In the trainee facebook group I manage (but will be handing over soon as a ‘no longer trainee’), a conversation has arisen recently about process groups and acceptance. Coming out of that, and not directly relating to any one question I’ve been thinking through process groups.
All too often it seems to me, people in process groups are so keen to present themselves as ‘accepting’ that they do not question things. And when your tutor is in the room, of course – you don’t want to be perceived as judgmental or stereotyping etc. So when someone presents something challenging to us, there is a big temptation to say ‘yes – that makes sense’, even when it.. doesn’t. Even when we don’t get it; when we have questions.
I think about my own experience, part of what caused me to leave, where something about my life is on the surface accepted and no questions have ever been asked, but when I talked about the possibility of doing some training for the year below (as part of my make-up for missing two days when my dad collapsed and later died), a majority of the group seemed very interested in attending that.
It is a liberalist discourse, that says ‘everyone is equal’. And yes they are, individually. I am as equal as anyone else, but I identify with a lot of the ‘protected characteristics’ (disability, gender identity, sexuality) that mean that structurally, I’m actually NOT equal (by which I mean that there are more things stacked against me than the person who is straight and cisgender and has no disabilities – for a very quick one: people in civil partnerships are not AUTOMATICALLY entitled to the same pension rights as people in marriages). And the problem with a liberalist discourse is that because everyone wants to be perceived as being liberal, ‘acceptance’ is the name of the day. No questions are asked, thus, unless I (for example) keep putting myself out in to a void where no-one asks questions, and continually explain things for everyone, it is possible to make a lot of assumptions.
Of course, there will be some people in the group who get it and who are not asking questions because they will get it, but Dominic Davies’ (1998) paper echoes my sentiment:
“However, this avoidance of difference and denial of cultural variables can be very damaging for the therapeutic relationship. Clients may spend a lot of time trying to work out the therapist’s real frame of reference, and look for subtler signals of genuineness or incongruence. This detracts from the pre-condition of psychological contact (Singh and Tudor, 1997)”.
This I think, is similar for group process. It certainly rings true for me in my experience of the group.
Dominic (I did start by saying ‘Davies’, but I know Dominic, so this felt weird!) goes on to quote Tudor and Worrall:
“It is likely that if as therapists we consistently ignore or deny some of our feelings and experiences we will, out of awareness, communicate such unassimilated, or partially accommodated material to our clients”
And Rogers himself: “Rogers makes it clear that maintaining congruence isn’t always easy or comfortable and “includes being himself even in ways which are not regarded as ideal for psychotherapy.””
This suggests that it is healthier for all (especially when we will go our and see clients with similar histories), if a step can be taken by individuals in group process to say ‘actually – I don’t get it. I’d like to. Can you tell me about X’.
As one of my group once said to me (I paraphrase): ‘assume kindness’. It’s a mantra that has worked. I know that in group, I am working from a place of kindness and trying to understand, and assuming that others are (until otherwise told) helped a lot. Here – if you don’t get something or need more understanding, you can commit to doing some research (and nothing made me happier than when people said to me ‘I was reading this thing on gender’) and at the same time, you can express that you don’t get it. You will probably be much better accepted than if you supress that and the person at the side of you can see it, despite utterances to the contrary.
In short – it’s DIFFICULT to say in group that you don’t get something. It’s hard to stand out and be that person. But you will make a much better experience for the person who was brave enough to speak, to KNOW that they have been heard and that you want to engage with them, than if they speak and are met with a wall of what can feel like placation with no attempt at understanding. And – if you DO get it, say so. Say why. Let the person know you’re with them, don’t let them sit alone.
Davies, D. (1998) ‘The Six Necessary and Sufficient Conditions Applied to Working with Lesbian Gay and Bisexual Clients.’ The person-centered journal [online] 5 (2), 111–120