Practicing Group Work Strategies

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Tips for Facilitating For Empowerment in Groupwork Practice

By: Jennie Fleming (Visiting Lecturer Nottingham Trent University, Co-Director Practical Participation UK) and Dave Ward (Professor of Social and Community Studies, De Montford University UK)

Why is this topic important in group work practice?

Self-directed groupwork aims to empower group members. The notion of citizen empowerment is a core feature of government policy in many countries worldwide.  Social Action/Self-Directed Groupwork provides a distinctive way of working collectively to achieve empowerment.  Crossing disciplinary boundaries, it mobilises the creativity, enthusiasm and energy that emerge when people with similar interests, passions and experiences work together to achieve autonomous decision making and social action.

The model seeks change and empowerment not only through winning power, but through transforming it. Just as injustice and oppression are experienced through personal and everyday events so, equally, empowering practice can offer people the chance to try out and experience new ways of being involved in those events at the everyday level. This is the overall aim of our model of action. Through the recognition of the interweaving of the personal and structural, intrapersonal and interpersonal, it looks to share power between groupworkers and participants and to challenge them all to use it non-oppressively to challenge and change injustice.

What theory supports this topic in group work?

The linked Self-directed and Social Action Groupwork models, are aimed at the empowerment of group members. Central is the groupworker adopting a particular role as facilitator of a Self-directed Groupwork process, which we will outline below. The models have arisen from practice, not derived from theory, through a reflexive process of information gathering, analysis, understanding, action and reflection with groupworkers across the world, which is mirrored in their groupwork practice in a wide range of social work, community development, education and health services settings. (See, for example, Berdan et al 2006).

A notable feature of the models is a clear value-base, which is outlined in the form of six practice principles, emphasising:

  1. the avoidance of negative labels,
  2. the rights of group members,
  3. basing intervention on a power analysis,
  4. assisting people to attain collective power through coming together in groups,
  5. opposing oppression though practice, and
  6. group workers facilitating rather than leading.

Inherent in these principles is an assumption of a social structural analysis of the issues facing marginalised groups. Self-directed Groups target external goals identified by group members though a process which involves them focusing, on what are the major problems in their lives, why these exist and how to tackle them. This process closely parallels the group-centered approach to social change developed by Paulo Freire (1972), which sets out three key elements: dialogue, problematisation and conscientisation. ‘Problematisation’ is what gives Freire’s work and, also Self-directed Groupwork, a distinctive critical and radical edge.

This distinctiveness can be represented in Self-Directed/Social Action Groupwork by the asking of the question ‘why?’ are things this way. Asking ‘why?’ directs the spotlight away from people as problems, on to the problems they encounter.  This enables them to see opportunities to develop a wider range of options for action and change.  This enables group members to conceive of new explanations in the wider social, political and economic context and consider how they can identify and engage with these to bring about meaningful improvement in their everyday lives. Asking the question ‘why?’ is the key that unlocks the process and is critical for practice to be truly empowering (Mullender, Ward, Fleming 2013).

Social Action/Self-Directed Groupwork recognises the interwoven nature of personal and structural power relations as shown in the struggles of the black, feminist, LGBTQ and disability movements. Those who have engaged in these struggles have shown the complex way in which, intersectionally, the various dimensions of disadvantage and exclusion are distinctive but still interlink. Within the Self-directed Groupwork process, we see an approach which has the capacity to achieve change and transformation at both levels. (See Fleming and Ward 2017 for more detailed exposition of theoretical foundations.)

The role of the groupworker as facilitator (Fleming and Ward 2013) is central. Following Freire (1972), the self-directed groupworker does not abrogate knowledge, responsibility or skill. They are committed to working in partnership with group members. The expertise of the groupworker lies in the skilled and sensitive implementation, as facilitator, of the Self-directed Groupwork process, whilst group members determine the content and outcomes.

The Self-directed model has five stages (Mullender, Ward, Fleming 2013):

  1. Taking Stock: pre-planning to find a compatible worker team, engage consultancy support and agree on empowering principles for the work.
  2. Taking Off: engaging with users as partners to plan the group jointly through what is referred to as ‘open planning’.
  3. Preparing to Take Action: helping the group explore what issues are to be tackled, why these issues exist and how to produce change.
  4. Taking Action: group members carry out agreed actions.
  5. Taking Over: workers move increasingly into the background and may withdraw altogether.

The group reviews what it has achieved, exploring the connections between what, why and how. It then identifies new issues, explores these issues through re-asking the question ‘why?’, and again decides what action to take. This cyclical process continues throughout the group’s life.

Self-directed groups do not focus on therapeutic purposes, although participants might experience therapeutic benefits through engaging in the process.  Rather, the model seeks specifically to challenge the fact that group members may have become, or could potentially become, negatively labelled as a result of interventions that inappropriately seek control or change at the individual or family level.  The model seeks their empowerment through a groupwork process which tackles wider injustices that impact on them. 

What are a few essential reading on this topic?

- Berdan, K., Boulton, I., Eidman-Aadahl, E., Fleming, J., Gardner, L., Rogers, I. and Soloman, A. (eds.) (2006) Writing for a Change: Boosting Literacy and Learning Through Social Action. San Francisco, CA: Jossy-Bass.

- Fleming, J. and Ward, D. (2013) Facilitation and groupwork tasks in Self-directed Groupwork, Groupwork 23(2) pp48-66.

- Fleming, J. and Ward, D. (2017) Self-directed Groupwork - Social justice through social action and empowerment. Critical and Radical Social Work 5(1) pp75-91

- Freire, P (1972) Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

- Mullender, A., Ward, D., Fleming, J. (2013) Empowerment in Action: Self-directed Groupwork London: Palgrave.

What are a few examples of how to implement this topic in group work practice?

The first two examples are of groups that have utilized the Social Action/Self-Directed approach. The third is of an example taken from one stage of the process.

1.) University of Massachusetts Service Learning Program – USA

This project is a community/university partnership, focusing around a service learning class at the University of Massachusetts Boston campus. Self-Directed Groupwork is both taught in a university service learning class and then used by students in their service learning projects.

The students have readings, discussions and reflections and write assignments around Self Directed Groupwork in class.  They then they go into a middle school in the community, once a week, to work with sixth grade students as part of an after-school program. The students are aged between 11 and 13 and the school is in a deprived low-income suburb of Boston adjacent to the campus. Each week there can be between 5 to 10 school students in the after school program. The university students rotate the role of facilitator amongst themselves and also undertake small groupwork with the young people utilizing the Self-Directed principles and process.

The projects the school students work on address issues and concerns that they have prioritised in the discussions facilitated by the university students.

Back in class, the university students reflect on the process and the role of the facilitator. They read sections of the book, compare what happens with what is written in the book and also with what they had wanted to happen. They reflect on why those things happened and plan for the next week.

Further information: Arches, J. (2012) The role of groupwork in social action projects with youth, Groupwork, 22(1): 59–78. And, Mullender, A., Ward, D., Fleming, J. (2013) Empowerment in Action: Self-directed Groupwork London: Palgrave.

2.) Advocacy in Action – Nottingham UK

This practice example comes from a long running group in the UK. This example was chosen as it shows the potential for self-directed groups to sustain themselves over a long period of time and how it can enable group members to develop to address changing issues and concerns.

Advocacy in Action started in 1989, to help disadvantaged members of the community and enable them to have a voice.  Some of them didn't like being locked away, some people didn't like the disparity in how good people’s lives were. They also all recognised that by working individually things were not going to get better, they would need to work together as a group. They were united by a strong belief in each other and anger that things were not as they should be. The aim of the group was and still is, to come together and enable disadvantaged people to have a voice.

Originally many group members had learning difficulties; over the years membership has come to include people who were excluded, for example, homeless people, street beggars, people who are service eligible, even though they may not actually be able to receive or use the services that are on offer. Members now include people from the Irish community, carers, asylum seekers, and people with mental health issues. They are brought together by their shared experience of exclusion and being on the edge. They are all equal within the group. The group is still active.

Advocacy in Action continues to be very active in a wide range of activities. In addition to supporting each other, group members teach on a variety of professional training programmes at undergraduate, postgraduate and PQ (post qualifying) level in social work and health related professions. They conduct research and have done development work in northern Italy and in Slovenia and had workers from Delhi come to the UK to look at how to involve people in both education and in taking action on their own behalf.

Further information:

3.) Example of the ‘But Why?’ element of facilitation

This final example is of using an exercise to explore the crucial element of the Self-Directed/Social Action approach – the ‘why?’ stage.

To ask the question ‘why?’ brings social issues into play and opens up new options for action in the public world. It represents the application of the values of Self-directed/Social Action groupwork in practice. Specifically, at this stage those responsible for facilitation should ensure that topics come from the group and are kept in play long enough for broader understanding to develop. Just as the brainstorming and other exercises asking the question ‘what?’ had this purpose, so the ideas which were forthcoming then should now be handed back to the group in a ‘problem-posing’ way (Freire 1972) in order for the group to gain more awareness of the total issue. Hope and Timmel (1999) offer the ‘But Why?’ method. It is an exercise we have found can be readily adapted to any situation or group.

A group of older and younger disabled people in the UK came together to campaign against discrimination in employment and the lack of employment opportunities for disabled people. The groups met together, facilitated by a practitioner experienced in Self-directed Groupwork with whom they had had a long association, to analyse the reasons for their frustrations. The facilitator suggested the ‘BUT WHY?’ exercise. The issue: ‘Despite the legislative changes in recent years, disabled people are still discriminated against in the employment market’ was written in the centre of a piece of flip-chart paper and the group then created a number of ‘threads’ of analysis, coming from the central issue, like a mind map. For example:

Despite the legislative changes in recent years, disabled people are still discriminated against in the employment market.But why?
Because employers are still filled with prejudice.
But why?
Because people’s opinion is not changed by legislation.
But why?
Because they are subject to other influences.
But why?
Because most images in media focus on health, beauty, youth, etc. Where are the disabled people?
But why?
Because they want to promote unrealistic aspirations.
But why?
Because they want to make money.
But why?So they can realize their own aspirations at our expense…

The group continued with their analysis until all their ideas and understanding were set out on the paper and then used this to identify points at which they could intervene to start to address the issue of lack of opportunities for work for disabled people in the area.

Further information: Hope, A. and Timmel, S. (1999) Training for Transformation: A Handbook for Community Workers (Book 1). Rugby (UK): Practical Action Publishing.

Recently Featured: Practice Tips for Group Workers 

General Strategies for Group Work 

Process Recordings

  • Graybeal, C. T., & Ruff, E. (1995). Process recording: It's more than you think. Journal of Social Work Education, 31, 169-181.
  • Knauss, L. K. (2006). Ethical issues in recordkeeping in group psychotherapy. International Journal of Group Psychotherapy, 56, 415-430.
  • McGuire, J. M., Graves, S., & Blau, B. (1985). Depth of self-disclosure as a function of assured confidentiality and videotape recording. Journal of Counseling & Development, 64, 259-263.
  • Neuman, K. M., & Friedman, B. D. (1997). Process recordings: Fine-tuning an old instrument. Journal of Social Work Education, 33, 237-243.
  • Northen, H. (2004). Ethics and values in group work. In C. D. Garvin, M. J. Galinsky & P. M. Gutierrez (Eds.), Handbook of social work with groups (pp. 76-89). New York: Guilford.
  • Rapin, L. S. (2004). Guidelines for ethical and legal practice in counseling and psychotherapy groups. In J. DeLucia-Waack, D. Gerrity, C. Kalodner & M. Riva (Eds.), Handbook of group counseling and psychotherapy (pp. 151-165). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  • Rapin, L. S. (2010). Ethics, best practices, and law in group counseling. In R. K. Conyne (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of group counseling (pp. 61-82). New York: Oxford University Press
  • Schwab, R., & Harris, T. L. (1984). Effects of audio and video recordings on evaluation of counseling interviews. Educational & Psychological Research, 4, p 57-65.
  • Vourlekis, B., Bembry, J., Hall, G., & Rosenblum, P. (1992). Evaluating the interrater reliability of process recordings. Research on Social Work Practice, 2, 198-206.
  • Wilson, S. J. (1980). Recording guidelines for social workers. New York: Free Press.

Youth and Teen

Highlighted Group Work Initiatives - North Shore Child and Family Guidance Center's Latina Girls Project featured in National Publication

Huh?!? - A quarterly newsletter (from 1995 to 2005) by the Long Institute for Group Work with Child and Youth, dedicated to providing information, inspiration, and support for anyone working with youth people in group settings.

Winter & Spring 2005 - Celebration of Group Work
Summer & Fall 2004 - Spirituality
Winter & Spring 2004 - Hazing
Fall 2003 - Group Work in the Wilderness
Spring & Summer 2003 - Group Work with Young Children
Winter 2003 - Support Groups for Siblings
Fall 2002 - Grief Box: After 9/11
Fall 2001 - Why Group Work Works
Summer 2001 - Creating Safe Spaces for Lesbian and Gay Youth
Spring 2001 - Self Disclosure
Winter 2001 - Successful Experiences in Groups
Fall 2000 - Survey Results: Value of Group Work to Org. Administration
Summer 2000 - Evaluating Group Work
Spring 2000 - Conference Renew, Power of Group Work with Kids
Winter 2000 - Experiences from the Field
Fall 1999 - Creating Safe Space for Groups in the Wake of Tragedy
Summer 1999 - Language
Spring 1999 - Impact of School Connectedness
Winter 1999 - Children in Hospital Groups
Fall 1998 - From College, to Camp, to Life...
Summer 1998 - Group Work Values
Spring 1998 - Different and Inclusion in Group Work
Winter 1998 - Value of Outreach
Fall 1997 - Adapting/Coping with New Environments
Summer 1997 - From Phys Ed to Group Work
Spring 1997 - Mentoring/Influences of Group Work: Progressive Education Movement
Winter 1997 - Spreading Group Work
Fall 1996 - Mutual Aid Tips
Summer 1996 - Planning and Good Beginnings
Spring 1996 - Adolescence Groups
Winter 1996 - Community Service