Key Principles for a Healthy Men's Group
An open hearted group
Nurturing the space within the group
Achieving cohesion and intimacy
Notwithstanding the following guidelines, it is important that every group is free to develop its own culture. Men’s groups need to be in charge of their own stories.
In order for the men’s group to function, the group needs participants to be present as much as possible (‘’Others attending and contributing motivate me’’) and communicate if you can’t meet – send apologies. One way to hold good attendance is by asking for a commitment to attend at the beginning of the group and each year. Groups can ask a member to follow up and reach out to members who miss a session (especially early in the life of a group). Participants commit to taking responsibility for getting what they need from the group as well as supporting the other members of the group.
Men’s groups may need to counter a natural tendency for groups to become more casual, informal and unstructured. On the other hand, a group may become too rule bound. Will every member of the group commit to keeping to the structure (see section on structure below) and keep searching for a deeper connection between the members? Deep commitment creates an energy, making no problem too difficult to resolve. This helps the group to evolve.
Will group members commit to communicating their thoughts and feelings to the group? This enables deeper connection. A group functions best when members express their thoughts and feelings about the group and its members while they are being experienced: “Be present in the moment.” The group comes alive when the focus is on the relationship between the members in the here and now.
Direct communication between members is the lifeblood of a group. As you sit in the group, ask yourself: “What am I not saying?” Are you willing to say more? Move into rather than avoid what might be difficult. It takes huge courage to open up more and more to the group, to communicate authentically; to be spontaneous, emotionally honest and sharing my inner world; self-disclosure like you have never imagined before. This builds trust and the reward is a fuller sense of self, better self esteem and a stronger, more cohesive group.
There are some who will have a very difficult time speaking in the group and their quiet presence will also be valuable to the group and themselves. Even here, it will be valuable to them and to the group the more they can say in whatever their style or difficulty. Group members can spend a lot of energy speculating about a silent member. Frequently members get more from the group the more they share.
Another barrier to open communication in a group is giving speeches; which is talking to the group in a way which is not an emotionally connected sharing of personal responses. Am I preaching? Who’s benefit am I talking for? Is it welcome?
Authenticity is central to a men’s group. This can feel uncomfortable at first because it is so different from what many of us have learned, it may become more natural with practice and may flow over into some of our relationships outside the group. We can learn from the outside by imitating the groups healthy interpersonal behaviour and gradually it becomes natural.
Peer pressure contributes to our learning more productive ways to relate. Some of us have a lot of denial about the dysfunctional ways we behave and group feedback or even disapproval may have a very positive effect on us. For instance, it may be very foreign to listen to other men without interrupting with our own insights. However this helps develop trust within the group.
Bringing concerns from the shadows into the light of the sharing circle deprives the concerns of their power. Listening to what people say in the men’s group will at times be a major challenge, and a man needs unconditional acceptance to open up; this means active listening (see Appendix 4) to the man who is speaking with minimal or no interrupting. That doesn’t mean participants have to agree with everything said, but can you allow others opinions? Judging (or condemning) other people kills connection and support, as does blaming and shaming. Mutual respect and honouring difference is healing. Sometimes an important ethical issue arises when participants must judge the issue, but never judge the person.
Will participants ask for support? Many men have trouble with this, yet asking for support builds connections; asking opens us up to our common humanity and community. Equally, some men have trouble giving support – often we have not been brought up to it or trained to offer support. Giving support means listening empathically and being responsive without giving advice unless this is specifically asked for. (See Appendix 4 for more on communication.)
Can be very valuable and deepening to a group. It can allow people to come back to themselves. Silence may be part of a very deep connection in a group. This may arise as the group becomes safer for its members. Silence can also be threatening to group members or the whole group. Part of the emphasis on verbal communication is to help the group reach a place of safety which most groups need words to achieve, as safety is reached there may be less and less need for words.
Listening and “feeling with someone” sometimes allows us to sense the underlying feelings and concerns (the subtext) of another person. This is a powerful feeling for participants and takes practice. Empathy is an important life skill that men’s groups help to develop in their members. Some of the power of men’s groups arises from being empathically together with each other’s feelings, not from trying to solve each others’ problems. As Hendrix says: “be curious, then empathic and positive” (Hendrix, p. 2008?)
Referring to the responsiveness of men to each other, feedback is best when lovingly honest. The response may be in a smile or nod but most of us need some sort of response when we speak into the group especially in the early days of the group. This is especially true when what we say is a risky self-disclosure. There can be competition for space to speak in the group and then silence may be a gift to the group. After each man has spoken in his turn, there may be an opportunity for those listening to give him direct feedback(in some groups feedback is only when asked for); eg “What you said resonated with me in this way. I felt….”; “I would like to hear more about….”; “I noticed you became emotional; what was happening inside you then?” Some groups generally allow as much time as it takes for the feedback part of a meeting. Preferably keep the feedback spontaneous, very honest and caring of the capacity of the other person to accept it. If a man needs support or asks the group for advice, this is when it is given. A useful guideline is to have no unsolicited advice since advice giving can be dis-empowering, ego-driven, unwelcome and is so attractive as a distraction from fully present group participation.
People can be excited by giving and receiving feedback: Going below the façade and becoming more real. To learn who I really am [as opposed to who I think I am] I need honest reflected appraisals from others I trust. This means to be able to talk about our differing views and any difficult issues between us in a constructive way. Not to take perceived criticism negatively. It is during feedback when we are talking honestly to each other about ourselves that the group seems most alive.
“Interrupt empathically” – generally people would prefer to be interrupted than just not listened too. What bores the listener, bores the speaker. However given the guideline not to interrupt this should probably only be done with utmost sensitivity to the speaker and at a suitable time. In some groups where the leadership is more informal and shared, interrupting is seen as all group members’ responsibility when it is called for.
The group is empowering and works against the corrupting powerlessness some of us bring from experiences such as being bullied. The group builds members’ emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills for all areas of life. New relationships inspire hope, help learn new skills and ways to think.
The group becomes a resource in that members can teach each other skills: Each one, teach one (handyman skills, office skills, person skills etc).
Where group members carry guilt for past wrongs done, or injuries received, the group can provide a healing experience where the man can share his story with feeling and be met acceptance and empathy. These processes help group members develop their sense of right and wrong.
When there is strong conflict between two or more group members, to the extent that each can offer persistent empathy, this will help to heal the group. It diffuses anger and confrontation. No “buts”: they are defensive and aggravate conflict. Some have observed that conflict in the group is a priority issue for group members. It is important for group members to reach out to those hurt by anger and help aggressive ones maintain some control. It is up to the group to prevent bullying.
Managing conflict requires accepting difference; not begrudgingly but celebrating the opportunity to learn and grow. The most difficult difference contains the possibilities of the greatest growth. If I am not personally challenged when there is conflict then I am probably closing off myself and not respecting the other. Heartfelt conflict can lead to intimacy.
Do I keep quiet to avoid conflict? When angry do I try to control and intimidate?
Group members may need to agree to differ in conflict, but stay with it for some time to resolve what can be resolved. Some may agree to differ too soon, while others may let the conflict take over everything. Notice if members are holding grudges or distancing themselves. Mutual respect is an essential ground rule. Usually a significant conflict between two group members will be an expression of some conflict in the group as a whole, and therefore even more important to work with.
There may be occasions when the group feels stuck in some major conflict and then it may be helpful for the group to seek assistance from someone independent and experienced for one or more sessions.
When members feel safe they open up. Intimacy in a group sometimes feels threatening to our individual identity. Go as slow as necessary and communicate about the experience of what feels threatening and what feels self-enhancing.
This is an essential ingredient for group safety. This means all statements by participants are treated with the utmost respect and confidentiality. Most group members keep the group private and don’t discuss it with others. It is usually agreed that it is all right to speak about your own experience in the group but not about anyone else’s. Names and anything that might by chance identify a group member must never be repeated.
What are your group’s goals for the year and ongoing? Deepening the group process makes a difference: deepening the sharing, the directness, the commitment to regular attendance, the support to fellow group members.
Every group has its own structures which contribute to aliveness and safety. Provide structures like rituals, rounds, silence, rotating leadership each session, limiting sharing to perhaps five minutes at a time to prevent speeches. Some groups use a candle to symbolize the serious part of the group: when the candle is lit the bullshit stops and when it is put out the meeting is over. A grounding reading at the beginning of the group is sometimes used. When structures get too loose the group may begin to fall apart.
The group functions at its most alive when emotionally open, unrehearsed and freely interacting and limited structures are set up to support this.
Remember “I” statements are the way to go. Avoid “you” or “we” statements or generalisations. Own your own feelings. Avoid small talk.
Speaking is optional. It is okay to “pass”. But if you do choose not to speak recognize it may be a problem for the group. So speak as soon as you can speak. It will be good for you and the group, even if it is only to say why you are passing.
Some groups allow each member equal time to talk and if a member is silent then the group stays silent for that time to show equal regard and respect for every man.
Just as individual group members may want feedback, the group itself may be usefully reviewed: “How are we going as a group?” Many of the issues discussed in this resource may be reviewed for the group itself. For instance: How is the trust and safety feeling for group members? Are we a friendship group or a transformative group?
Good leadership is helpful for a well functioning men’s group and men’s groups develop leadership in their members. Some groups share the leadership so fully that they may prefer shared facilitation. Democracy is basic – everything is negotiated and agreements made.
Many groups rotate leadership so that each member takes turns facilitating the meetings: This is a structure which will help many groups maintain deeper connections. The leader facilitates choice of venue, topic/activity and suggests how structured or relaxed the group will be. The leader keeps his observer role while participating as an equal member in the group. He keeps the group focused and ensures all are given the opportunity to speak and be heard.
It is helpful for the ongoing success of a group that each man takes responsibility for the successful operation of the group. There is a range in men’s groups between ones which have quite strong leadership either rotated or in one or a few informal leaders in the group, and those which run more as if everyone is a leader.
The latter empowers everyone but the former is practically necessary for many groups in order to keep working as a group; for instance new groups may initially need a facilitator leader and as they mature they may move to shared facilitation.
It is valuable sometimes as part of a review of the group to consider how leadership works and whether individuals could take more responsibility for supporting the group functioning and going deeper in themselves to enliven the group. Groups can depend too much on a leader.
This is the most important thing you can do. This is the result of everything above and leads to further depth in the group. It’s about creating a space where someone feels safe enough to risk telling the truth about themselves and know they won’t be judged or shamed. Your group will be much stronger for this and will grow into something more than a pure support group.
In some groups there is extensive contact outside the group – family get togethers, weekends away, social gatherings of the group. The depth of the group relationships can contribute to the development of deep friendships.
The Group, Our Partners, Our Family and Our Friends
You don’t have to tell anyone outside the group anything of your experience in the group; it is your private growth space. The group is confidential so what can you say to people about it? It is okay to speak about your experience in the group, not telling about other members but just about yourself. “I told the group about …; I was excited, scared; I learned how open I can be and how closed I am sometimes etc”.
Some will be jealous of your experience in the group, be patient with them, remind them they can create a group of their own. Some will be threatened by the group and even want to take you away from it. Remind them and yourself that the group is good for you in a way that will also be good for them.
The Connected Men’s Group
Just as men can get isolated, so too can men’s groups. Healthy development of the men and their group may be supported by connection to the Essentially Men Education Trust – through participation in Men’s Group Development Days, in Advanced Courses, and Men’s Gatherings.
While being part of an emotionally healthy community such as the EMET network has direct effects on the individual and the group’s healthy development, there are also other groups based on solid values that can help develop the values of all participants. Refer to our Where to Get Help page for some other organisations to participant in and give service to.