Invite Group Members to Share Deeply
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Invite Group Members to Share Deeply

3 key skills to create a safe environment for small groups

Even if you do a good job of setting up the group’s boundaries at the beginning, members eventually test and violate the limits. Your group members are not perfect, and they will not be able to adhere to the boundaries at all times. For example, when group members share, judgments lay right beneath the surface. Instead of listening, group members criticize each other and give advice. Group members won’t show up to group even when they have made a commitment. They break established boundaries that you have created. They challenge for you as a group leader is to keep the group safe as you encounter boundary violations from group members. At this point, you need blocking skills.

Very important for a successful group experience, blocking skills reinforce the boundaries that you have set up at the beginning of the group and help keep the group safe. Nothing damages the safety of the group more quickly than letting a boundary violation go without stopping or blocking it. Group members may agree to not judge or criticize, and to do their own work, but the first thing many hurting group members do is criticize, dominate, and give advice to others. These boundary violations need to be blocked to maintain safety in your group. Group members think that if you would let criticism go with one person, then you would let it go if they are criticized, which leads to group members shutting down and not sharing.

Intervening can be a difficult skill for group members to develop. Group leaders often struggle to bring up issues that members might view as confrontational. Group leaders might worry that if they confront a member for a boundary violation, the group member who was confronted might feel bad or even quit the group. My view is that intervening to block a boundary violation is one of the most important skills to develop as a group leader if you want to maintain safety in your group. Furthermore, blocking boundary violations may even help your group members because it models how to engage in confrontation and conflict in a healthy and balanced manner. To block boundary violations when they occur, I recommend following the I-R-R (Interrupt-Reinforce-Redirect) model.

Interrupt

When a boundary violation occurs, the first blocking skill is to interrupt the process and identify the violation. Say something like, “Edward, I want to interrupt you,” or “Edward, I need you to stop.” After interrupting, I paraphrase what the violator said to make sure I heard him right, and I identify what he said as a boundary violation. I get as close to the content as possible, maybe repeating his comments verbatim.

Interrupting is not easy to do, especially for beginner group leaders who want group members to like them. New leaders who interrupt might be afraid that participants will be angry, but these new leaders need to work through their desire for acceptance. Your group members depend on you more importantly to create a safe environment, where boundaries are not easily or lightly violated.

Another issue that might get in the way of interrupting a boundary violation is fear of conflict. Again, in order to keep the group safe, leaders need to be able to work through any fears about creating conflict. Be aware of your feelings and experiences around conflict and how they might get in the way of your blocking boundary violations.

For me, interrupting boundary violations has been challenging. I felt fear when I interrupted Edward. I wondered how he might respond to me stopping him and challenging him with a boundary violation. I was afraid he might get angry and not like me as a leader. Yet, if I did not interrupt, I knew that group safety was at stake. I needed to interrupt and risk the chance that conflict might happen.

If you do not interrupt, not only does the group begin to feel unsafe for others, but it takes more work to heal any hurt that may have happened because of that boundary violation. For example, if I had not interrupted and confronted Edward’s criticism, Alice probably would have experienced being hurt. Her response may have been either to attack back, which meant I would have had a fight on my hands, or withdraw, which meant I would have had to work very hard to help Alice recover from the hurt in order to participate in the group again. So, the first step is to interrupt quickly and frequently with boundary violations, especially early on in the group’s life.

Another time you need to interrupt often is if you are adding a new boundary to your group and you want that new boundary to quickly become part of the group culture. For example, maybe someone is dominating and you set a new boundary of not dominating. You need to interrupt often as you add this new boundary to your group. Face your fear and trust that, as you set the boundaries and reinforce them, you are creating a safe group where healing and growth can happen.

Reinforce

After interrupting the group member who is violating a boundary, the second blocking skill is to reinforce the boundary, which means reminding the group member and the rest of the group of the boundary that was violated. For example, after interrupting Edward’s criticism, I might say, “Remember the boundaries that we agreed upon. We agreed to not judge and criticize each other. The reason we have this boundary is to keep the group safe.” You may use the reinforcing of one boundary as an opportunity to remind the group members of the other boundaries. These reminders reinforce the other boundaries, too.

Redirect

After you have interrupted the violation and reinforced the boundary, the final blocking skill is to redirect the boundary violation. Redirecting the boundary violation is the process of bringing the violator back to the group’s goal, which is to do one’s work, exploring and working on the planks that are in each of our eyes. Invite the boundary violator to own the violation and do some work about what the boundary violation is about for them. For example, I might say, “So, Edward, you are making a judgment about Alice when you say she isn’t doing any real work. Remember that instead of making a judgment, our commitment in this group is to work on our planks. Can you say what that criticism was about for you? What are you feeling when you say that? What is the story you are making up about that?”

You may need to help group members unpack the story behind the judgments they make. But right now, in the forming stage of group, it may be enough to interrupt the boundary violation, reinforce the boundary, and invite the violator to look at what is behind a particular violation—that is, to look at the plank in their own eye and move on. When I asked Edward what the criticism was about for him, he replied, “I don’t know.” At this early point in the group process, I did not push him to explore further but simply invited him to explore his plank first. I asked if he would be open to that. He said, “Yes,” and we moved on.

Another common example that needs to be blocked and redirected is when one person speaks for someone else in the group. For example, in my group Jane tried to smooth things over and said, “Oh, Edward is just trying to help.” At that point, I need to interrupt, reinforce, and redirect. I could say something like, “Jane, right now you are speaking for Edward. Again, I want to invite you and everyone in the group to work on speaking for yourselves. Jane, you sounded like you want to support Edward when you said, ‘He’s just trying to help.’ However, when you did that, you were speaking for him, and I want to invite you to work on speaking for yourself.” If I wanted to pursue Jane further, I might ask her, “Can you share what was going on inside you when Edward made the judgment?” Early in the group process, however, I might just reinforce the boundary and move on.

Redirecting puts the responsibility for the boundary violation back on the person breaking the boundary. Hopefully the violator gains insight through exploring what underlies the violation. And when the victim hears the offender own the boundary violation, the victim may feel less attacked and hurt. Victims see that it is the violator’s problem and not theirs, and they won’t need to be defensive. Make sure to follow up with the violator as well, though, to explore how it feels to be on that side of the exchange.

When I asked Edward, “What is that about for you?” my question opened the door for Edward to at least think about his plank. Also, by addressing Edward and encouraging him to do his own work, my hope is that Alice and other group members feel safe as a result, knowing that the boundary violation was addressed. Alice will likely feel less of a need to defend herself going forward as she experiences Edward moving on his own issues. Other group members who experience my intervention may be more likely to share, knowing that I keep the group safe and do not let members judge and criticize others. Group members also begin to understand where Edward’s criticism is coming from as Edward does his work. Group members may even begin to have compassion for Edward’s struggle with criticism and not be scared or angered by him. Interrupting, reinforcing, and redirecting when boundaries are violated create excellent opportunities for growth to happen in your small group. Doing this kind of work moves the group toward a process of interpersonal healing.

—Jan Paul Hook, EdD, Joshua N. Hook, PhD, and Don E. Davis, PhD, are authors of Helping Groups Heal: Leading Small Groups in the Process of Transformation. This article is excerpted with permission. All rights reserved.

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