Counselling & Personal Development

" of the most innovative and effective counselling services available
and a wealth of resources for your own reading and personal development...."

Leading Groups into Community

Requirement for Commitment to Community

Because it is so important to community building, participants in community building workshops are asked to be prepared for the commitment they will be prepared to make. The purpose of the gathering will be to build themselves into a community and the process of doing so is likely to be difficult or painful at first. They are required to stay with the process and ride out the storm.

As soon as they convene, this instruction is read to participants:

"There is only one major rule. You can’t drop out. Now, I have no means, no guns, no chains or ropes with which to enforce this commitment. What I mean is that each one of us is responsible for the success of this group. If you are unhappy with the way things are going, and you may be, it is your responsibility to speak up and voice your dissatisfaction rather than simply take yourself off and quietly leave. The expectation is that we will hang in together through periods of doubt, anxiety, anger, depression and even despair. But the joy we will attain, if and when we reach community will be like little else you’ve ever experienced."

Some people do leave, during the difficult stages of chaos or emptiness. More surprisingly, one or two depart after the group has succeeded in becoming a community. They never say why they are leaving, but sadly, it may be that for a few people, the love is more than they can bear, for the time being anyway.

Initial Advice

Begin with a reading of the story, The Rabbi’s Gift.

Leaders should use their discretion about how much advice to give groups at the outset, but advising them of the following points can speed up the process of achieving a genuine community:

  • Refrain from generalisations, i.e. speak of specifics.
  • Speak personally, use "I" and "My" statements and say what is meaningful to you.
  • Speak only when moved to speak, not just for the sake of speaking.
  • Be prepared to be vulnerable.
  • Avoid attempting to heal or convert others.
  • Listen wholeheartedly to others.
  • Embrace the painful as well as the pleasurable.
  • Be prepared to empty yourself of preconceptions and prejudices.

Interventions in Group Behaviour

Since a group is more than the sum of its parts - it is a living organism in its own right - leaders should keep their focus on the group as a whole. They usually need not concern themselves with the problems or personalities of individual members. In fact, such concern is likely to interfere with community building. The general rule, therefore, is that leaders should restrict their interventions to interpretations of group rather than individual behaviour. The purpose of all such interventions is not to tell the group what to do or what not to do, but to awaken it to awareness of its behaviour.

Typical examples of such interventions would be for the leader to say that the group seems to be acting as if everyone had the same religious faith, or that the chaos centres around attempts to change each other, or it appears that younger and older members of the group are dividing themselves into different factions, or that the group seems to change the subject every time that someone says something painful and doesn’t want to hear of one another’s suffering. The leader could ask why the group cannot empty itself of its desire to be strongly led.

One effect of this style of leadership is to teach the other members to also think in terms of the group as a whole. In the beginning, few members of the group have any group consciousness, but by the time they reach community, most of the members will have learned to be aware of themselves as a body. Indeed, they will also start to make effective group interventions.

Abiding by another general rule of community building leadership, the designated leader should make only those interventions that the other members are not yet capable of making. Otherwise, the group could not become a community, a group of all leaders. Conversely, a fully developed community is quite capable of solving its own problems without a single designated leader. This requires, however, that the designated leader must do a lot of waiting to see if other members in the group will pick up on a problem already visible to himself or herself.

General rules have exceptions. Occasionally, for instance, it will be necessary for the designated leader to focus on the behaviour of an individual member. This should be done, however, not so much for the needs of the individual as for the needs of the group; that is, when the individuals behaviour is clearly interfering with the building of community and the group as a whole does not yet seem capable of confronting the problem.

Dealing with Task Avoidance

Each community building experience is unique, just as each individual member of the group is unique, but there are certain patterns in the behaviour of the group as a whole that strongly influence and often impeded the process. To lead a group through to community, a leader has to become experienced in these patterns in order to lead the group to similar awareness, whether consciously or unconsciously.

Sooner or later, all groups attempt to avoid their tasks. Wilfred Bion, pioneer of group work at the Tavistock Institute in Britain described four ways in which groups do this. He distinguished four "task-avoidance assumptions". They are:

  • Flight
  • Fight
  • Pairing
  • Dependence

He used the term "assumptions" because, when operating under them, groups behave as if they assume their purpose is to avoid their tasks in accord with particular assumptions. It is virtually impossible for a group to become or stay in genuine community without understanding these realities and coming to terms with them.

  • Flight

In the task-avoidance assumption of flight, groups show a strong tendency to flee from troublesome issues and problems. Rather than confront these issues and problems, groups will act as if they assume it is their purpose to avoid them.

This happens with pseudocommunity where the flight is from anything that might cause healthy as well as unhealthy conflict. It happens in chaos when a group attempts to avoid the path of emptiness by fleeing into organisation. It happens when a group is attempting to avoid emotional pain, when the group is willing to talk about intellectual definitions of "community" while avoiding the opportunity to actually be in community.

Here it will be the task of the leader to point out that one of the things emptiness means is being quiet long enough to be empty for long enough to digest what someone else has just said. Often when somebody says something painful, the group runs away from it into noisiness. It can also happen after genuine community has been achieved where a group does not take time to deal with the problem of re-entry to normal life or to grieve properly over its demise as a community - where it avoids the issue of its death as a group.

  • Fight

This is the task-avoidance assumption that predominates during the second stage of the community building process, the period of chaos. As soon as it moves out of pseudocommunity, a group will usually start behaving like a conglomeration of amateur psychotherapists and preachers, all attempting to heal and convert one another. But, of course, it doesn’t work and the less it seems to work, the harder the group members try to make it work. The process of attempting to heal and convert instantaneously becomes a process of fighting. The group is operating under the task-avoidance assumption of fighting. It assumes that its purpose in being together is to squabble in this manner, although as individual members they do not think of themselves as fighting. Usually they think they are only trying to help. But the group process becomes very angry and chaotic.

Here it becomes the job of the community building leader not only to expose the group to the task-avoidance assumption of fighting, but also to point the way to the solution, to say to the group that they are supposedly trying to build a community but all they seem to be doing is fighting and wonder why that might be. This kind of intervention should not be made to early. If it is, the group is likely to retreat into pseudocommunity. If it has spent enough time in chaos, however, the group is more likely to ask itself where it is going wrong. Once this question is asked, the group can usually work out the answer for itself. Maybe it will need help, but only a little. This can be given by asking the group members to examine their motives at the deepest level for acting as if it were their task to heal and convert. The more the group does this, the more we do this, the more we empty ourselves of our desires to fix people and the more we become able and willing, even eager, to allow others to be themselves, we thereby create an atmosphere of respect and safety. In such an atmosphere, which is the essence of community, healing and converting will effortlessly begin to occur without anyone pushing it.

  • Pairing

There is a tendency to lose sight of the central task of community building. Alliances, conscious or unconscious, between two or more members of the group are highly likely to interfere with the group’s mature development. This can happen where couples or friends have attended the group together or where attractions arise during the experience. The task of the leader is to ask whether, in their friendship, they haven’t forgotten about the community as a whole and their highest purpose in being there.

  • Dependency

A group has to be told that a community cannot exist if the members depend on a leader to lecture them or carry their load. Each of us has as much responsibility as the other for the success of the group’s work. No more and no less. The problem is that groups do not take kindly to being even relatively leaderless. Although it does nothing to develop their maturity, indeed it interferes with their development, people would generally much rather depend on a leader to tell them what to do rather than determine that for themselves. Until the group grows out of it, until it becomes a community - a group of all leaders, its members will almost invariably misunderstand and resent their non-authoritarian leader. Sometimes their desire for an authority or father figure can be so strong that they will figuratively crucify the leader who refuses to accede to their demands.

To lead people into community, a true leader must discourage their dependency. There may be no way to do this except to refuse to lead. Paradoxically, the strong leader in these instances is the one who is willing to risk, even welcome the accusation of failing to lead. The accusation is usually made. Sometimes it is almost murderous. Then the leader has to have the strength to refuse to be the "leader" the group is clamouring for. This is not easy. It is far easier for us to teach and preach than not to speak. Even leaders have to empty themselves of their need to control, of their need to talk, of their need to help all the time, of their need to be a figure of wisdom, of their need to look like a hero with quick and easy answers and cherished notions. The group can only learn how to go into emptiness when its leader is able to practice emptiness.

Other Dynamics

The success of a group in seeking to achieve community does not seem to be related to its size. Peck conducted community building workshops that ranged between 25 and 65, with that limit set simply because it is the largest group that could squeeze itself into a facsimile of an intimate circle. A factor that makes community building with even relatively large groups possible is that it is not necessary for every participant to speak. There is profound power in non-verbal behaviour - facial expressions and simple postures. Members who don’t speak a word may contribute as much to the group as the most voluble. As long as members are emotionally present, there is no compulsion to solicit their words.

A Community Building Experience conducted by THE ROAD™ will normally be smaller, from six up to 40.

Two days are required to achieve genuine community for larger groups, but with THE ROAD™ this is often achieved in a full-day experience because it is possible to do so more rapidly with smaller groups and where time is spent on preparation and initial instruction is given. Apart from that, we would go along with Peck’s assertion that the community building experience is the more powerful when it is done without "tricks" or "games" to smooth the process. Still, there is one tool that often facilitates the process, especially the process of leading a group into emptiness - that is silence.

After a break in a workshop, the next session will often begin with three minutes of silence during which the group is asked to reflect on what they, as individuals, particularly need to empty themselves of. When it is perceived that a group is having a particular problem with emptiness, an additional period of silence will be mandated to deal with the problem.

The story, The Rabbi’s Gift is told at the beginning of each community building experience, however, its significance is sometimes lost in all that follows. It is worth repeating. It serves many purposes, one of which is to steer the group away from vicious confrontation. It brings back a message of respect and gentleness.

It is a characteristic of true community that it will squarely confront realities. It is also a characteristic that it will do so as gently and respectfully as possible.