Reflecting in groups

The Reflective Practice Guide: An interdisciplinary approach to critical reflection - Barbara Bassot 2015

Reflecting in groups

’And time for reflection with colleagues is for me a lifesaver; it is not just a nice thing to do if you have the time. It is the only way you can survive.’

(Margaret J. Wheatley, 2012)

Introduction

In this chapter we will explore the area of reflecting with others in groups. If reflection is purely a solitary activity we can become immersed in our own point of view, seeing things only from our perspective, which inevitably is narrow, limited and even biased. Reflecting with others enables us to gain insights from them and to question our thoughts and actions in the light of these. The chapter begins with a discussion in order to define what a group is and how the term will be used. The different types of groups we might encounter in professional practice will then be identified and the benefits of reflecting in groups will be discussed. Some key principles of effective group facilitation will then be explored and the importance of ’ground rules’ and a positive environment emphasised. The dangers and difficulties of reflecting in groups will then be considered with some pointers for overcoming them. This will be followed by a series of exercises that can be carried out in groups in order to promote critical reflection.

What is a group?

On the surface this seems to be a simple question, but it might be more complex than it first appears. In addition, the terms group and team can be used in literature to mean the same thing, which can be confusing. The term group suggests that more than two people are involved and that they have some kind of common purpose. This is also the case for a team, but being involved in a team usually implies that individuals have a certain role or roles to play. A simple example to illustrate this point is that a sports team cannot succeed if every player wants to play in the same position. A team is organised in a particular way to enable it to achieve its goals, whereas a group is more fluid and flexible in nature. Forsyth (2006: 2—3) defines a group as ’two or more individuals who are connected to one another by social relationships’.

In this chapter the term group is used to mean a collective of people, usually three or more, who are connected by a common purpose. In this case the purpose is to critically reflect on practice. Groups of this kind often have between five and eight members; a group of more than eight can have a tendency to begin to split into two as some individuals might feel that they do not have enough space to talk and others might feel less comfortable speaking with a large number of people present. Two people meeting together would be described as a dyad or critical friendship as discussed in Chapter 8.

Types of group

Different professions have different kinds of groups to help practitioners to reflect on their practice and to critically evaluate the work they are doing with clients. Some of these are as follows.

Peer support groups

These offer a space for practitioners to meet as equals and discuss their practice. They tend to be fairly informal and are not necessarily led by one particular member. Members come along with ideas of what they want to discuss with colleagues and are given time and space to put their views forward while group members listen and offer insights but without offering solutions. The atmosphere is one of listening and reciprocal support. Peer support is also used in schools, where students are trained to support one another in order to alleviate stress (Cowie and Wallace, 2000).

Action learning sets

Often used in the area of leadership development, the focus of action learning sets is on problem solving and these can be a very useful way of developing practice, particularly if there are difficulties identified in specific areas (Revans, 2011). Action learning is built on the relationship between reflection and action; time in the action learning set is given over to questioning and critical reflection and identifying action to follow. In an action learning set a small group of practitioners meets together to analyse the issues and problems that the individuals bring and each group member is given time to air their views and explain their problem. The group helps each person to consider a range of perspectives in relation to the problem and action is then planned with the structured support of the group. The group is responsible for the selection of the topic(s) and/or problem(s) discussed which are real rather than hypothetical, and this can be an effective group method for reflecting on experience. Action learning sets function well in an atmosphere of trust, friendship and support where members can feel safe to express their concerns freely.

Triads

A triad is a group of three people who meet together to discuss their learning and development and also to practice a range of different interpersonal skills. Triads can involve role play of different situations or scenarios with one person acting as the practitioner, another the role of the client, whilst the third person acts as an observer who leads discussion and feedback on what has taken place following the activity. The use of triads is common in the training of counsellors (Bager-Charleson, 2010), but can also be a useful approach for people in other professions. The scenarios can be taken as examples from practice or can be hypothetical.

Guided reflection groups

This is a small group of student practitioners (approximately 10) who meet together regularly and are facilitated by a mentor (Johns, 2013). Each student brings along at least two experiences that they have reflected on — one positive and self-affirming and one problematic (see Chapter 5). They refer to relevant theory as appropriate and the students keep an ongoing reflective journal. The mentor facilitates a space for curiosity and reflection so that the students can build their confidence and find their own way through the situations they are facing.

Group supervision

The area of supervision was discussed in Chapter 8, where the focus was on one to one meetings with a supervisor. Supervision can also be done effectively in small groups led by an experienced practitioner, when the same models can be applied.

Reflective activity 9.1

How helpful would you find reflecting with others in a group? If so, how? Is there a group that you could join?

Case study 9.1

Sophie works in the international office in a university and she is undertaking a leadership programme. As part of the programme she is part of an action learning set which meets to discuss issues relevant for people in the group. At the meeting, each person is allocated 30 minutes; during the first five minutes the person describes what they want to discuss and for the following 25 minutes, group members pose open questions to help the person to think things through at a deeper level. Sophie decides that she would like to discuss the possibilities for her future and whether or not she should stay in her current job or move to a new one. The group members ask Sophie a number of open questions, such as ’What do you enjoy about your current job?’, ’What do you dislike?’ and ’How would you like to develop in the future?’ During the discussion Sophie begins to see that she does not find her job as satisfying as she used to and, in particular, that she now finds all the travelling she has to do very draining. She realises that she needs to give much more thought to her future in order to examine her options more carefully. She plans to discuss her development with her manager, update her CV and start to search for job vacancies on two key websites to see what is available. She asks people in the group if they could meet again in a month’s time to discuss her progress.

The benefits of reflecting in groups

Reflecting in groups has many benefits and, often, practitioners welcome the opportunity to discuss their practice in some depth with their colleagues. Discussion develops our understandings, and having a supportive space to explain and explore aspects of practice with colleagues helps us to sharpen our thinking and critique our ways of working. Reflecting with others can be useful for the following reasons.

It prevents isolation

The work of some practitioners is relatively isolated. For example, a teacher in her classroom, a counsellor in his counselling room, a school nurse in her clinic or a social worker visiting families may spend much of their time working alone albeit with their clients. Some may then return to an office or centre where they have contact with colleagues whilst others might work more independently from home. In such circumstances it is easy to feel isolated and for professional practice to become blinkered. The opportunity to reflect with colleagues in a group can prevent feelings of isolation.

It prevents burn out

Meeting with others and sharing experiences gives us the opportunity to ’offload’ and to externalise our thoughts and feelings. Without this we risk the possibility of only looking inwardly, which, for some, can lead to mental exhaustion and even burn out.

It offers different perspectives

Perhaps most importantly, reflecting with others gives us the chance to see our practice from different perspectives. Each individual client and practitioner is different and discussion helps us to gain valuable insights from others into what we did and why, how things worked or otherwise and how we might be able to approach things differently to greater effect.

It develops our understanding of practice

Professional practice is constantly changing, and discussing a range of issues with other professionals (if possible with those outside our own profession as well as those within it) can help us to gain new understandings of effective work in supporting people.

It helps us to be creative

Gaining new understandings can lead to creativity in our practice as we try out new ideas and approaches in our work. These can then be discussed with others following their implementation.

It prevents stagnation

Without discussion our practice can become stale and we risk operating on ’autopilot’. We can become bored and ultimately could stagnate; this is bad for us and bad for our clients too.

It helps us to process our emotions

In Chapter 6 we explored how professional practice prompts an emotional response and showed us that we all need opportunities to process our feelings. Many practitioners find discussion helpful as part of this. As individuals we can be ’tied up’ in our own emotions, particularly when we experience difficult situations and are trying to support challenging people. In such circumstances other people can often offer a more objective perspective; they will not have such an emotional response because they were not personally involved in the situation. In addition, their perspectives will be different because they are individuals who have had different experiences from us and have different memories of their past. All of this means that they can be more objective than we can about the situation. However, we must always remember that because of their own previous experiences, no one can be completely objective.

It helps us to question our assumptions

In Chapter 7 we examined the whole area of assumptions in professional practice. Discussing these can be challenging but plays a vital part when working in an anti discriminatory way.

It helps us cope with stress

To say that professional practice is stressful seems like an understatement. We all need strategies to help us to cope with stress as practice becomes more and more demanding, and discussion with colleagues can be one such strategy.

Reflective activity 9.2

For you, what are, or would be, the main benefits of reflecting in a group?

Facilitating effective groups

In order for a group to work effectively it needs to be facilitated well, otherwise it is likely that conversations will be lengthy, albeit very interesting and often stimulating. People who work with people usually like discussing their practice at length! Unfortunately, this can mean that the focus and direction of the discussion is quickly lost as group members become immersed in detail, comparing their own practice with that of others in the group. Discussions can become very protracted as group members remember things that they have experienced and phrases like ’That also happened to me when . . .’, ’I know what you mean, when that happened to me I . . .’, and so on can regularly be heard. The role of the facilitator is to work with the group to keep it ’on track’ and to ensure that the group works effectively to achieve its purpose.

Table 9.1 Key differences between facilitation and leadership

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At this point it is important to understand the difference between the terms facilitator and leader in the context of working in a group. A phrase that is often used to describe this difference is that leadership is done to a group and facilitation is done with a group. Whilst leaders also need to be good facilitators, facilitators are not asked to take a leadership role. Table 9.1 highlights some of the key differences between facilitation and leadership.

Facilitating a group effectively is a highly skilled task and, therefore, is most often done by experienced practitioners. However, when this is not possible (which can often be the case in busy professional practice), less experienced people need to be ready to take on this role from time to time. So it is important not to be taken by surprise if you find yourself in a situation where you need to facilitate a group, even if only occasionally. You will be able to use many of the interpersonal skills you are learning in your professional practice as they are eminently transferable into this role (Culley and Bond, 2011; Thompson, 2011). Like many other areas of professional practice, the skills of group facilitation are best learned through experience.

Here are some important aspects to bear in mind when facilitating groups:

• You are not an expert. Remember that your primary role is to enable the discussion to keep its focus and to guide effective communication. If something comes up in discussion and people look to you for an answer, ask the group members for their views. In all instances, be honest about the limitations of your knowledge. If there is something you do not know, say so, and ask the group to do some research on this afterwards rather than offering to do this for them. This hands power and control over to the group and promotes group learning.

• At all times resist the temptation to push your own agenda or to offer advice. This will only discourage people from speaking and will subsequently close the discussion down. Before you know it, the focus of the group will be on you, which will not help group members to reflect on their own practice.

• Work towards an atmosphere of trust. Trust is intangible and is difficult to build and therefore takes time to foster and maintain. By contrast, it can be destroyed in minutes or even seconds. It is important to welcome comments and observations, particularly if someone is new to a group. Be positive about all contributions (particularly when it is clear that these have been difficult or sensitive to make) and never ’put anyone down’. Comments such as ’Thank you for sharing that with us’ and ’That must have been very difficult for you’ can go a long way to affirm people and to encourage them to continue to be open, which will help communication to flow.

• If a group is new, it is very helpful to set some ’ground rules’ during an early meeting in order to be clear about what is expected within the group. This is best achieved through discussion where group members are involved in deciding how they would like to work together. This could cover such issues as where the group will meet, at what time and for how long. It is good to include a discussion on issues of confidentiality, respecting one another’s views and trust, as well as such things as listening and not talking over one another. The facilitator should make a record of the ground rules and suggest that the group returns to them if any difficulties are experienced. In addition, it is usually helpful to review the ground rules periodically to make sure that they continue to be fit for purpose.

• Be aware that disclosure in a group always involves taking a bigger risk than sharing something in a pair or with your critical friend. This means that it will take time for people to reach the point where they feel safe and confident enough to disclose things about themselves and their practice. In the early days of a group consider asking people to take part in some warm up activities to help them to get to know one another better. Be sure to have breaks so that people have an informal opportunity to speak to one another to build their relationships.

• It is important to consider the location of group meetings; if at all possible it must be convenient for all group members and if this is difficult (for example, if group members work at some distance from one another) consider rotating the venue in order to be fair to everyone. A suitable room will be needed that is comfortable, with easy chairs all at the same height and with facilities for hot and cold drinks. Whilst this might sound like basic etiquette, it is surprising what a difference such things can make to effective communication.

• Be ready to challenge contributions in a positive way in order to encourage everyone to think at a deeper level. Sensitive challenging is done best by posing a tentative open question, such as ’I’m interested in . . . What made you say that in particular?’ and ’How might you want to respond to that situation now?’ These can help people to think at a deeper level and challenge themselves. This is often much more effective than being challenged by others via comments such as ’If I were you . . .’

• Listen, listen and listen some more. The importance of listening cannot be over emphasised and it can be very tiring! Unless you listen attentively to each contribution, you will not be able to reflect on what people are saying and pose questions to make them think more. You will also miss important things that people are sharing.

• Show people that you are listening through your body language. Open body language (for example, being careful not to fold your arms) shows that you are open to hear what people have to say. In turn, they are likely to then mirror this in their body language and communication will flow more effectively.

• Maintain some eye contact with group members. The key here is not too much and not too little.

• Consider having an observer: someone who will observe the group and give feedback on how people are communicating with each other. This role can be rotated effectively so that each group member takes a turn in observing the group and then giving feedback.

• Be a people watcher. You might notice that one or more group members keep their body language closed, for example by crossing their legs. It might be difficult to have any eye contact with them and communication might be rare and sparse. In such instances it is usually best to speak to them individually after the session, again by posing a tentative question like ’I couldn’t help but notice today that you seemed uncomfortable. Is this something you would like to talk about?’ Of course, the individual has the right to say no and this should always be respected.

• At all times remember to consider any relevant ethical dimensions, particularly regarding any disclosures of unprofessional behaviour and how these will be addressed. The identity and details of all clients needs to remain anonymous.

• Remember that everyone can learn and that nobody is perfect, including you. Group facilitation is a difficult task, so do not be discouraged if you feel you have got some things wrong. It is rare indeed for someone to get everything right as none of us are perfect.

Case study 9.2

Chen is a learning mentor in a primary school who has recently completed a degree in supporting children and young people. Through the course he has got to know several learning mentors from different local schools. Now that the course has finished, some of the students suggest meeting together each term to discuss their practice. Chen is keen to do this and has always got on very well with everyone. As a result, several members of the group have asked if he will facilitate the group. Chen explains that he has never done this kind of thing before, but that he is prepared to have a go and see how he gets on. Before the meeting, Chen asks everyone about a location for the group and they decide to meet in a different school each time to make things fair for everyone. Chen asks the host of the first meeting to arrange for a room with easy chairs and to arrange for hot drinks and water to be available. During the first meeting, Chen asks the group to discuss how they want to work together and agree some ground rules. Following this preparatory work, the group decides what they would like to discuss next time (safeguarding issues) and where they would like to meet. The group is keen for Chen to continue in his role as facilitator. He is happy to do this too, but suggests a review and evaluation after the third meeting.

A model for effective group participation

A measure of the effectiveness of any social relationship is the amount of communication between the different people concerned. In an effective one to one relationship we would expect the two people to communicate roughly in equal measure, so fifty per cent each. In a group of three or more, each member will listen more than they speak if everyone is going to have an opportunity to share their thoughts and views. When thinking about effective communication in groups, the Listen Observe Speak (LOS) model is useful.

Listen

It is important that all group members listen attentively to what each person says. Effective listening underpins all effective human relationships and as human beings we all need to be listened to as this makes us feel valued as people. Active listening means listening with a purpose and showing that you are listening. It includes reflecting, paraphrasing, restating and summarising what people have said (Culley and Bond, 2011). All of these responses help people to know that they have been listened to and need to be done tentatively by using phrases like ’You seem to be saying . . .’ and ’It seems to me that . . .’. This gives people the opportunity to disagree with your interpretation when appropriate, for example by saying ’Not really, what I meant was . . .’. In particular, summarising is a very useful skill in helping to keep a discussion flowing and ’on track’.

Observe

All groups demonstrate different group dynamics and as a group member or facilitator it is important to observe how people interact with one another. Observing and listening are done concurrently, and observing how people speak and act gives important clues regarding how they might feel and how important certain issues are to them. Observing body language is particularly important, as through this we can gauge how comfortable people are in the discussion and can identify times when they seem to ’shut down’ by folding their arms, crossing their legs or gazing out of the window. Being careful to observe also means we are thinking before we speak rather than simply speaking straight away.

Speak

It goes without saying that in order to listen effectively others need to communicate with us. So the questions posed need to be open, in order to give people the room to speak freely. Open questions start with words like when, where and how. Starting a question with why needs to be done with caution to ensure that it is not accusatory. Here, the tone of voice is all important; in a harsh tone, ’Why?’ can easily become ’Why (on earth)?’ It will be important to avoid closed questions, for example those that start with ’Do you . . .’ as these demand an answer of yes or no and give people little opportunity to speak. However, they can be useful if particular group members are dominating a discussion.

Hypothetical questions can be a very powerful mechanism to use in challenging and sensitive situations and can help you to avoid offering solutions. Hypothetical questions can serve to remove the personal nature of a question and can help people think things through from a range of different perspectives. For example, questions such as ’Let’s imagine we are the client. How would we feel?’ and ’If we came across this again, how would we like to react?’ can help us to step back and analyse a situation at a deeper level.

In challenging everyday practice, it is important to remember that we all need an opportunity to ’offload’, but as a group member it is important to make sure that our contributions are relevant to the discussion and that we do not drift off at a tangent. Watching ourselves is a skill that we can develop to ensure that we are not either dominating a conversation or offering too few contributions.

Reflective activity 9.3

When you are next part of the group, try to practise using the LOS model. What do you notice about how the group communicates?

Case study 9.3

A group of student nurses decide to meet together to support one another in their studies. They meet each week and find it helpful in the following ways. By listening, they hear the perspectives of other people and, because there are a variety of people in the group with different strengths, they find they can help and support one another in areas where they feel they are weaker. This is particularly helpful when sharing their lecture notes as, invariably, different group members have noted down different things. They enjoy observing the dynamics of the group and make sure that everyone has the opportunity to participate. They all speak freely and take a questioning approach to debate relevant issues. This helps them to develop their skills of critical thinking, and they make sure that no one dominates the discussions.

Dangers and downsides

In any group situation issues and difficulties can arise. Here are some common ones and some suggested strategies for dealing with them.

• One person always dominates discussions — ask for contributions from other people in the group, whilst being appreciative of what everyone says. A phrase like ’It would be good to hear what others think’ can be useful. If the person still wants to say more, offer to have a discussion after the session so they feel that their views are valued.

• Certain individuals never seem to participate — divide the group into pairs and be sure to put the quieter people together. That way they will have to speak to one another and will also have to share with the whole group when you ask for feedback.

• One person seems to feel very uncomfortable — speak to them individually in a break or at the end of the session. Remember to be tentative by using phrases like ’You seem to be uncomfortable today. Is there something you would like to talk about?’ Again, if they say no, this must be respected.

• The whole group is very quiet and reserved — many quiet people find it easier to talk in a pair or three, so again splitting into smaller groups can be helpful.

• The whole group will not stop talking — asking the group to take some time to write some reflections on relevant chosen areas can calm things down. If this becomes a pattern during meetings, asking group members to write things down before the meeting and to bring notes with them can help to achieve a sharper focus.

• The group is distracted and wanders off into other topics — remind them of the original question or area for discussion to guide them back to their focus. At times you may simply have to ’call a halt’ to very lengthy discussions and move on to the next topic.

• Someone makes an offensive comment (for example racist, sexist) — take a sensitively challenging approach and ask a question such as ’I’m wondering what made you say that. Can you please elaborate on that?’ makes the person think far more than ’That’s offensive . . .’

• You find that you dislike one group member — remember you are human and nobody likes everyone. The same applies to any group member that you feel does not like you.

• Sessions that last too long — be very clear beforehand how long a session is due to last and keep to it. If necessary, carry things over to the next meeting rather than allowing the session to continue indefinitely.

Sample exercises

This section contains some exercises that can be used in groups to help people reflect on their practice at a deeper level. Whilst discussion is good, a well planned exercise can enable a sharper focus and prompt deeper reflection.

• Prompt questions — a general question that helps people to reflect on their practice. For example, ’Since we last met, what have you been most proud of in your practice?’ and ’Which particular situation has challenged you the most?’

• Quotes — find an appropriate quote and ask people to discuss it. There are many websites that offer a wide range of useful quotes, such as www.brainyquotes.com which organises quotes under themes.

• Presenting challenging cases — ask group members to write up a challenging case and bring it to the group for discussion.

• Give group members a short piece to read before the session and discuss it.

• Ask the group to identify a theme that they would like to focus on and ask one of the members to lead a discussion.

• Use role play to help people to develop their practice, for example by focusing on listening skills or assertiveness.

• Ask group members to watch a video (for example on YouTube) and to make notes. Then ask them to share their notes as a exercise in observation.

• Rosy glow exercise — give each participant a sheet of paper and ask them to write their name at the top of it. Sitting in a circle, pass all the sheets round clockwise person by person. Ask people to write a positive comment expressing something that they appreciate in the person whose name is at the top of the sheet and then fold the paper over so that no one else can read it. Do this until each person has written on each of the sheets and the person gets their own sheet back. Encourage people to take the sheet and to read it when they get home. They might want to keep it in the top drawer of their desk or in their bag for the days when they feel like resigning!

• The talking stick — this is a very helpful technique to make sure that people are heard and understood. The talking stick (this can be any type of stick or even a pencil); only the person who holds the stick is allowed to speak. The people listening can pose sensitive questions for the purpose of clarification to make sure they have understood the points being made. When the person speaking feels they have said all they want to say and have been understood, they then pass the stick on to the person who wants to speak next.

Conclusion

In this chapter we have considered a wide range of issues in relation to reflecting in groups. It is clear that we can learn a lot by reflecting on our own and with a critical friend. Reflecting in a group can open up wider discussions and broaden our perspectives. Group facilitation is a very skillful activity and something that we can learn by observation and practice. In the next chapter we move on to consider the area of managing change.

References

Bager-Charleson, S. (2010) Reflective Practice in Counselling and Psychotherapy, Exeter: Learning Matters.

Cowie, H. and Wallace, P. (2000) Peer Support in Action: From Bystanding to Standing by, London: Sage.

Culley, S. and Bond, T. (2011) Integrative Counselling Skills in Action, 3rd edn. London: Sage.

Forsyth, D.R. (2006) Group Dynamics, 4th edn, Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing.

Johns, C. (2013) Becoming a Reflective Practitioner, 4th edn. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.

Revans, R. (2011) ABC of Action Learning, Farnham, Surrey: Gower Publishing Ltd.

Thompson, N. (2011) Effective Communication: A Guide for the People Professions, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Wheatley, M.J. (2012) ’Is the pace of life hindering our ability to manage?’ Available from www.margaretwheatley.com/articles/the pace of life.html. Accessed 7 May 2015.