The dynamic life of groups

In the sections that follow we draw on our own group-analytic model to examine a range of clinical considerations and make them as relevant as possible to the widest range of practitioners, regardless of their model. Group development theory

Many schemas have been proposed, usually derived from time-limited experiential and study groups, but some of these can provide a useful orientation. (7 77) Bennis and Shepard,(78) followed by Yalom,(45) have written about the initial stages of orientation involving a search for structure and goals, dependence on the leader, and concern with boundaries. The second stage is characterized by conflict, particularly over norms, authority, and control. The third stage is achieved with a high level of group coherence that allows for inter- and intrapersonal exploration. They acknowledge that the boundaries between phases are not clear and that a group never graduates permanently from any one phase.

In slow-open groups especially, this idea of discrete phases has its limits. The group-analytic approach provides a cyclic model in the course of which issues such as affect, intimacy, personal history, and change are understood and struggled with repeatedly. Focal themes in a group emerge, become dominant, and recede only to be returned to later in greater depth and detail. Thus a group understood in these terms struggles with developmental tasks rather than phases, in the course of which it is the individuals who enjoy growth, differentiation, and progressive change.

Developmental stages and thematic focus

Figure.7 provides a map of these developmental tasks conceived of as logical rather than sequential. The way in which one person comes into the group will be different to the arrival of another. The terms on which one person joins, as Fig 7 indicates, will have a determining influence on each of the thematic stages that they pass through. For example, preoccupations about how someone came into the group—the terms of their engagement—might only be resolved when the person leaves perhaps 1, 3, or 5 years later, when they have to assess the outlook for their future as they look over the years spent in therapy. Figure.7 can be used as a thematic map for one person's journey through therapy or as a way of appraising the life-stage of the group as a whole.

Fig. 7 Developmental stages and thematic focus.

Early stages are dominated by the anxiety of being involved in a new situation and questions about other group members. Preoccupations are likely to be about boundary issues, confidentiality, and security. In the second stage those familiar with psychotherapy, or otherwise accustomed to talking about themselves, will be at an advantage. There will be a range of tensions about group norms and disclosures, reasons for joining, and discrepant levels of confidence about using the group. In the third stage members will defend against intimacy with one another and struggle with questions of trust, attachment, and affiliations. In the fourth stage, as members become increasingly able to trust the group with self-disclosure, observed changes might become manifest as self-exploration yields experience of individuation and differentiation. In the concluding stage people prepare for departure and find themselves comparing points of difference between changes achieved in the group and the state of their lives outside, generalizing from the arena of therapy to that of real life. Has therapy made a lasting difference? Will it be maintained outside?


Agazarian's system-centred approach(7) makes skilful use of functional 'subgrouping'. She invites patients to identify to which polarity in the group they feel closer: dependency versus counterdependency, compliant versus hostile. Nominated subgroups can reduce the fears of isolation and rejection and make clearer the developmental stage of the group itself.

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