Leading a group is not an easy task. Whether it’s a group of clients in your counseling practice or peers in your church, there are challenges anytime you bring a diverse group of people together. In Helping Groups Heal by Jan Paul Hook, Ed.D., Joshua N. Hook, PhD, and Don E. Davis, PhD, the primary message is that healing happens in relationships.
Working through challenges in a group, according to the authors, has the capacity to bring people to healing, no matter their level of brokenness. Using The Healing Cycle model, the authors walk group leaders through specific steps described as grace, safety, vulnerability, truth, ownership, and repentance.
The first step, grace, is about unconditional acceptance, which is a familiar concept to those who have read about Maslow. His theory infers that acceptance is a foundational need for all people. Through the authors’ shared lens of Christianity, grace is also what God shows towards his people. When people experience grace, whether from God or others, they are better able to extend it to others. This becomes possible in a group setting.
Safety is the second step of the healing cycle in Helping Groups Heal. While there might be some discomfort with being vulnerable and sharing with others, it is possible when there is a feeling of safety in the group.
“Staying superficial is much easier but does not bring about healing and growth,” write the authors.
But getting beyond the superficial can only happen when group boundaries are defined, confidentiality is understood, members refrain from judgment, and all remain committed to the group. In my own experience, there tends to be a shift in dynamics when people drop out of group after that bond that has been formed. So getting commitment early in the process is important.
Only when people are extended grace and feel safe does real vulnerability happen; people take off their masks and get to know each other. For Christians who are familiar with biblical stories, the authors say that “restoring vulnerability and intimacy is a fundamental aspect of God’s redemptive plan.” This plan, according to the Christian faith, includes our relationship with God as well as with the people in our lives.
Both Christians and non-Christians can benefit from learning to be vulnerable with each other and getting past the surface level small talk which is so easy in our culture. When I disclose something about myself in a group, it sets the stage and invites group members to follow my example. For this reason, group leaders should model vulnerability, as well as validate and show empathy for group members when they share.
It’s sometimes easier to deny where we are then to face the truth about what’s going on in our lives.
“A person who is depressed must face the truth of that depression in order to heal,” write the authors.
Understandably, people practice avoidance in order to not deal with difficult feelings, but long-term healing and growth are not possible when this happens. Ownership is important, and it can only occur when people stop avoiding and take responsibility for any role they might play in a problem rather than blame others.
Equally important is that leaders step up and take responsibility when they’re perhaps at fault for things not going as planned in the group setting. At times, this requires facing conflict that happens in group to rebuild the safety rather than glossing it over. Not taking this ownership due to discomfort can do more damage to the group as a whole. When ownership is demonstrated within the group setting, it promotes that behavior outside of the group as well.
Finally, the authors write that the sixth step, repentance, “happens when ownership of truth is put into action.”
At the same time, members and leaders, need to give each other grace because change that happens after repentance takes time. Through the group process, people can help each other with desired behavior changes expressed with repentance and move towards action one step at a time.
Each chapter of Helping Groups Heal includes thought-provoking questions for people to reflect on while learning each step, as well as exercises for individuals and groups. Working through this book as a group may be especially helpful for leaders that are new, since much can be learned from the experience of other leaders.
Although the authors write from a Christian perspective, there are principles in the book that can be used by leaders with secular world views, but the book is probably best for people who are newer to this role.
Ultimately, the authors say that all leaders should “remember that group members are responsible for their own lives, including their own process of healing and growth.” As group leaders, we can facilitate this process, but the responsibility is up to the individual. Recognize that it is, in fact, a process and that much of this work may happen outside of the group setting or even after the group concludes.
Helping Groups Heal
Jan Paul Hook, Joshua N Hook, Don E. Davis
Paperback, 280 pages