Group Counseling

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Many people have stereotypes about group counseling or wonder what really happens there. Group counseling is a form of psychotherapy that usually involves four to ten participants and one or two group therapists. Most groups meet regularly at the same time for one to two hours. During that time, the members of the group discuss the issues that are concerning them and offer each other support and feedback. Interpersonal interaction is highly valued and encouraged.

What to Expect

Groups can be organized in several different ways, but the one thing is the same for all groups: members agree to keep what is said in the group confidential. Some groups have an overarching theme or are geared toward a specific type of concern. Some examples of this type of group are those designed for people with eating disorders, for survivors of interpersonal trauma, for international students, for persons of color, or for LGBTQ identified individuals. Other groups are more general and open to people with a range of concerns. Some groups are open-ended and may last for years. Still others are time-limited and conclude after a certain number of weeks. Some groups have open membership, meaning that the members can come and go as they please; while others have closed membership, meaning that once the membership reaches a certain number, no new members are added. Finally, some groups are considered unstructured (known as a process-oriented group) while others are structured with planned activities each time the group meets. If there are no structured activities, the group itself is free to decide how it will focus its time. If you have been referred to group counseling or are considering group counseling, you will want to ask questions about how the group is organized.

The therapist(s) and group members will work hard to make group a safe and confidential place to explore member’s concerns. Through the sharing process, members develop a level of trust that makes it possible for them to be honest and open with each other. They also learn to care for and accept each other. Ideally, the individuals who join group are committed to learning about themselves and others, and will find considerable support and encouragement in group counseling. Group can also be a safe place to learn and practice alternative ways of dealing with their concerns with people who are caring and encouraging, and it also helps people see that they are not alone in their struggles.In particular, unstructured groups usually work because members behave in the group in ways that reflect how they behave outside of group. The difference is that the therapists and the other members can help the individual challenge unproductive patterns by sharing their genuine reactions to the individual and giving and receiving constructive feedback. Even though it may be difficult for some people to interact in a group situation, they can still benefit from interacting in group.

Reasons to Join

People join groups for a variety of reasons. Some people may join groups for interpersonal concerns and needs; while others may join to learn about specific issues and/or their specific cultural identities. Others may try out a group because their individual counselor recommended it. Finally, others may join groups out of curiosity. In general, group counseling may be particularly useful for people with interpersonal concerns. Below are some examples of the kinds of interpersonal issues that bring people to group:

  • Loneliness or isolation
  • Shyness
  • Excessive dependence in relationships
  • Superficial relationships
  • Frequent arguments with people
  • Discomfort in social situations
  • Difficulty trusting others
  • Being easily hurt or offended
  • Needing a lot of reassurance from others
  • Lack of intimacy in relationships

Many of us experience these concerns at one time or another, but if you experience one or more of these to the extent that they are causing significant pain or distress for you, group counseling may be an effective method for addressing your concerns.

Getting the Most from Group

Most people may be apprehensive about joining a group. It is not uncommon for people to worry that they will talk too much or not say enough or that they will not be accepted by others in the group. Similarly, others might worry that their concerns are not important enough, that others need the time more than they do, or that what they have to say will not matter in the group. Also, some people might be concerned that the group will not help them. All of these concerns can be valid. However, there are some things that you can do to maximize the chances that group will be a meaningful and beneficial experience for you.

  • Participate and commit to the group. The more willing you are to do so, the more likely it is that you will benefit from the group.
  • Be as genuine and open as you can. This will allow others to help you more directly.
  • Think about what you would like to work on in group and work actively towards change. You are encouraged to ask the group for help.
  • Respect your safety needs and don’t press yourself to reveal more than you are comfortable revealing. On the other hand, you may benefit from gently challenging yourself to take more risks with self-disclosure so that your other needs get met as well.
  • Use group to talk about yourself and your concerns. Some people may struggle with whether or not it is OK to use group time. Others may spend too much time talking about others in their life in the group. Group will be most helpful to you if you can find a way to focus and talk about yourself.
  • Recognize and express your thoughts and feelings. If you are holding back from doing this, it can be helpful to talk about your fears of sharing in the group.
  • “Try on” new behaviors in the group and ask for feedback from others when you do so. Although this means taking risks, it is usually well worth it.
  • Be open to receiving feedback. Even though it may surprise you, you may find it hard to accept, or you may not agree, it can help you to learn about yourself and others and explore new alternatives. Remember you do not need to accept all feedback, but you can still listen and treat it as helpful data.
  • Give others feedback. This allows you to practice being direct, honest and assertive. It also helps the other members to know how they are perceived.
  • Be patient with yourself and other group members. It may take time for you to feel comfortable in group and for other group members to develop trust with one another. You are encouraged to commit to the group for a sufficient amount of time before deciding that it is not the right treatment for you.
  • Think about group and what kinds of reactions you are having, when you are not in group. When you return to group the next week, it can be helpful to share as many of these thoughts and feelings as you feel comfortable sharing.

Want to Know More?

Corey, M. S., Corey, G., & Corey, C. (2018). Groups: Process and practice (10th ed.). Belmont, California: Brooks/Cole, Cengage Learning.

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

“What is Group Therapy and How Does it Work?”“

Five Benefits of Group Therapy”