The Handbook for Working with Difficult Groups:
How They Are Difficult, Why They Are Difficult, and What You Can Do About It
Sandor Schuman, Editor
Book Review by Andrew Rixon
Group Facilitation: A Research and Applications Journal, No. 11 (2011). pp. 53-56.
Getting a bird’s eye view
Right from the beginning, with a title of handbook, this book suggests a practical focus and a strong sense of being a resource. This is true. It is a sizeable book with some 422 pages and a list of over 30 author/contributors. I found it an exciting book to consider. A Google search on “working with difficult groups” provided some 438 million results. Typing in “difficult groups” to Amazon returned a listing of 226 books. Some of the thoughts that started to emerge for me were: What are the current developments that this book will shed light on? What are the themes and perspectives that will be brought to bear? What is the state of the art of group facilitation when it comes to “working with difficult groups”? What theoretical footing does this book provide access to? And, being an edited book, how does the introduction provide a frame which pulls this altogether to help the reader prepare for the journey ahead?
Flicking through the book, I’m impressed to find a list of key terms at the end of the book. These key terms are not your usual suspects by any means. There is a lot you can learn from just browsing through this list and tracing back to the chapters where they are mentioned. Some of the key words that grabbed my attention were: alternative story, archetypes, covert opposition, eldership, ghost role, hall of mirrors, social capital and timespirit. Finally, with a listing of 20 chapters covering a diverse range of topics such as Facilitating Multicultural Groups to Virtual Teams: Difficult in all Dimensions to The Hero’s Journey: Helping Inflexible Groups – and Inflexible Facilitators – Get Unstuck, I ponder how it is that I’ll be able to write a review of such a gigantic compendium of knowledge and wisdom!?
Every Inside has an Outside
Fortunately, I find that the introduction for this handbook really helps to provide an overall framework by which you can navigate the book. Like Ken Wilbur sums up with his insight: every inside has an outside; the editor’s introduction provides a framing of three factors that contribute to group performance. Like the outside of a circle, every group operates within a context and an environment. Like the line of the circle itself, every group has a structure and a composition. And finally, like the inside of the circle, every group has an interaction and process. As the editor, Sandy Schuman, explains it is the interaction across the three areas of Context, Structure and Process that provide the interesting and dynamic interplay within what we may see as being a “difficult group”. This framing provides the first useable “model” for a practical way of working with difficult groups. As a practitioner and group facilitator, it brings to mind some powerful questions that I could ask and explore, such as: Which of the three areas could be making this a difficult group? How is context, structure or process contributing to the group being “difficult”?
Having made sense of how the book is organised, and how the introduction helps to orient the reader to what lies ahead in the next 20 chapters, I’ve decided to focus on three particular chapters which I found to be the standouts within the book.
Keeping Difficult Situations from Becoming Difficult Groups
I first learnt of the work of Marvin Weisbord and Sandra Janoff through their book Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There! Ten Principles for Leading Meetings That Matter (2007). Following in a similar vein, their chapter on Keeping Difficult Situations from Becoming Difficult Groups explores the power of enabling functional sub-grouping by keeping people connected. They share the simple yet profound intervention of asking the “anyone else” question. Like they claim - it is a practice that is stunningly simple, yet one which I have also seen work its magic. As the authors say on page 10: “By finding an ally, in effect creating a subgroup, we acted to help the group accept frustration rather than turn it into further aggression” and further, on page 15: “Our practice relies on recognising the existence of informal subgroups that form and re-form around every statement that people make”. How might you pay attention to the existence of informal subgroups that are forming and re-forming during the course of a meeting? How might you ask the “anyone else…” question? When considering the complexities of the role the facilitator has within such a dynamic, I think the authors comment on page three captures something worth reflecting on: “We seek to minimize ‘authority projections’ – that is, having people turn to us as saviours, or turn on us as enemies. Rather, we invite people to be responsible for themselves”.
Interaction Archetypes: Keys to Group Difficulty and Productivity
Being a visual person, as well as someone who is fascinated by the richness of Role Theory (Blatner, 2006), the chapter on Interaction Archetypes: Keys to Group Difficulty and Productivity provides the reader, what I believe, is another great tool for thinking about and intervening into “difficult groups”. Drawing on what’s known as the Kantor 4 player model (Kantor & Lehr, 1975), the author highlights and brings to life “interaction archetypes” based on the four types of actions that commonly make up sequences of interactions within groups. Those being:
- A Move: Initiates a sequence of interactions.
- A Follow: Supports one of the other actions.
- An Oppose: Challenges another action.
- A Bystand: Observes the interactions in ways that help the group move toward desired results.
Figure 1. The Hall of Mirrors and Point-Counterpoint Interaction Archetypes.
From these four types of actions, the author describes four “interaction archetypes” along with the use of a common template for each, for example, Key Behavioral Sequence, Description, Impact on Results, Relationship to Other Forces, and What Facilitators Can Do. The four “interaction archetype” patterns explored were: Point-Counterpoint, Courteous Compliance, Covert Opposition, and The Hall of Mirrors. As shown in Figure 1 of Point-Counterpoint and The Hall of Mirrors, this method affirms to me the author’s claim of how the patterns are a “powerful tool for seeing and enhancing group performance”. For example, with the Point-Counterpoint pattern, how often have you observed the dynamic of someone in a meeting proposing a way forward only to be met with a series of “Opposes”. Or, my favourite, the Hall of Mirrors pattern where a “Move” is met with a series of “Bystanding”. Like the authors suggest, whilst there are times when the motto “Don’t just do something, sit there and reflect” has value and power, the Hall of Mirrors demonstrates a time when “Don’t just sit there and reflect, do something!” comes into play. From a role theory perspective, I find it interesting to note the power of helping to bring to life roles in the system that are currently inactive and how doing this may help in resolving the “stuckness” in the current interaction pattern.
Difficult Groups or Difficult Facilitators?
It is both refreshing and important that the final chapter in the book explores how the facilitator themselves may be the problem. In the chapter Difficult Groups or Difficult Facilitators? three steps facilitators can take to make sure they are not the problem, Glyn Thomas sets out what I believe could probably be the most important chapters for group facilitators to become aware of. The three problem areas for facilitators themselves that the author outlines are: Unclear Purposes and Mis-aligned Activities; Defensive and Over-reactive Communication; and Abuses of Power. With these problem areas identified, the author suggests the associated three steps of: Facilitating Intentionally, Developing High Levels of Self- Awareness, and Increasing Awareness of Power and Rank. Being a practitioner, I read these with interest, and also intrigue. It made me think about how the education of becoming an effective group facilitator is one which needs to touch into many aspects, and maybe most importantly, the area of self-awareness. No wonder many talk about “going on the journey” of learning to be a group facilitator … possibly one that never ends.
The final aspect that I think this leads to is giving consideration to “facilitator self-care”. Whilst it is a topic which isn’t actually directly covered within the book, the book does acknowledge how leading and facilitating a group is a challenging role. It is a role that does require a high level of self-awareness, as well as resilience. When the work becomes difficult—either because of the group or the facilitator—there is an inner journey to manage. And even more particularly, as a group facilitator, how do you cope? What sustains you when things get tough? How do you debrief after a difficult group experience? How do you notice if you’re being too tough on yourself? (see Rixon, 2011)
Looking back on my journey through The Handbook for Working with Difficult Groups I have found it to have been a worthwhile read. A useful read. A valuable read. It’s a book which I’m sure I’ll be returning to.