Ah, groups…

group dancingMost models of group development describe stages that the members and the group as a whole go through as part of the group lifecycle. The first stage has names like orientation, initial, beginning, pre-affiliation, inclusion, and forming. While the second stage has more dramatic names such as conflict, transitional, norm development, power and control, and storming.

During the first stage, group members tend to focus on establishing and sharing their personal goals for being a member, and beginning to find their roles within the group by looking to the behavior of others. Members often to feel anxious about belonging, wonder if they can trust the group especially with personal information, and they tend to enact their usual patterns when they meet new people which maybe somewhere along the continuum between withdrawn to extroversion. At this stage communication between group members tends to be superficial and focuses on giving and receiving advice (Mcphee & Gass, 1993).

At this time, it is important for group leaders to provide information that will help people decide if they want to be part of the group, establish structure and guidance for new skills, and provide support to individual members. The leaders can draw out commonalities and foster members developing personal connections with each other. Sub-groups may begin to form early on, so leaders should name and highlight the formation of any cliques that could exclude some members from full participation in the group. When the group has mastered these tasks, it will naturally move onto the next stage, although it could return here at any time.


group conflictThe second stage of group formation is one that often scares people, since it usually involves conflict. This could emerge among group members, between members and the leaders, or in relation to an outside group or concept. Conflict starts to emerge once most group members have determined that the group is a safe place and that it is worth investing in emotionally (Mcphee & Gass, 1993). People are committed to the group and now feel safe enough to pull back and reclaim some of their individual identity. Negative feelings like confusion and irritation may start to come to the surface and be expressed for the first time, communication may include criticism, and language about the way things “should” be.

The group must learn to navigate conflict successfully in order to become more cohesive and form deeper relationships. Many people are afraid of conflict and do their best to avoid it or distract themselves when they fear it may occur. This is be because of its potential for driving the group apart, as Mindell (2000) points out, “Unmitigated and unprocessed tension can lead to war just as easily as it can lead to the development of greater synergy and teamwork” (p. 42). However contradictory it may seem, avoiding conflict can actually stifle the very emotional growth and connection that group members seek. I have seen this proven time and time again in my own experience.

Conflict can come up around competition for attention or decision-making power. This is intimately linked to issues of rank which can be determined by race, ethnicity, education, gender, etc (Mindell, 1995).  Group members may become aware of the ways in which they have been using their power or ways they have felt oppressed by the power of others. Naming these dynamics can cause great resistance and conflict within a group as people fear potential retaliation or a loss of relationships within the group.

New behaviors may need to be negotiated to address group values more explicitly. The early roles and norms that have been established in a group may need to be reworked, which can cause conflict as people readjust to this changing context. Mindell (2000) writes, “All groups and organizations have beliefs, tendencies, philosophies and behaviors that they promote and others that they disapprove of, prohibit, repress or actively resist” (p. 43). Within this context, conflict can occur as people struggle to become more congruent with their own true selves. They may realize they have been behaving in ways that do not reflect their true wishes. Or through feedback from other group members, they may become aware of the consequences of patterns of previously established behavior.

One of the main ways that conflict manifests is through incongruencies within each individual, such as when people send one message with their words and another with their body language. Other group members pick up on these conflicting messages and react to them. However, conflict only becomes healthy and productive when the all parts of every group member are encouraged to express themselves and space is held for all of them (Mindell, 2000). Group leaders can help draw attention to these incongruencies and help group members to self-correct by explicitly bringing more parts of themselves to the group.


group cohesionYalom (2005) describes group cohesion as the fluctuating attraction that group members have for their group based on their relationship with other members, leaders and the group as a whole. High levels of cohesiveness improve the therapeutic outcome for group members and help to protect the group from internal and external threats to its integrity. There are several ways that group leaders and members can help to create norms that foster a sense of cohesion and the qualities that make for a successful therapeutic experience: trust, warmth, empathetic understanding and acceptance.

Groups high in cohesiveness help members to enter a reinforcing circle where they feel trust in other members, disclose personal information, receive empathy from other members, experience acceptance for their individual thoughts and experiences, which in turn leads to increased trust and further self-disclosure. This pattern allows group members to receive information about the accuracy of their self-perception, as the group may value them more or less than they value themselves. Since the group itself is perceived as helpful by the members, this discrepancy creates a dissonance that requires members to revise their beliefs about themselves and corresponding behavior.

According to Yalom (2005), the main tasks of the group leader are to create and maintain the group, build a group culture, and illuminate the here and now. Underlying these tasks is the need for a consistent positive relationship with all group members.   The leader should recognize and address any behavior that threatens group cohesiveness including attrition, cliques, scapegoating, etc. This will help to create a group culture that will foster therapeutic change in the members. The group norms that develop may be tacit or explicit and for or against certain behaviors. The leaders should be emotionally stable and model constructive ways of working through conflict including direct and heart-felt communication, individual processing of intense or difficult feelings, and non-defensiveness.



McPhee, P. & Gass, M. (1993). A group development model for adventure therapy programs in Gass, M.. Adventure Therapy: Therapeutic applications of adventure Programming (171-177). Dubuque, IA: Kendall Hunt.

Mindell, A. (1995). Sitting in the fire: Large group transformation using conflict and diversity. Portland, OR: Lao Tse Press.

Mindell, A. (2000). The leader as martial artist: Techniques and strategies for revealing conflict and creating community. Portland, OR: Lao Tse Press.

Yalom, I.D. & Leszcz, M. (2005). The theory and practice of group psychotherapy (5th ed.). New York, NY: Basic Books.

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