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.


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.

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