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Tending to group dynamics: four steps to success for support group leaders

Support group leader smiling while talking with group members.
Support group leader smiling while talking with group members.

Groups typically include people with different personalities, strengths, and challenges. This  creates the group’s dynamic. As a support group leader, you have to manage these dynamics in ways that create trust, safety, and connection. This may be one of the most challenging and important tasks you face in your leadership role.  

The leaders of groups for adoptive, kin, and foster parents face an extra challenge that affects group dynamics. Most of your members have experiencedor are currently experiencingprimary, secondary, or historical trauma. 

  • Primary trauma is the trauma that has happened directly to a person. In the case of parent groups, it is the trauma that parents have experienced as children or trauma created by their child’s behaviors in response to their own trauma.
  • Secondary trauma refers to the trauma that parents experience over time from hearing about another person’s trauma. This could be from helping a child heal from their primary trauma, from helping a group member work through challenging situations, or even from the day-to-day routine of being a caregiver.
  • Historical traumaor generational traumais related to major events that oppressed a particular group of people because of their status. This includes the legacies of slavery, the Holocaust, forced migration, and the violent colonization of Native Americans. This trauma can reveal itself in the children or caregivers, depending on their background.

This article provides four broad steps to help you develop the skills to manage the dynamics of your support group:

  1. Define positive group dynamics.
  2. Understand factors that affect group dynamics.
  3. Develop a structure that supports positive group dynamics.
  4. Intervene to meet specific challenges. 

Step one: Define positive group dynamics

As a group leader, you need to embrace the fact that conflict is normal and healthy. Conflict supports the kinds of deeper thinking and exploration that promotes growth and healing. Your goal is not to develop a conflict-free group. It is to create a group that can handle some healthy conflict within an atmosphere of trust, inclusion, and safety. 

This is one example of defining a positive group dynamica group that “defaults to trust.” Other ways to create and sustain healthy group dynamics include:

  • Participants share a common goal. Is the mission and vision of your support group clear and shared by all?
  • Participants feel physically and emotionally safe. Do leaders practice, promote, and protect healthy boundaries? Is confidentiality respected? Are physical needsfor example, those related to temperature, snacks, drink, restroomsmet? Are leaders aware of and able to minimize elements that may be triggering for some participants?
  • Participants feel included and supported. Are participants of differing backgrounds, ages, socio-economics, race, culture, religion, gender identity, and sexual orientation welcome? Are expectations related to bringing snacks or paying flexible for members who may have less money? 
  • Participants feel connected. Are efforts made regularly to provide time for participants to get to know each other, develop meaningful connections, and work past any communication barriers?
  • Participants are encouraged to safely explore a range of ideas and feelings. Rather than avoiding conflict, do leaders say things such as, “I know tonight’s topic may be difficult, but it may be valuable to explore it together. Are we willing to do that? Is there anything you need to feel safe enough to stretch beyond your comfort zone?”
  • Participants hold one another accountable. Is the entire group engaged in maintaining group agreements and a climate of respect for all? Are participants willing to respectfully remind one another of group agreements, encourage someone to stop interrupting, reframe a negative statement, etc.? 
  • Participants have a sense of group ownership. Instead of taking the lead on all aspects of the group, do you as a leader include members in decision-making? Do you find ways to share responsibilities or look for opportunities to elevate other potential leaders in the group? Do you survey group members about their needs and interests from time to time?

A parent support group in Louisiana developed this motto as a group agreement: “Default to trust, then mine for understanding.” When we begin with a belief that others are worthy of our trust and not intentionally trying to be hurtful, disrespectful, or dismissive, we can respond to potentially disruptive or offensive words or actions in ways that seek to understand. Using a phrase such as, “Can you help me understand what led you to that thought?” is more helpful than shutting down or responding in anger. 

Step two: Understand factors that contribute to challenging group dynamics

Group dynamics are complex. It’s not always clear what factors may be contributing to a challenging group dynamic. The following may be factors for you to consider. 

  • Individual roles. Individuals in a group often take on specific roles, such as the initiator, the compromiser, the critic, or the joker. As a leader, being able to identify when someone is in such a role can help you better manage the group. 
  • The group’s developmental stage. Like people, groups go through developmental stages. These stagesoften called forming, storming, norming, performing, and adjourninginfluence a group’s sense of togetherness, development of trust, participants’ communication styles, and ability to commit to shared goals.
  • Lack of effective facilitation. When a group is all over the place, jumping from topic to topic with a lack of clarity or focus, members can become frustrated, confused, and impatient.
  • Politics. In a time of increased partisanship, differing political beliefs can have a significant impact on group dynamics. Either setting ground rules about avoiding politics or having a stock response (“Let’s take this out of the political realm and address the underlying concern….”) can help. 
  • When anger becomes aggression. Anger is a normal response for parents caring for children with trauma histories. The challenges of accessing resources, services, and supports are frustrating. Encountering trauma triggers, racism, and other forms of bias while navigating these challenges can be very upsetting. It is OK for parents to express anger and to vent at times. But it’s important for participants to be able to control their anger and not shout or yell. When the group climate becomes dominated by anger or aggressive behavior, many participants will not feel safe and may respond with overt or passive aggression themselves, or by withdrawing. Neither of these outcomes makes for a healthy experience.
  • Individual needs. Support groups are intended to support all participants. When a member’s needs are very significant, the whole group may feel like a therapy session for that individual. Then other participants may feel disconnected and unsupported. 

It is important as a leader for you to be aware of these factors, identify which factors are most at play in your group, and develop strategies to prevent or address them. It is also important to be aware that traumaincluding secondary traumais likely playing a role in generating these dynamics.

Step three: Develop a structure that supports positive group dynamics

The best way to deal with a problem is to prevent it before it starts. When you are aware of the factors that can hurt your group dynamics, you can prevent many challenges by structuring your group so that positive dynamics win the day. In addition to using a strong set of group agreements, these are five things that leaders can do to develop a structure that supports positive group dynamics.

  • Set the tone. The leader will always be the one who sets the tone for the meeting, helping people feel included. Be positive and supportive. Make sure you know your own triggers so you can stay on an even keel.
  • Balance “I-We-It.” Scholars have defined the balance needed for healthy group dynamics using the “I-We-It” framework. “I” represents the need to attend to the interests of individual participants; “we” represents the need to have a sense of shared group identity and purpose; and “it” represents the need to have specific themes, topics, or areas of focus for each gathering. As you plan meeting agendas and activities, think about how each item engages participants individually, collectively, and purposefully. When you begin to sense the group is going off the rails, ask yourself: “Are there one or more people who are getting most of the resources or attention? Does the group still have a shared sense of purpose and mission? Do our meetings or activities unite us around specific topics, questions, or themes?” 
  • Anticipate the roles participants take. Understanding the roles people tend to take in groups lets you engage them in ways that play to their strengths. Having jobs or activities ready for participants that cater to their personal styles can help you avoid clashes and prevent some participants from hurting the group. The person who is often the joker can be enlisted to lead the opening icebreaker. The person who tends to take over discussions could be reined in by asking them to record and summarize discussion topics that the group wants to focus on. 
  • Model reflective communication strategies. Promote trauma-informed communication by using questions that require reflection, such as, “I noticed three or four of you nodding your heads when Adam was talking. It feels like you can relate to that. Would any of you like to share your similar experiences?” Engage in reflective listening, restating what is heard, reframing negative comments in constructive ways, asking for clarification, and using your own body language to show engagement, interest, and support. One way to reframe a negative comment is to ask the speaker what they might have done differently or how they wish an incident had gone. 
  • Have resources available. Sometimes a situation arises that is more than a challenging  group dynamic and may be the beginning of a genuine crisis for one or more members. Know the resources that are available in your community and be prepared to make a referral when needed. 

Step four: Intervene to meet specific challenges

Be aware of tricky group dynamics as they appear and use proactive problem-solving and conflict resolution strategies. When you notice a situation developing, name it, either privately or within the larger group. Don’t single individuals out, but say something such as, “It seems like a lot of side conversations are happening tonight. I feel like there may be an issue we need to discuss. Perhaps we should take a break from our topic and address whatever is bubbling up on the side. Would anyone like to help me understand what is happening?” Suggest possibilities for moving forward, while also asking for suggestions from the participants. For example, “I was thinking we might take 10 minutes to talk a little further about this. If we still feel stuck, maybe we come back fresh at another meeting. Does that work or does someone have another idea?” 

In addition to this general approach, these are a few specific tips for managing frequent challenges group leaders may face.

  • Side-talking or cross-talking. Often people don’t realize that a quiet comment to a friend or an interjection can become really frustrating for the rest of the group. It can be helpful to have a signal or phrase (one diva, one mic) that you can use when cross-talking is taking over. If you don’t have that as a ground rule, you can add it down the road. Until you have the rule, just pick someone to start and then ask the other two to wait until the first is done. It can be helpful to start with someone who doesn’t talk as much so they don’t lose their nerve.
  • Over-talking. If one person is dominating a discussion, move physically closer to that person. Look for opportunities to interrupt without confronting, and call on others in the group to speak. If you have specific norms about taking turns, use them here. 
  • Consistent negativity. When a group member seems to be consistently negative or critical, allow the person a little time to vent. Then try to summarize the concern. Open it up to the group and ask if others have a similar experience. You may want to talk to the person before or after the meeting to suggest better ways to engage. 
  • The know-it-all. If a member seems to have all the answers, even if they are good, they may be making other members feel that their ideas are not worthwhile. You can respond to their input with a follow-up, such as, “That’s one great idea, does anyone else have another?” If the issue is persistent, you may want to have a private conversation. Thank them for their valuable insights and ask them to help you grow the rest of the members’ capacity by allowing others to bring up ideas first.
  • Group silence. When the whole group is not participating, acknowledge the situation and suggest taking a break. Even a quick stretch or physical activitylike an icebreakercan help people re-engage. If that doesn’t work, ask if anyone has ideas about why this topic isn’t working for the group. You can also try breaking into smaller groups or even ending a meeting if everyone is not quite into the meeting on a given night. You may want to follow up with people afterward to make sure there is not a problem you missed that others were afraid to raise in the group.
  • Offensive or harmful language. When a person is using language that others may find offensive or harmful, first acknowledge that the topic or issue is important to the person speaking. Then simply state that you are sensitive to the fact that the chosen language can be triggering to some, and ask for re-phrasing. If you have norms about language choices, refer to them.
  • One member in crisis. When a parent is in crisis, they really need support. You may want to let them dominate a meetingor even two. If the issue persists beyond a couple of meetings, you’ll need to talk with them outside of the group to remind them that others need support too. If you have outside resources that can help, it’s also a great time to make a referral for additional support.
  • Off topic. While it can be tempting to go with the flow and let off-topic discussions persist, doing this can leave other members of the group feeling like they never know what’s next. For some people, this is frustrating. When someone interjects with an off-topic point, give them a few minutes and then remind them of what was happening before. Ask if their point is connected to the original conversation, and if not, try to return to the main topic. If most of the group seems engaged by the new topic, ask if you should shift the conversation for a bit.

Finally, one of the most important things a leader can do to keep group dynamics healthy is proactively attend to any dynamic shifts or changes. Change is normaland healthyfor individuals and for groups, but it’s hard for most people to navigate. When a veteran member of a well-established group leaves, or when a new member joins, it disrupts the group dynamic. It will be easier for the group to adjust to changes if the shift in dynamic is named by the leader and the group is given permission to feel however they need to about this change. 

It’s inevitable that you will face a challenging group dynamic at some point in your group leadership, and it’s important that you not let that challenge fester. Address conflict and tension in the group before simple personality conflicts become larger issues that could threaten the sustainability of your group. If you sense tension or discomfort, name it by saying something like, “I’m sensing some tension around this topic and feel like folks are going quiet. Do others sense the same thing or am I off-base?” It may feel difficult in the moment, but addressing challenges early can save you a lot of difficulty later on.

With proactive planning and attuned observation throughout your meetings, you will be equipped to guide your group towards positive, healthy group dynamics and respond effectively to any negative dynamics as they occur.