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Group Process, Transformation & the way we Play

By Sandy Burgham

If there was a choice, many people might initially prefer to do their professional development in either the privacy of a coach’s office where they can talk privately about “me” or lost in a sea of others (where they can nip to the loo, take a call, slide out when they want to) enabling a much greater chance of ‘staying in control’ of the situation and within their comfort zone.

The idea of doing professional development in a small group setting of eight people makes some, understandably, a little uncomfortable (What if I don’t get air time? What if I don’t like the others? What if they don’t like me? What if I share things that I didn’t intend to? –  are just some of the concerns). However, after eight years exploring professional development through individual and group coaching, and having facilitated many groups both big and small, I have become deeply invested in “small group process”. My experience is that it is the most effective way of fast-tracking not only the development of an individual but also of understanding how it is groups, rather than individuals, that can transform a culture of an organisation.

Over the last three and a half years, specifically through the work of Play CoLab, I have co-facilitated over 22 small groups and find, increasingly, our groups willingly forgo one-on-one coaching sessions to have more time in “group process”. 

If we consider that our lives including our working lives, take place in small groups – family, neighbourhoods, communities, work teams and working groups, peer groups, boards and so forth, it makes sense that professional development might be best in a small group setting. We are all social beings who not only have to cooperate with each other to survive and flourish but also according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, have an innate need to belong to some sort of group. Working within effective small groups enhances not only decision making and getting things done but the joy of shared experiences coupled with the learning of how to get along effectively with others.

At Play CoLab there are two parts to what we call the “group process” – the mechanics and group consciousness. Here are some of the mechanics of how it works (more on the consciousness aspect at a later date): 

1. As one does not get to choose their own neighbours and workmates, the group curation is down to us and we do our best to ensure the course is right for the individual, as well as the individual being the right type for the cohort. How one feels about themselves in relation to others in the cohort is actually a key part of the learning process (e.g. am I too good, not good enough, too senior or too junior for this cohort?). There is an ability to look back on these initial beliefs objectively later in the programme. 

2. The notion of working with a bunch of strangers often makes people nervous in the run-up to the course (first day at school syndrome). In the same vein as above, there is likely to be at least one person who secretly wants to run away on the first evening and occasionally at some time during the programme, which they get to see, down the track, is once again, actually part of the learning experience. We are interested in the exposing of beliefs, assumptions and self-talk that would make someone baulk at a commitment to the course, which just a few days ago made perfect sense.  

3.      Counter-intuitively, participants always end up being more honest and authentic than they are with their usual social groups – as early as the first evening together.  As the course progresses, they certainly take more risks in exploring the interiority of themselves, or what we refer to as being “underneath the waterline”, than they would in the workplace. There is far less risk in doing so in this new group and exploring why this is so, is part of the group process.

4      While an individual coaching session is very useful to get up close and personal with a participant, being part of a group process means that as facilitator coaches, we have more material to work with when considering each participant. We can combine their thoughts/feelings on a situation shared privately, with our own first-hand perspective of the way they turn up in the group, enabling us to better understand the complexity of the person we are observing in various situations. (This is in comparison to a typical coaching approach where the coach hears only what the client is telling them yet generally excludes the perspective of the coach and others. In essence, we get to see how they play in company). 

5.      It also ensures that the participant does not risk forming a long-term co-dependent relationship with the coach. (While we provide one-on-one coaching to support group process, we always recommend that each participant is coached by at least two coaches. This is because the experience will be different and brings other perspectives to the participant. It is important for the participant to become aware of when one-on-one coaching feels appropriate and also to sense what type of coach they need. They also experience peer coaching and mentoring by others in the group so they have a range of experiences to select from. Interestingly, we continue to find that participants are choosing less one-on-one coaching in favour of group work.)

6.      The individual “uses” the experience of being with others, including the facilitators, to work out what part of being in a group or a team can derail them. For instance, it can be something small that occurs, a passing comment or a change in schedule that can actually trigger someone in some way. When they are in a heightened emotional state they are usually not seeing that their reaction is probably directly related to how they found themselves on the course in the first place. A trigger inside or outside the course is often one of the most powerful moments in illuminating what is actually holding the participant back from playing fully in the wider world. Inevitably it starts with a small and seemingly insignificant incident. 

7.      Participants learn a lot by watching others get challenged, triggered, frustrated or stuck as well as observing the successes and breakthroughs of others. They experience the power of their own contribution to the growth of others. As noted above, peer to peer coaching is one of the most effective elements of a programme like ours. 

8.      Learning to give good feedback is a part of this and as trust grows, participants find huge benefits from the honest feedback of others who know them well in a group setting. What inevitably happens is that the participants start seeing themselves through the eyes of others.

9.      Often a new trusted peer group forms and so the participants can call on this group or individuals within it for help, support, and confidential input well after the programme is over.

10.      Having two and sometimes three coaches facilitating means that the unconscious bias of one facilitator does not sway what is possible. Additionally, the facilitators are not only peer-reviewing each other’s contribution post-session but also reviewing and discussing the development of each of the participants on an on-going basis. This has enormous value for the participants who have a lot of personalised input and support through the group process.

Group process continues to fascinate and inspire me. Every group is a whole new experience and we are never sure what will ensue, or how the group itself will shape the experience for all. We see our role as “holding the space” – or simply allowing whatever presents itself to be what we work with – and while we are always totally committed to the intention of raising the consciousness of these leaders, we’re adaptive and highly flexible as to how this might play out.  

The real gift in all of this is that the work of Play CoLab revealed itself through the cumulative experience of working with groups. When I founded Play CoLab in 2016, all I knew was that it needed to be about contemporary leadership and collaboration.  The work with small groups was “calling” but I hadn’t quite articulated the “why” and what it really meant. But what my collaborators and I now know is that group process has the power to transform more than the individuals in the group. 

In the words of anthropologist Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

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