Groups and Group Counselling

Published: 08th December 2006
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Group counselling is a challenging and dynamic form of counselling that requires all-round professional skills from counsellors. It implies that any challenges a counsellor may find in helping an individual can potentially duplicate, triplicate, or vastly multiply - however, the more intricate the challenge is, the higher the rewards. In this article, we define the basic elements of group counselling and provide several guidelines - after all, the core prerequisite of understanding group dynamics is not only part of the counsellor's professional framework, but part of a much larger perspective: the framework of life.

The Importance of Groups

"The ubiquitousness of groups and the inevitability of being in them make groups one of the most important factors in our lives. All day long we interact first in one group and then in another. We live in a dwelling as part of a group, we learn in groups contained in the same classroom, we work in groups, we interact with friends in groups, and we spend much of our leisure time in groups. Our family life, our leisure time, our friendships, and our careers are all filled with groups. In fact, if a being from outer space conducted a study of the people of Earth, group membership would probably be the dominant characteristic noted." (Johnson & Johnson 1997)

There is no uncertainty in the fact that our personal identities are intrinsically related to the groups we have been involved with throughout our lives. For this reason, it is important to comprehend the concept of group dynamics, and the relevance that group relationships has in each individual's lives. Investigating group dynamics is a measure to better understand individual behaviour - or like an old proverb implies: "Tell me who you walk with, and I will tell you who you are."

Groups and Dynamics: Basic Elements

"Since content and process must be balanced to have productive group dynamics, a question that arises is 'How?'. One answer is to think of the group as a system, a set of elements standing in interaction. Each element in the system is affected by whatever happens to any other element. Likewise, the system is greater than the sum of its parts." (Gladding 1999)

Similar to mathematics theory, the dynamic interactions which occur within a group, along with the external influencing factors upon that group, pose challenges to controlling and interpreting group outcomes. When dealing with groups, the primary objective (whether a group is formed to develop a project or a group united by the need to tackle an analogous problem) is to ensure that the group is healthy and productive. As such, core communication skills which are based on interpersonal communication theory are applicable for groups - promoting good communication between group individuals creates a safe and productive environment for the group to work. For counsellors, planning prior to conducting a group session is essential. Planning ensures that the counsellor is considering: (a) his/her audience's socio-cultural background; (b) the communication needs of the group individuals and; (c) the type of interaction which is most effective for his/her audience. Pre-planning also diminishes the possibility of communication flaws, which may result in interpersonal conflict - the most undesirable (and awfully propagating) element in a productive group.

Groups and Counselling: A Matter of Approach

There are several definitions of groups which vary from a sociological perspective, according to common goals, interdependence, interpersonal interaction and other criteria. In many occasions, groups may be formed by undemanding circumstances. What does that mean? It means that dealing with groups does not only involve acknowledging the group behaviour as a unit, but also identifying each individual's response to that group behaviour. This concept is important, particularly in counselling.

According to Smith (1945) "we may define a social group as a unit consisting of a plural number of separate organisms (agents) who have a collective perception of their unity and who have the ability to act and/or are acting in a unitary manner toward their environment (p. 227)."

Counsellors as group leaders and/or facilitators need to adopt a structured approach in their relationship with group individuals. For this to happen, they'll need to follow certain communication rules which are basic requirements for conducting group counselling sessions. Here are some guidelines in a nutshell:

1. Use selection procedures - sometimes it is simply not appropriate to put individuals together in a group, simply because they share a particular behaviour pattern or problem.

2. Adjust group size according to manageability. Adopt a co-facilitator, if required.

3. Establish group rules and expectations early in the formation stage of the group.

4. Maintain a strong element of flexibility and be prepared with a number of contingency plans.

5. Know your group. Acquire an understanding of your group prior to developing your program.

6. Enjoy the journey of group work - the highs, the lows, the setbacks and the accomplishments.

7. Reflect on your group work skills and allow each group to be your teacher.

Groups and Counselling: Counsellor Insights

"Group counselling for me was in the form of support groups for users (U) of substance misuse and also their significant others (SO).

One particular time when I was facilitating the 'U' group or 'Users' of illicit substances, this girl who claims she could not relate to people, had special relationships with mice. She turned up one particular day with a mouse crawling around the inside of her clothes and poking its face out of a sleeve one minute and then a neckline the next. The other members of the group didn't notice until one girl let out a huge scream when she turned to this girl to ask her something only to come face to face with the mouse.

We were then obliged to include this change of event for participating members in our group to the mouse. There were ten people present and eight stated they couldn't care less, however, two stated that if she insisted on carrying the mouse on her then they would not be able to attend. It was decided that the owner could bring the mouse along in a separate container and keep it next to her on the floor so other members would not be alarmed at it poking its head out at inopportune times.

The group successfully continued with other members becoming more involved with the care and maintenance of this girl's pet mice. However, it was later discovered that she had approximately 30 living at her home and each week she would bring a different one as a special 'outing' for a treat." (Kathleen Casagrande - AIPC Education Adviser)

"I remember an experience I had with an anger management group for eight-year-old boys. Fresh out of university, naive to the energy and tenacity of primary-school aged children, I designed a structured and detailed anger management program to facilitate in a local State School. Armed with extensive worksheets, individual activities and group work exercises, I self-assuredly arrived at the school. Directed by the School Principal to collect the children straight from their classrooms, I made my way from one Grade Four class to the next, until I had collected all six of my group participants.

My participants had been selected by their teachers and School Principal to be included in the group due to "challenging behaviours". I learnt very quickly that facilitating a group of "challenging" eight-year-olds was not as simple as I had first imagined.

As I set about conducting an ice-breaker exercise, I had one child tip over his table, another pretend to faint as he fell to the floor and yet another throw pencils into the ceiling fan! I knew this was about testing the boundaries but it was much more than I had anticipated!

It took several sessions to build rapport and establish rules with this group of eight-year-olds. We didn't complete every group activity or worksheet I had planned. Sometimes we'd start the session with a run around the oval, sometimes we'd play bingo under a tree, but we worked together to finally establish an effective group process and the participants established great friendships amongst themselves.

As the weeks progressed, the group became more and more focused on the tasks at hand. Participants slowly became interested in offering their input, sharing their story and sometimes even offering help to each other." (Karyn Blanch - AIPC Project Officer)

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