills
  • Getting together, fun, socializing
  • Social support
  • Problem solving

 Less straightforward

  • Growth…development
  • Dealing with pain
  • Dealing with deep-seated conflict

 The groups I find myself facilitating tend to be of the less straightforward variety and usually have one or all of the following broad aims:

  • Newness: To create the opportunity for people to experience themselves in some new way
  • The best: To create the opportunity for people to experience the best of themselves
  • Optimism: To create the opportunity for people to experience something which inspires, invigorates, energises, encourages…

 A few more words of explanation…


People may well come along to a group bringing with them a hope that what has been bothering them will be sorted out. And this could be anything: feeling lonely, fighting with the children, tension with a partner, the grief or sadness from a relationship or family not living well together, trouble at school or work, or with police. While sorting out these problems may well not be the direct responsibility of the group leader, if we are able to offer participants something unexpected, then something fresh may arise in them, a new perspective which has gone unnoticed; or an old thought or feeling long buried, a strategy or idea that they had overlooked.

 If I am running groups for participants who are having a hard time of life then my aim is to help create an opportunity for participants to experience themselves in some new (positive) way. What I aim to create for and with participants, is the experience of positive difference; to experience hope instead of despair, joy instead of joylessness, interaction and connection instead of isolation, a sense of self as worthwhile instead of worthless, a sense of self as courageous rather than as holding back. These experiences are evidence that ‘something else’ is possible in life, and can be worked towards.

And without being clever, being unusual and unexpected in a group is a powerful ally. If topics/problems/concerns/hopes are approached in unusual, provocative, stimulating and unexpected ways, responses are equally likely to be new and different. This is not only likely to bring out new responses in the person (That is: create change); but it also demonstrates that change (difference) is a realistic possibility. And this is vital and hope-giving, especially if life is tough. Equally, such experiences can remind people of who they are, what they have, what they have done and what they can still do.

The best

Group work is not all about rosyness and positivity. Difficult stuff may well need to be looked at, worked through, confronted…what holds people back, both externally and internally is likely to need to be explored. Yet a useful way to do this is to simultaneously work with the best in a person; their qualities, skills, talents; their unique styles and ways of approaching life. And to include in this focus, their external assets, what exists around them in the world that they can rely, including, importantly, other people.


The aim is to deliberately create positive moments, experiences, of joy, intimacy, laughter, confirmation and affirmation, of connection; a reminder for people that they are indeed worthwhile; that they have qualities and strengths, that they are on the right track in life, that they do in fact know how to proceed, that they have had successes in life, that they can sustain or create the lives they want.  

 Group process 

 Particularly when people are trying to bring about significant change in their lives, or deal with something difficult, the process of a group tends to be something like the following:

  • People experience a series of personal connections
  • Each building on that which went before
  • Each adding to that which follows
  • These connections are characterized by being unexpected, unusual, different
  • So that people may experience themselves in new ways.

 A new experience such as this

  • Provides knowledge that change is possible
  • Creates hope that change is possible
  • Challenges the inevitability of the continuation of the present
  • Derails the belief that certain feelings, thoughts, actions are not possible 
  • Demonstrates that the future is not fixed.

 Group content

 What a group may specifically focus on could be anything at all; remaining free of drugs, sorting out a relationship, deciding on a life path, managing feelings…and yet as mentioned, the four elements below will surface over and over again in different forms and will often background more specific content areas such as the ones just mentioned.

  • Connection and belonging
  • Relationships
  • Self and identify
  • Being in charge of life.

 And often added are these elements:

  • Meaning
  • Participation
  • Hope.

 People do well when we find meaning, whatever that might be, in our lives, when we are actively involved in what goes on around us, when we are clear about who we are, when we are connection positively to others, and when we have hope that life is worthwhile or can become worthwhile.

 The following offers some further ideas about how these elements or dynamics might be explored in a group.

 But first, a quick word about group work activities and their use.  

 Group work activities

Useful tools, and yet still only tools

Group work activities can be fun, invigorating, moving, challenging and inspiring. And yet activities are not something in themselves. They are used to advance a process in some way, to create a feel or introduce an idea to be explored. They can often be quite short and quite simple. They are tools of a process and not the process itself. How and when they are used is important. They are deliberate strategies of a process, seeking to contribute something at differing moments within it. Having said this, there is no reason why they cannot also be fun, joyful and full of humour where appropriate,

Why use group work activities?
  • They can offer people a way to comment 
  • For some, activities make it possible for them to respond, whereas they otherwise could not
  • They can be playful, a little fun, yet address serious content
  • They can help responses be more meaningful
  • They can give less verbal people a ‘voice’
  • They can be creative, and hence interesting

 And so, with those comments here are four examples of explorations of the four elements of wellbeing.


I am going to present the following activities to you as if you are actually doing them. So do just be aware that sometimes the simplest and most playful of activities access disturbing thoughts or feelings.

Activities exploring the four aspects of wellbeing

 Connection and belonging

Take a pen and paper…and…think of a time when you felt ‘at home.’ You felt like you were somewhere, or with someone, or experiencing something…that spoke to you in a way that said: this is where I belong…and draw that moment and whatever might have been part of that moment…take a moment to do this…and then think about, or talk with someone about…just what it was about this moment, this person, this place, this experience…that made it so important for you in feeling that you ‘belonged’ there…

 Or you might just reflect on these questions:

  •       Where is home?
  •       Where do you feel welcome?
  •       Where do you belong?
  •       Where do you fit?
  •       Where do you fit best?

Good solid relationships

I am going to ask you to think about what you value most in relationships. And I have two types in mind. I would like you to think about, or ideally write down, two things.

1. What it is that you most value in a relationship with a good friend

2. What it is that you most value in a life-partner type relationship, whether you are in such a relationship or not

 And if you feel like it, you could take either or both of those answers and reflect on them a little more. And think about people who you are close to…and ask yourself:

  • Are these qualities present in this relationship/s?
  • Are you looking after them?
  • Is there anything you need to do?
  • If you do, when would be a good time?

 And if you wanted to think about relationships even a little more, you might just think about your answers to these questions:

  •       What do you have to offer others?
  •       What do you most need from (insert name or type of relationship here)…
  •       …right now?
  •       Who do you laugh most with?
  •       Who would you turn to if you needed a shoulder?
  •       Who would you turn to for guidance?
  •       Who uplifts you?

 A strong and positive sense of self and identify (this activity is also referred to in the above video) 

Think of yourself…and who you are as a person…and without too much hesitation or editing…write a few words to describe you…

…and  with honesty write down also what you think your best qualities are…

…and also those things that are somewhat less than marvellous about you…

and lastly take a moment and think about this: if you were to write one brief sentence that sums up who you are as a person, what you care about, and what you stand for…what would you write down…

 And if you have got this far, you might do this activity also: think back over your life and what has shaped you into the person you are today…and think about five important (and at this moment, positive) elements that have helped shape you:

  • One person
  • One place
  • One idea
  • One moment
  • One activity…

 And just what was it about each of these so that they influenced you in the way that they did?

 A young man in the ‘My Life My Journey’ group came up with this:

Or you might just reflect on these questions:

  •       Who are you?…Just describe you
  •       Who are you? …A not-so-known ‘good’ part of you
  •       Who are you?….What invigorates you?…What brings you joy?
  •       What makes you…you?
  •       What do you like about you?
  •       What is the VERY best in you?
  •       What is the less-than-wonderful part?
  •       What do you need to do in life to ensure that the less-than-wonderful part is kept to a minimum, and that the VERY best in you is as present as often as possible?

 A strong and positive sense of being in charge of one’s own life

The ‘weather of your week’ is a favourite activity of mine…it works like this. Think of how you would describe the last week of your life…if we were speaking meteorologically. Here are some that might apply: sunny, windy, cloudy, sunny with occasional showers, cyclonic, humid, overcast…

 Weather changes, as do our weeks, so you are welcome to choose as many descriptions as you like that might apply. Once you have done that, write down EVERYTHING that you think contributed to your weather being as it was…and then…go through the list and mark each with one of these:

Y (yes)    You have some control over this

N (no)      You have no control over this

?                Hmm…uncertain…needs thought

But having some control or not having any control may or may not be a problem. So now go through the list again and mark each item with one of the following:

F       Fine as is

NF    Not fine

?       Hmmm…also needs some thought

And if you wanted to take this further, if anything is ‘Not fine’, what might you start to do about that? And equally if things are ‘Fine as is’ then what do you need to do to maintain that?

Or you might just reflect on these (possibly somewhat cryptic) questions:

  •       Who’s in charge?
  •       What makes the future?
  •       Who makes the future?
  •       What happens next?
Where do these activities take us?

Activities may lead to a solution to a problem, a direction to explore in life or some specific action to be taken. Equally they may not ‘take us’ anywhere at all. Sometimes a moment’s reflection about something significant is all that is required; or it may be enough to think back over important moments in our lives to remind us of who we are, and the contributions we have made to the world. It may be enough to share an intimate moment with others in a group. Being listened to or speaking openly to someone may be a sufficiently worthwhile experience in itself. It is not always necessary for there to be immediate and tangible results. Growth, change, development is often a subtle and gradual process. And a group may be a part of this process.

A glimpse

The above is intended to give you some sense, a glimpse, of the groups I find myself involved in facilitating and the thinking behind the way these groups are run. I hope it has done that. If you have any comments or questions, please get in touch.

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