Excerpt from In the Company of Men

The following is the final chapter from John M. Gram's book, In the Company of Men . The material is coprighted and cannot be reproduced in any form.

Chapter 15

Living Out the Group Experience:

Beyond the Group and Into the World

The warm and inviting environment of a support group gives birth to growing and maturing individuals. Beyond the womb of such support you reenter the world of relationships with your spouse, children, extended family, co-workers and the others of your world. Although you may have ongoing support and encouragement from an ongoing group, you live life in the world beyond. Launching into your daily world of family, work and relationships requires that you generalize what you’ve learn from a supportive group context into your daily world.

Support groups provide a place to explore patterns that might have gotten in your way throughout most of your life. You can explore these patterns by importing these experiences from your world into the group. Remember, as you spend time in a group others will often have similar reactions to you as others outside of the group. By opening up about your lack of understanding and asking for insight and help, you more fully capitalize on what the group offers.

These groups provide the laboratory where we can more fully understand ourselves, explore our present patterns of behavior and interaction, obtain feedback about how others experience us, develop strategies for trying new behaviors and practice those new skills before going out on our own. If, after several weeks in a group, you don’t experience an increasing confidence in opening up more of your inner thoughts you could consider:

  • Sharing your hesitancy and asking others whether they have similar reservations. Sometimes being courageous enough to talk about reservations will deepen the relationships and create increased confidence for you and others to move deeper. If you don’t feel ready to open up, merely saying so still constitutes openness.
  • Not all groups develop into a protective environment where you feel safe. Or, you may experience the group as lacking safety because you have yet to begin taking graduated risks that could demonstrate the group’s trustworthiness. Remember, if you choose to discontinue participating in a group, communicate your intent with the group members. By confiding your thoughts and reasoning openly with the group you allow time for others to respond with their own reactions. Abruptly leaving the group can hamper others experience and actually undermine the group for those who remain. Even if this group isn’t for you avoid generating an unnecessary emotional disruption to the members who remain. The remaining members may yet develop a meaningful place of safety and trust amongst those who continue meeting.
  • Before making a decision to leave, ask yourself what is missing in order for you to risk more in the group. As you become clearer about what would be needed, consider asking others directly for it. We often don’t get what we need because we don’t ask. A major contribution of support groups includes cultivating our sense of self-worth so that we can better ask others for what we want from them.

Learning Social Skills. Although not usually the focus of a support group, observing how others interact socially occurs in the course of routine interactions. Some psychotherapy groups—especially for children and adolescents—may actually focus on specifically teaching social skills including assertiveness and communication techniques . Minimally, a support group can provide feedback between members about the way in which others experience them. Some groups will elevate this personal feedback as a norm for their group—it will be present in at least some small way during nearly every group meeting.

Other groups—especially groups consisting of members with less group experience—may not approach this task with such boldness; such feedback may seem too confronting and uncomfortable. However, groups able to muster sufficient courage will engage in direct feedback and generate incredible profit as members begin to understand how what they say or do may be interpreted in unintended ways.

For example, some people avoid making eye contact while speaking with others. While averting eye contact may communicate respect in some cultures, in North Americans tend to distrust people who make little or no eye contact. Contrarily, some more individuals may maintain excessively intense eye contact creating discomfort in those around them. Perhaps others interpret a person’s quietness as his being aloof, disinterested or even suggesting superiority. Others may speak frequently intending to set people at ease but might instead be experienced as dominating the conversation or even as not listening well or caring.

Support groups require honesty. Any feedback without a high commitment to truth-telling limits, or even undermines, feedback. Of course providing honest feedback with sensitivity represents yet another social skill that support groups foster among their members. One member may say to another:

“Joe, I appreciate your honesty, I really do, but sometimes when you give me feedback I get irritated. I’m not really sure that you like me; I feel more attacked than supported.”

Such directness helps Joe to work on improving the sensitivity in his delivery of truth. To say nothing to Joe and merely withdraw from participation through silence communicates information to the entire group—but the communication remains ambiguous. Neither Joe nor anyone else knows for sure why you have gone silent. Several guesses might be made:

  • You’re tired and haven’t been sleeping well;
  • You’re in deep thought about something said earlier in the group;
  • You’re too depressed to engage fully in the group;
  • You’re angry about something that happened earlier in the day;
  • You’re feeling hurt;
  • You’re feeling excluded and don’t know how to involve yourself; or
  • Joe’s direct feedback was too strong for you.

Unfortunately, as powerful as nonverbal body language may be, only words can get close to clarifying ambiguity.

Asking for clarification when a group member communicates non-verbally—or in ambiguous or seemingly contradictory ways—serves everyone; it decreases ambiguity; it invites participation; and it communicates concern and interest. Before a group develops sufficient trust to foster openness, asking for clarification may be met with a subtle—or not so subtle—deflection— attempting to ignore the request.

The group member hurt by Joe’s directness may minimize his hurt by saying, “Oh, it’s nothing. I’m just tired” when admitting his hurt or anger might be closer to the truth. Sometimes, especially when a group member tends to minimize or close up when asked for clarification, making a tentative statement can serve to increase clarity and draw him out. For example:

“Sam, after Joe provided you with his feedback you got really quiet. I’m wondering whether you might have been hurt by Joe’s directness.”

If that seems too direct a more general statement—one that doesn’t produce such a confronting tone—might serve:

“Sam, you’ve been really quiet for the last several minutes. You look a little troubled.”

This less direct prompt allows Sam to step up to the plate and take a risk but also allows him to defer if he’s not ready to disclose his discomfort.

Sometimes a group member seeking clarification may actually be avoiding being open himself. Involving yourself while also inviting others to contribute invites participation while demonstrating your own willingness to take a risk. For instance, you may begin questions or statements with a small disclosure of your own:

“I found myself feeling uncomfortable when Joe provided his feedback to you. If he said something like that to me I might feel hurt.”

Again, remember to speak honestly—speak truthfully about your own experience rather than just using this as a technique to get another person to admit their anger or hurt—or some other emotion.

Exporting Social Skills. Participation in support groups only serves if we can export what we learn and practice in the safety of the group to our lives beyond the group. Role playing within a support group provides opportunities for practice of new behaviors. Asking another group member to play the part of your father, wife or outside friend can help you move beyond the anxiety of trying new and unpracticed behaviors. Such experience can increase your confidence, help polish your skills before trying them on your own and produce feedback from others who observe the role play.

Support groups also provide moral support when you might otherwise procrastinate making an important life change. This allows you to pre-commit to a necessary life decision. Disclosure to other group members increases the odds that you will follow through on making progress. By making your intention known you also equip the group to move into a supportive role with you. Members’ enthusiasm may increase your confidence about the timing of your decision. You also provide group members a chance to tell you that they think your decision is premature or that you might practice with a co-worker before trying the new behavior with a family member. Educate the group by letting them in on your thinking and decisions; involve them in your process.

By communicating with your group about behaviors you intend to change, you also set the stage for success. Knowing that others support your decision increases your determination to make changes and to make them successfully. Communicating with the group about your intentions also allows them to support you between group meetings and to check in with you at the next meeting. Remember, even though your decision to change a behavior might be just right for you, others in your life may resist allowing you to change. Our human nature causes most of us to maintain the status quo—even supportive friends and family members will naturally resist our early efforts to change. You need adequate support to maintain change long enough to know whether or not the change will work. A support group can help you persist in your efforts and also help you make mid-course corrections.

When attempting to make a change in your life, your implementation may miss the mark. If you have utilized the group for planning, practicing and implementation they will be primed to help pick you back up and set you on your feet if things go badly. Remember, effective support groups commit to being supportive and providing a safe haven. That support and safety extend not only while working towards making change but also in the uncomfortable—and sometimes unsuccessful— practicing phase of new behaviors.

Also, as you ask the group members for the support and accountability you need, they will more likely ask you for the same. The group increases in its functioning as it begins to behave according to the design.

Confidentiality and Openness. Support groups provide an experience in learning to live life with integrity. Viewing your behavior either inside the group or out ought to give an objective observer the sense of experiencing the same person. But how does confidentiality within a support group blend with living your life more openly both inside as well as outside of the group?

Keep in mind that confidentiality describes your protection of others information. You remain free to share as much of your own story with others as you like. In fact, often as individuals in these groups grow they will demonstrate changed behaviors first within the group and then integrate these changes into their life outside of the group. Members will sense the success of their group as more of the members integrate their growth into relationships outside of the group. This continuity provides at least one measure of a group’s success.

Within the safety of the group we explore our inner selves with others. With increased sharing comes increased confidence in the way in which we integrate our beliefs and values into our inner lives and into our behaviors. With increased confidence we begin to integrate and live our lives more congruently. We begin to live more openly allowing others within the group as well as those outside of the group to see us more fully.

Foibles and mistakes also produce less shame as we open ourselves to the gentle acceptance and understanding of a few others. As shame diminishes our openness increases. Just remember, we all grow at different rates. Even though you may be ready to open your life significantly to others, the other members of your group may need more time. Also, each person will determine their own comfort level with respect to privacy and openness. Some may need more time before reaching a readiness to be as open as you have chosen while others may never share as openly as you elect. Learn to respect these individual differences. Resist the easy temptation to measure another’s progress by your own standards.

It also helps to remember the important distinctions between secrecy and privacy . Secrecy means that information cannot be told—making the holder of the information a captive; privacy means that information is being withheld out of respect for another’s wishes. Secrecy generally involves an abuse of power over another keeping them from telling the truth and keeping them in bondage to the secret. Privacy generates respect while secrecy breeds suspicion. Secrecy usually bears the threat of a terrible outcome if the information becomes known; privacy creates security and safety through respecting another’s private information. Keeping a secret results in feeling badly, perhaps feeling dirty; keeping another’s disclosure private results in feeling secure. Secrets keep us from telling others what we need to tell in order to be free and to heal; privacy involves its own freedom and promotes healing.

Individuals who open their lives to the accountability of a support group usually don’t live secretive lives. In fact, typically openness and accountability motivate members to seek mutual support found in these groups. Support groups do not operate as secret organizations although they work hard to preserve each others confidentiality.

Privacy, Confidentiality and Other Intimates. As support groups form they need to establish clear and specific understanding of confidentiality as their first order of business. Individuals living with clear boundaries in their lives pay attention to basic ground rules before sharing sensitive information that might expose them to unnecessary vulnerability.

An important question regarding maintaining group members’ confidences arises around direct questions from spouses and other intimate friends. Does withholding information shared in confidence from these other important people constitute a betrayal of that intimate person’s trust? No. You need never defend withholding information out of respect for another’s privacy. Even though others close to you might desire to be let in on what others have shared in confidence, remember the information does not belong to you. Learn to defer requests for information. Examples of deferring requests or even demands for information might include:

  • Please understand that my not sharing another’s private thoughts reflects my respect and commitment to them.
  • If it were my story I could chose to share it with you but it’s not mine to tell.
  • If you want to know about that ask Bob yourself.
  • Please don’t place me in the position of choosing between loyalty to you and maintaining a trust with Steve.

Deciding to share a struggle with your support group creates a dilemma—especially when your struggle involves your spouse, other family member or a close friend. On the one hand support groups provide a safe place for us to: vent, confess, confide, seek help, gain support and be held accountable. But on the other hand, we may find ourselves sharing with the group confidential information about our significant relationships.

It helps to discuss with your spouse or others how they feel about your sharing details of your relationship with them before disclosing sensitive information you believe essential to yoru support group understanding and helping you. Especially in the instance of your life partner, be sure your partner supports your choice to speak about the relationship with your support group. Remember, a spouse or other friend recognizes that your disclosures about conflicts provide only your perceptions of the relationship dynamics and interactions. Be sure to negotiate permission to discuss issues with your support group before sharing to assure that you do not violate your trust with them.

If you handle sharing information about others with sensitivity, interactions with a trusted group of confidants often results in clearer, cleaner and healthier intimate relationships with significant others in your life. It requires tremendous trust, understanding, and sacrifice from another to grant you permission to shared personal information with others in your support group, their willingness to do so often results in a tremendous payoff. Not only do you directly benefit, but indirectly your marriage or outside friendship also benefits. In exchange for sacrificing some of their own privacy, your partner or friend benefit from your growth in the group. Subsequent to processing interactions and dynamics with a support group, you will more often be fully present in the relationship with your spouse, family members and friends.

One could easily argue that sharing about marital struggles may violate the confidences of your spouse. However, sharing your struggles while presenting your spouse respectfully typically serves the relationship well. If you have any doubt about your spouse’s reservations be sure to check with them before openly sharing—even in a support group.

Summary. Although support groups have intrinsic satisfaction for support and fulfilling relationships, the goal remains to take your experience and your growth back into your daily world of family, work and friends. Few of us obtain training in social skills, but a group requires you to develop and practice these skills. In the group process you’ll sharpen your existing skills. In addition, others skills will likely transfer into your repertoire. In this chapter we saw ways in which you might translate increased observations and awareness of others into meaningful inquiries that express interest, concern and support. This laboratory of focused observation and interaction helps members develop useful insights and recognition of the nonverbal part of communication such as facial expressions, tone of voice and body postures.

Besides learning these rudimentary skills, you also gain confidence in yourself as you practice them within the context of the group. And, knowing that your support group believes you are ready to try exporting these new skills into your life will help you as you take your first steps with these new tools. Certainly, one helpful component of the groups arises from being able to debrief successes and struggles when you attempt to take these skills beyond the walls of the group.

In this chapter we also talked about dealing with your partner’s natural curiosity about the group experiences. While maintaining confidences can be threatening to a partner initially, they usually take great delight in the increased sensitivity brought from the group into your relationship with them. Specific examples of effectively addressing your inability to disclose confidential details were explored to help equip you for these early efforts others will make to discover what took place in a group meeting.

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