Basics of Group Relations: What’s it like?

This is the fifth in a five-ish part series on the background and basics of group relations. Read parts one, two, three, and four.

So what’s it like to take part in a group relations conference? I can’t fully answer that question – bear in mind I haven’t been to a group relations conference yet, I’ve only done a “group relations-lite” course – but I think I can give you an idea of what it’s like if you’re thinking of attending one. I’ll definitely revisit this after my first conference.

A word of caution: Group relations experiences are intense and difficult, and can cause significant psychological distress. Pretty much all group relations conferences include a statement somewhere in their materials advising you not to attend if you’re dealing with major psychological or personal problems. Even if you’re psychologically and personally OK, I can tell you that you will probably feel some unexpectedly strong and possibly troubling emotions. So take care of yourself and don’t go if you’re, say, in the middle of a divorce or something.

Anyway, here are a couple of things to bear in mind if you do go…

It’s going to be awkward. Embrace it. Group relations experiences deliberately do away with many social conventions of interaction. For example, the consultants (the putative leaders) will not answer questions or lead discussions or do anything but interject occasional observations on group processes. This is very different from how most groups work – usually one of the jobs of a facilitator is to keep conversation moving and to make everyone feel comfortable. This is not the case here. Even if you know what you’re getting into going in, it is awkward and is supposed to be awkward. Just go with it.

Be prepared to feel really self-conscious. You’ll feel like you’re talking too loud or too soft, laughing too much or acting too serious, saying too much or too little, being too personal or too reserved. This will pass when you start to focus on the group rather than yourself, because…

It’s not about you. Think about it this way: if you are behaving weirdly, this is not so much an indictment of your character as a reflection of the forces at play within the group. So there’s no wrong way to behave – pretty much anything you do is helpful as it reveals what is going on in the group. Don’t take this as license to be a huge jerk or anything, but do take it as license to give yourself a break.

Who do you want to be? You have choices. You can’t really control what the group brings out in you, but you can observe your reactions and make choices. For example, knowing my own tendency to babble under pressure, I deliberately hung back a fair amount in some sessions. I wanted to see what it was like to be the observer and supporter in the group rather than the centre of attention, and as it turns out, it’s pretty illuminating.

It’s not therapy, but you might learn something about yourself anyway. I learned that a) I had a pretty low opinion of the transformative potential of groups, which this experience changed; b) I also have a real fear of being vulnerable within a group, and c) that fear is mostly unfounded, though it didn’t exactly go away. Also a few of the psychoanalytic concepts I learned (like splitting) made sense of a number of my more baffling life experiences.

It’s maybe not accurate to describe it as “fun”, but perhaps “compelling” will do. I left the first two classes feeling awful, like I’d completely embarrassed and humiliated myself , but by the third class I left feeling excited and stimulated, full of new learning, eager for the next session.

The group can contain different opinions and experiences and that’s OK. Our group had one member who was very, very positive about their experience in the group, one member who was pretty negative about it, and a few who expressed dissatisfaction, who wanted more intimacy, more openness, more…something that couldn’t quite be defined but was nevertheless obviously missing. At first this made me feel anxious, like I needed everyone to come to a consensus, but eventually I realized that everyone was entitled to their feelings and opinions and I didn’t need to control the story of the group; my story was still a valid one even if someone else’s was different. And maybe the differing opinions of the group can tell you something more about what’s going on between the participants.

You really had to be there. Group relations can be a hard sell even to people who are psychology professionals; it’s very hard to explain or describe and harder still to communicate what you learn from it. So I think this is my project as we lead up to our own group relations conference: to figure out how to explain group relations in a way that is accurate and inviting to the layperson.

Give it a chance. If I had stopped going after the first class I would have had a largely negative opinion of group relations. Like most people, I resist unpleasant experiences and uncomfortable growth. I’m glad I stuck with it and gave it a chance, as it turned out to be an immensely stimulating and valuable learning experience, and if you have the opportunity to try it for yourself, I highly recommend it.

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