The scene involves a large circle of coaches, sitting together on a training programme. As I look around I notice that two people really get on my nerves! What on earth have they done to deserve my inner frustration? What’s going on when they speak – I am literally tuning out!
Groups are powerful. Within a group, we experience ourselves in relationship with a variety of difference. We are different. We become our “group self”, whatever that means for us. This difference may be subtle or it may even be extreme. The same exists for every “group other”. Then, we have the “group situation”, which involves the reason that we have come together as a group and all the legacies involved from each participant and the organisational history.
If you took a moment to truly appreciate the differences which come to the group space, it’s very complex. An opportunity to really experience our stretch zones.
For clients, we notice topics tend to oscillate between the different challenges in 1:1 and Group situations. This involves relating upward, sideways and downwards. Even for the CEO, there is usually a Chairperson or shareholder upward, fellow C-Suite colleagues and then an entire organisation.
Two phenomena which appear most frequently are the polarities of withdrawal/contact and collusion/differentiation. These each have a different impact in groups. For the “group self”, the “group others” and the “group situation”.
Going back to the training situation, I was withdrawing (turning away, tuning out and not being present) and colluding (with the status quo and not bringing difference). This can be an entirely legitimate stance depending on the situation. For me, it was creating angst!
I was in this group to learn. Withdrawing and maintaining a status quo I wasn’t enjoying, was only hurting myself. During a break-out session with a fellow coach, I explored this experience and became aware that my angst was coming from my frustration at the potential of losing the opportunity to learn. In two dimensions. About myself and within the group.
During the next group session, I experimented with two degrees of change.
Firstly, I placed both feet on the floor and leaned slightly forward. Whenever anybody spoke, I looked at them and listened deeply to see what impact the words and speaker had on me. Secondly, I noticed if any strong urges to contribute were stimulated by what I heard. I imagined a Sushi conveyor belt and if the same, delicious looking option keeps coming around, then I go for it! Bringing myself into contact with the whole group and bringing difference with a comment, question or observation.
Each time, this was preceded with a body sensation which I was newly aware of. One of slight nervousness, experienced as a tingle or strong butterfly feeling in my stomach. The stronger the feeling, the more important my experience seemed to be. This helped me calibrate when I would choose to bring myself into the group dynamic more intentionally. Whilst it felt riskier with the stronger feeling, it also seemed to hit the spot each time I trusted this sensation and even named it as part of my disclosure (e.g. “I’ve got this heavy feeling in my shoulders as I notice that I want to say …” or “Wow, I’ve noticed goosebumps as I hear you say that!”) . This is what we call embodied presence and can be a great way to bring your whole-self in groups.
The surprising benefit of this? Those two annoying participants suddenly became less annoying. I learned from and with them. I needed to learn something about myself. The trigger point was their tone of voice. By engaging with the whole person and my own experience, I was able to choose to participate differently. It wasn’t only me that benefited, the group benefited from my increased presence and participation. Something changes as each member is just being themselves.
Dynamics which can impact this are our personal histories (e.g. relationship with tone from parents, siblings, teachers or colleagues) and also, power dynamics both past and present. What impact does a “powerful other” have on our ability to speak-up within a group? For example, a boss or important stakeholder just being there?
For clients, this is often what is their “trigger moment” when they are choosing whether to withdraw or make contact. Differentiate or collude. There’s no right way with groups. Simply, a range of choices which we can become aware of and decide how we participate.
With this knowledge, we can recognise that we are already powerful and are able. Our tip to group leaders or facilitators is to reflect on the group dynamics and to actively invite difference if there doesn’t appear to be any. To role model the variety of choice available as the group members develops trust. To call out and enable the group to explore any elephants in the room. It’s a dynamic balancing act which pulls on our ability to be comfortably uncomfortable and to check-out any assumptions which we or group members are making about the way it is working.