This piece is part of a series offering thoughts on the experience of being in a therapy group. It may be helpful to read if you are thinking about joining a group or running groups or if you are already in a group.
When I am discussing with someone about joining a group, a common question is often around my role as therapist in the group. Below I outline different aspects of the group therapist’s role as I see it.
One important aspect of role of the therapist is to take care of the administration of the group. This includes managing boundaries and making decisions that maintain the group as a safe therapeutic space. This is called Dynamic Administration.
This role includes assessing and deciding who will be in the group and establishing a physically safe and uninterrupted space for the group to meet in. It also includes setting out and maintaining boundaries for the group to keep it operating safely, consistently, and therapeutically.
The group therapist will also help the individual prepare for joining a group. As part of this, they will invite the potential member to speculate what kinds of experiences could be helpful, and what might feel more challenging, in the group. This can sometimes be a general discussion but is particularly useful when based on what the therapist and individual already know about their history – especially their history of groups. (see How important are our groups?)
The Group Therapist in the Group
One of the things I always say, in response to questions about how I will be in the group, is that I follow the group rather than lead it. This rejection of the role of group ‘leader’ is central to group analysis and its democratic principles. Instead of being called a leader, the therapist in Group Analysis is called a conductor.
In group analysis, the therapist as is viewed as another member of the group. This does not mean they are not present in the role of therapist but more that the task of therapy is also shared with the group.
The therapist as another member also refers to the concept of a network that all the members create together through their communications and relationships in the group – consciously and unconsciously. The group therapist is a part of this network and influences it – and is influenced by it – like every other member.
Although they are a member of the group the conductor is very much there as a therapist and not a patient. So, they will act in similar ways to a therapist in individual work. They will not – or very rarely – disclose personal information and their focus is on the therapeutic needs of the group and the individuals in the group.
My experience as the group therapist or conductor is that I move in and out of different positions in the group process. Sometimes I feel very central and very much a part of discussions, other times I am more in an observer’s role. When I speak it can sometimes be to the group as a whole or other times to an individual or individuals in the group.
As a group develops and becomes more used to working therapeutically together, I find how I take up my role often changes as well. What the group might want from me at the very start is often different as time shifts. And these changes can also take place from session to session. Individuals also might need or want different things from me as they do from other members, and this changes as well.
This is a brief account of the role of the group therapist or group conductor, but I hope it has been able to give a flavour of what it might be like in a therapy group in relation to the therapist. I have described three aspects of the group therapist’s role – dynamic administration, preparing the individual joining a group, and the role of conductor in the group.
Further reading by Claire Barnes