I am thrilled to join the Board of the Society of Group Psychology and Group Psychotherapy. I have been a member of the Society for years and have served on the Group Dynamics Board as a regular member and as an associate editor. But, to be honest, I really did not know what specifically the Board of the Society did and how it operated (well, I should clarify that I know what Boards do in general: they set policy and bylaws for the Society, run the academic journal, produce a newsletter for members, set the programming for the convention, keep a responsible budget, encourage membership, maintain records, etc.). What I did not know was how this Society’s Board operated, how the members got along, what the climate would be like, how decisions were made, how formal was the process, and did it have an effective leadership. After all, I was a virtual outsider – I mean I knew a few people on the board, but I had never been part of this particular system. To make matters more interesting, I came onto the Board in an emerging leadership capacity as president-elect. I wondered how that would go over with longer serving members. In reflecting back on my first Board meeting I was struck by how the process of joining this Board paralleled many such group processes (spoiler alert: it went very well, the Board members were very warm and welcoming, and I felt that I can make a real contribution to an already well-run group/organization).
I have been running, researching, or teaching about therapy groups for over 30 years now. Of all the hats that I wear, my role as a group therapist, teacher, and researcher is the most satisfying and rewarding. Yet why was I somewhat surprised that similar concerns, expectations, and pressures that new therapy group members face were also on my mind at that first Board meeting? Before I got there I wondered if I would feel included, engaged, and effective – and I hoped that the meeting and my role would be a good use of my time. I am well aware that group processes operate in many organizational contexts, and I have experienced this first-hand in multidisciplinary health teams, on other organizational boards, in classrooms, group supervisions, research collaborations, and on academic committees. So why was I surprised? I think, in part, it has to do with group therapists and group psychologists operating as if in separate silos. We inhabit different worlds of work and so we assume that the concepts we work with and interactions we participate in are independent. But clearly they are not.
I was on a multidisciplinary health team early in my career in which one of the professionals seemed somewhat agitated as she repeated the same point about a patient to the rest of the team. The team did not openly disagree with her, but nevertheless there was a palpable tension and discomfort in the room. The psychiatrist, who I did not know well at the time but grew to respect over the years, turned to the professional, said something understanding and calming, and repeated something similar to the rest of the team. The professional seemed calmer, the tension dissipated, and we moved on to review the next patient. When I asked the psychiatrist some time later about the incident, he said that people in the room were not feeling heard, and all he did was to repeat what everyone had already said. Whether he knew it or not, the psychiatrist did more that simply repeat the words –he offered respectful leadership, security, empathy, and direction to the team in what was developing into a tense situation. So in this team-based organizational context, I saw group therapy dynamics play themselves out and managed skilfully (albeit implicitly) used by someone who was attuned to the group’s climate.
One of the impromptu discussions we had during the Society Board meeting was about how many people assume an overlap between group therapy and group psychology (e.g., organizations, sports teams, classrooms, work groups), but how little is written or discussed about these common areas of research, theory, and practice. One of the unique and special roles of the Society for Group Psychology and Group Psychotherapy is that it is a big tent in which both group therapists and group psychologists can dialogue, find common ground, and feel included.