At one time or another, small-group members will likely hear this statement: "I can't talk about that; I might cry."
If a group is functioning well and has reached a reasonable level of maturity, the tears of a member will be as acceptable in the group as the laughter or smiles of a shared joy. Unfortunately, reaching the point where tears are acceptable is difficult for most groups. In part, this is because it is not okay for many of us to cry at all—alone or with others.
Understanding Strong Emotions
I used to say that one group task or skill was to become comfortable with emotion. A member of the small group I am in challenged that statement and offered an alternative goal, which I have embraced: learn to deal openly and honestly with emotion, both your own and that of others.
At some point in the growing process, your group may want to devote a session or two to discussing questions such as "When do I cry?" or "What do I do when I am about to cry?" This is because talking about crying is easier than crying in front of others. In this discussion, you may also want to cover the question "What do I do when someone else cries?"
We learned lessons as children about crying (or any strong emotion). What does it show? What does it mean? What happens to us when we do cry? Those lessons will usually be found alive and well in our adulthood. Your small group will no doubt discover different triggers and meanings of tears for men and women, for example.
Responses to strong emotion will likely provide you with material for several discussions. The corollary discussions about how we respond when someone else cries (or yells or hits or walks away from trouble) will be equally productive.
Addressing Strong Emotions
Crying is not the only strong emotion to be expressed in a group. Anger, fear, guilt, joy, and sadness will be present from time to time. How the group deals with strong emotions will say a lot about its nature and maturity.
The guidelines for working with strong emotions in a group are as follows:
- Listen to the emotion being expressed.
- Don't change the subject to avoid the strong emotion.
- Name the emotion as you hear it.
- Don't tell a person, "You shouldn't feel that way."
- Accept the speaker's emotion without saying you feel worse, better, or the same.
- Use your own emotions to try and understand the speaker and to communicate your understanding without taking away from anything that he or she is saying.
Examining what you do in the presence of strong feelings is important in understanding how to respond to other people who are expressing emotions. If you know that you usually shy away from emotion, being quiet and listening to another may require extra effort. If you know that your tendency is to leap in and make other people feel better when they are in emotional pain, then it is important to figure out why you must do that and then intentionally work to let other people express their feelings without you taking over and changing their direction.
These are important topics to discuss with other group members. For example, you can say something like, "When I see someone struggling with his emotions, I have this strong urge to jump in and make everything okay for him."
Let the group members know how you react, find out how they react, and discover what the best processes are for your group.
Brooke B. Collison is professor emeritus at Oregon State University and a former president of the American Counseling Association.
Excerpted from Know and Be Known: Small Groups that Nourish and Connect, © 2007 by the Alban Institute. Used with permission.