Thursday, November 1, 2012

Positivity and Negativity in Group Dynamics

I've written in the past about how a treatment milieu can develop positive or negative group dynamics - individual clients can support each other's recovery, or fuel each other's issues. Clearly, much of this dynamic can be traced back to what clients say to one another, inside and outside of group.

After some clique formation and scapegoating with our current population, my team has been working to address counterproductive group dynamics (at least when they occur in our presence). The group's response today, when my colleague spoke with them about negativity, was that they express negativity in order to get support from the group to help them be more positive.

That raised an interesting question for me: when does expressing negativity represent a request for help changing one's perspective; when does it seek validation of one's negative perspective; and can it do both of these things at once?

Mutual aid is central to group therapy: group members are meant to support and help each other. For that to happen, they obviously have to be able to share their struggles. As group leaders, I think we hope that we have a "critical mass" of members who are more positive than negative...but even if group members are struggling, that does not necessarily mean the group develops a negative dynamic. What seems to make a difference is how open they are to alternate perspectives. A group that is feeling discouraged but still willing and engaged maintains a positive (i.e., constructive) dynamic even if what they're saying can't technically be termed "positive."

In contrast, the group develops a negative dynamic when they support each other in opposing or rejecting alternate perspectives. When this kind of dynamic develops, group members will actively talk each other out of more adaptive ways of thinking, feeling, and acting. Even when this influence is not explicitly spoken, it may be clearly implied through body language, etc. As a result, individual members each tend to become more negative than any one of them felt individually.

While the latter type of dynamic is certainly challenging for group leaders/therapists, it becomes even more challenging when both dynamics are present in the same group. A group may vacillate between constructive responses and counterproductive responses. Specific members may vacillate between accepting and rejecting feedback. They may send each other mixed messages, and otherwise express their collective ambivalence. The real art and skill of group work is to steer this process so that the group norm becomes positive rather than negative engagement.

What strategies have you found helpful in guiding an ambivalent group in a positive direction?

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