All learning groups benefit from a balance of safety and risk taking. There has to be enough safety for people to take risks, and enough risk taking for people to try new behaviors and thus learn and grow. Too much risk places people into fight/flight/freeze mode, which we know inhibits the learning centers of the brain. Too much safety creates a minimal learning environment and can lead to stagnation and can get quite boring for both participants and the facilitator! You can tell when the group has become “too safe” as many members will seem disconnected and say the same things over and over. It has become too risky when people act out more than usual or seem shut down or look fearful.
In an open group, the flow of new members arriving and well known members leaving creates an ongoing challenge for a group facilitator. It puts the onus on us to create enough safety for people to take personal risks around self-disclosure and try on new behaviors.
Here are a few things that can help with this dilemma:
Create norms: Ongoing review of group norms – structure creates safety. Specific opening chapters in your curriculum will be conducive to reviewing group norms. However, it is a useful practice throughout, particularly when you have new members arriving. One way this can be accomplished is when current members introduce themselves to the new member, they can also be asked to share a group norm or “tips on how this group operates.”
Reinforce norms: Key norms that seem to support safety and self-disclosure in an open group include
Confidentiality – and really describing what this actually means
Respect – it can helpful to add the importance of respecting differences of opinion, values, and experiences, thus enhancing the expression of diverse viewpoints.
Honesty in sharing – the norm of “being real” versus saying what you think people want to hear, and at the same time knowing when to share and when to be quiet. A helpful question to ask internally is “will this sharing be of service to the other person”.
Commitment to one another’s learning – each person is on their own path in life, as a fellow group member part of our job is to offer encouragement and sometimes accountability for following through, along the way. This will help mitigate the complaints clients sometimes have about not getting anything from group. It is their responsibility to help shift this dynamic.
Make it fun: Interspersing ice-breaker and team building activities. Be sure from time to time to bring in some activities that are low risk and are oriented towards fun and getting to know one another.
Make the covert, overt: Outright naming, particularly after a lot of turnover, how hard it might be to open up with so many new faces – and asking the group for ideas around how we can make it easier for people to “be real with one another and take some risks to try new things.”
Build cohesion: From time to time you can have a check-in where each person shares: “one thing you all don’t know about me yet.” Often people will discover new things they have in common outside of their legal troubles, and this can help build cohesion and thus safety.
Start early: It all begins at Intake – during the intake facilitators can normalize the awkwardness of joining a group, and review “how to get the most out of a group.” Some agencies create a document that clients can study ahead of time, so they can come in prepared.
Encourage honesty: It can be helpful to encourage honesty, while normalizing “going at your own pace” and that everyone has different levels of openness. What is being asked is for you to challenge yourself bit by bit so that learning can happen.