When Leaders Are Challenged: Dealing With Involuntary Members in Groups
Christine J. Schimmel Ed E. Jacobs
West Virginia University
Leading groups can be challenging and difficult. Leading groups in which members are involuntary and negative increases the level of difficulty and creates new dynamics in the group leading process. This article proposes specific skills and strategies for dealing with three specific issues related to involuntary members in groups: groups where all members are involuntary; groups where some members are involuntary; and groups with open membership where involuntary mem- bers join groups that are already in progress. The emphasis is on leaders using creative and multi-sensory interventions to insure that members are actively engaged in the group process.
Keywords: group leading; involuntary; negative members
According to both Association for Specialists in Group Work (ASGW) Best Practice Guidelines (2007) and the American Counseling Association’s (ACA) Code of Ethics (2005), ‘‘Group leaders screen pro- spective group members if appropriate to the type of group being offered,’’ and ‘‘identify group members whose needs and goals are com- patible with the goals of the group’’ (p. 4). At times however many counselors find themselves leading very difficult groups that involve involuntary members—members who, as opposed to being simply recommended for a group and can choose whether or not to join a group, are mandated or assigned group membership. These types of groups are difficult primarily because the motivation of the members can be extremely low (Greenberg, 2003). Over the years when
Manuscript submitted July 14, 2010; final revision accepted January 8, 2011. Christine J. Schimmel, Ed.D., is an assistant professor, and Ed E. Jacobs, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Counseling, Rehabilitation Counseling, and Counseling Psychology at West Virginia University. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Christine J. Schimmel, Department of Counseling, Rehabilitation Counseling, and Counseling Psychology, West Virginia University, P.O. Box 6122, Morgantown, WV 26506. E-mail: email@example.com
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# 2011 ASGW
conducting group training for agencies, school, and correctional facili- ties, many participants have expressed that leading involuntary groups is their most difficult challenge. Involuntary groups often include mandated clients or clients who are required to attend treat- ment by a department of corrections or a judicial system and include DUI (driving under the influence) or long-term in-patient groups such as drug and alcohol treatment centers. Involuntary situations also include short-term in-patient groups where members have had psy- chotic breaks or tried to commit suicide, adolescent residential treat- ment centers, and school groups where students are in trouble for their behavior, truancy, or academic issues (DeLucia-Waack, Gerrity, Kalodner, & Riva, 2004; Greenberg, 2003). Anger management groups, groups for batterers, and court mandated parenting groups usually are involuntary as well. In each of these groups, many if not all of the members are involuntary and this creates challenges for any group leader. Although Corey (2008) recommends only accepting involuntary group members for a limited amount of time, involuntary groups often permit open membership where members are continu- ously joining and leaving the group. This creates additional difficult dynamics with which the group leader must contend. It should be noted that leaders of involuntary groups should not always assume that group members are unmotivated or that they cannot benefit from a group counseling experience (Corey, 2008). When group leaders develop creative, active leadership techniques like those outlined in this article, involuntary groups can offer much needed help and sup- port for their members. (Fomme & Corbin, 2004; Morgan & Flora, 2002).
Leaders of involuntary groups need to be dynamic, energetic, and engaging (Corey, 2008). They must be patient, flexible, and thick skinned; that is, they need to be prepared for negative reactions, and not take them personally. According to Corey, Corey, and Corey (2008), leaders of involuntary groups must be perceptive enough to face the challenges that these groups present openly and be open to the idea that involuntary does not mean unmotivated. Additionally, leaders need to be prepared to cut off members when they are being negative or when they get off track. Finally, the leader of a group con- sisting of involuntary members needs to have numerous techniques for drawing out those members because involuntary members are fre- quently committed to not participating in protest to being required to be in the group (Jacobs, Masson, Harvill, & Schimmel, 2012; Schimmel, Jacobs, & Adams, 2008). Corey (2008) states, ‘‘One effective way to create a therapeutic climate for participants in involuntary groups is for the leader to explain to members some specific ways in which the group process can be of personal value to them’’ (p. 427).
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This article covers three kinds of situations where the leader has to deal with involuntary members: first, all members not wanting to be in the group; next, one or more members not wanting to be in the group; and lastly the open membership group where a new, negative member joins a group already in progress (Schimmel, Jacobs, & Adams, 2008). Finally, while reviewing and processing the following exercises and ideas, group leaders should note that according to counselor ethics (ACA, 2005), group members must provide informed consent to treat- ment and thus must be made aware of their rights and responsibilities as group members (Erford, 2011).
Strategies and Skills for Dealing With Completely Involuntary Groups
ASGW’s Best Practice Guidelines (2007) require that group leaders appropriately assess both their knowledge and skills as they relate to their ability to lead groups. According to Greenberg (2003), among the skills necessary to lead involuntary groups are the leader’s willingness to be more active and to be prepared to ‘‘exert greater control’’ of the group (p. 39). In groups where the entire group does not want to be there, the leader must recognize that he or she has two purposes: (1) to try to cover the subject, such as anger, drinking and driving, new parenting skills, performing better in school; and (2) to try to get the members to become voluntary; that is, to get the members to invest in the group experience instead of resisting learning from the experience (Corey, 2008; Kottler, 2001). It is important for the leader to keep in mind that she cannot accomplish much if the members have a negative or bad attitude so the primary purpose of the first and second session is to ‘‘hook’’ them. When a leader attempts to ‘‘hook’’ group members, she is actively working to get them interested in what is being said; engaging them, and convincing them that there is some value to the group and what is being shared. If the leader is successful, a group that began with involuntary members, then transforms into one in which members enjoy and look forward to participating. The examples that follow require a willingness to lead and be active.
Do the Unexpected
One of the best things that a leader can do with an involuntary group is to do something out of the ordinary. For example, in a manda- tory group for teenagers who were caught using drugs at school, one leader started with:
Leader: I know you don’t want to be here so we’re going to use the first 10 minutes to bitch. (The leader used the term ‘‘bitch’’
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intentionally, believing that this may help with rapport since it was obvious that none of these teenagers were at all interested in being in the group. We do not ordinarily suggest the use of bad language but in this case her use of certain words helped her build some rapport with these involuntary members.) I want you to get all your trash talking done with and put it in this trash can (puts a large trash can in the center of the group). You have 10 minutes and then we’re going to get down to business. All of you can talk at once and say all the negative things you are feeling about having to be here.
After 10 minutes, she dramatically put a lid on the trash can, removed the can, and firmly said,
Leader: Let’s begin. I’m going to tell you how this group can be valu- able. I want you to fill out this short sentence-completion form.
Starting with negative energy is generally a mistake. According to Erford (2011), it is usually best to limit the amount of time devoted to complaints. The uniqueness of this technique did much to reduce the negative feelings about being in the group. In this example the leader puts herself in control by using the garbage can and solicit- ing the negative thoughts which she brought to an immediate end by putting a lid on the garbage can and then turning to the positive ways the group could be helpful. She showed that she was in charge.
When the leader knows a negative energy is present, she can dissi- pate that energy by using a technique like the one described in the example. In doing this, she wants to insure that she introduces the exercise in a way that does not set the tone for the group, but rather as an opening technique where she demonstrates a strong leadership approach. This is a way to dissipate some of the negative energy. This technique works only if the leader is a person who presents a very confident, take-charge leadership style. Inexperienced, less confident leaders may be inviting disaster by using such a technique because they would not be able to reverse the negative flow.
An additional unexpected strategy is to do something dramatic such as have someone dressed like a policeman come into the room right before the beginning of the group and fake an arrest or some other dra- matic scene. This can be a good technique if the unique strategy is related to the purpose and stimulates members to talk about the desired topic (i.e., avoiding arrest, staying out trouble with the law, avoiding another DUI).
Using bold, vivid movie or television scenes is another way to start an involuntary group. If the clip is a good one, members tend to forget
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that they have all these negative feelings about being in the group. The key is to find something that is engaging and relevant to the purpose of the group.
Use Written Exercises
One of the best ways to engage involuntary members is to give them a brief writing task, such as to make a list or to complete some incomplete sentences. Members will usually make a list or finish some sentences if the list or sentences are interesting. When mem- bers are asked to read what they wrote, most will pay attention because they are curious to hear what others said, and if other mem- bers had similar answers to their answers. Oftentimes, negative members are reluctant to share when asked to simply answer ques- tions out loud; however, they may feel more comfortable reading from what they wrote and will therefore feel more comfortable sharing. Listed below are some potential sentences for use in involuntary groups:
1. In order to stay out of trouble, I need to __________________. 2. One thing I would like to know about others in this group is
______________. 3. Given that I have to be here, one thing I would like to hear about is
______. 4. When I get angry, I ________. 5. When I drink, I ______________. 6. The toughest part of being a parent is _________________. 7. One reason I want to drop out of school is _______________. 8. One thing I worry about the leader of this group doing is __________. 9. One thing I like about myself is ___________________.
10. One thing I don’t like about myself is ____________________. 11. One thing I would like to change is _______________________.
It should be noted that these are examples of sentences that could be used in various involuntary groups. Leaders should only use two or three of these in any one session and the sentence stems chosen should be related to either the purpose of the group or the members’ feelings about the group.
Using lists also can be effective. For example, having members list five things that they believe make them angry or list three things they like and three things they do not like about school can assist in engag- ing the involuntary member. With any writing activity, the leader clo- sely monitors the members to see that they are writing or completing the sentences. Additionally, it should be noted that leaders take into account that not all members may be able to read and write. Leaders can avoid the pitfalls of this by doing two things: first, read all of the
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sentences out loud so that all members hear what the sentences are and secondly, assure the members that you are not going to collect their written answers.
Use Creative Props
One of the best ways to engage involuntary members is to use a creative prop (Beaulieu, 2006; Gladding, 2005; Jacobs, 1992; Ver- non, 2010). Creative ‘‘prop’’ refers to any multi-sensory tool, typi- cally some easy to find or easy to make visual aide. Highlighted below are some creative props that work well with involuntary members and, when used appropriately, make the group more interesting and engaging, therefore diffusing the negativity and hostility.
Fuses. For involuntary groups where anger management is the focus, the leader can introduce to the members the idea of lengthening their ‘‘anger’’ fuse so that it takes more to get angry. To do this, the leader would show the group some string of different lengths and ask the members to think of the string as their anger fuse (most would have a short fuse). The leader would lay on the floor many different lengths of thick string (e.g., 12 inch to 12 inches). The leader then asks the members to pick the string that represents the length of their anger fuse and ask the members to comment regarding their anger fuse. The simple act of having members identify how long their fuse is usually gets them talking about the role anger plays in their lives. The leader would then pick a very long fuse and talk about the purpose of the group being to help the members to lengthen their fuse. Using the members’ comments regarding anger, the leader could teach cognitive behavioral techniques for lengthening one’s fuse. The leader would be listening for the ‘‘shoulds’’ that the members have that lead to a short fuse. Usually, most members will relate to having a short fuse and the need to lengthen their fuse. (Beaulieu, 2006; Jacobs, 1992; Jacobs et al., 2012).
For involuntary groups where alcohol use is the primary topic, using a large (2 foot tall plastic bottle) beer bottle gets members’ atten- tion and the leader can show many ways where alcohol is a big problem. Members can relate the size of the bottle to the size of their drinking problem. One way to get members attention regarding their denial that their drinking is a problem is the leader can place the large
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bottle in the center of the group along side a small empty beer bottle to show the relevant size of the members’ drinking problems. Members can see the difference and some usually begin to comment. If the members do not comment, the leader can use the difference in size of the two bottles to comment on how many with drinking problems think it is small when their love ones, employers, and friends see it as big. The large beer bottle helps with the discussion of denial which is such an important concept with those who have serious drinking problems.
The larger beer bottle can be used in groups to show the damage to relationships that excessive drinking can cause. The leader can get two members to stand and have one member represent the spouse or family member of the other and then place the large bottle between them and then ask them to hug. It quickly becomes obvious that the bottle is in the way and they cannot get close due to the bottle. This visual image generates much discussion about the effects that drink- ing has on relationships not only from the two members with the bottle between them but from many of the other members. (Jacobs et al., 2012; Jacobs & Smith, 1997).
Trust is a common issue in groups where the members don’t want to be there. Using a large rubber band (a rubber band that has the potential to be stretched to over a foot in length) to get at the trust issues can be effective (Beaulieu, 2006; Jacobs, 1992; Jacobs et al., 2012). The leader asks one member to hold the opposite end of a rubber band and then pulls on it to lengthen it. Then the leader says:
Leader: In a minute, I am going to let go, but I am not going to hurt you. (The leader then counts to three and gently releases the rubber band by slowly closing the distance between the member and himself) Did I do what I said I was going to do?
Member (nodding): Yes, but I thought you were going to pop me with that!
Leader: Right. I think all of you thought I was going to pop her with the rubber band. I know other folks have popped you in your lives, but I amnot going to pop you. I will dowhat I say I amgoing to do.
Leaders should be prepared to be popped by the member. If this occurs, the leader can simply say ‘‘That is OK. I am trained to take your pops, but I will never pop you. That is not my job; my job is to be helpful to you and all the group members.’’
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Rounds are exercises where you ask each member to say some- thing such as a word or phrase or a number on a 1–10 scale (Jacobs et al., 2012). The value of rounds with involuntary members is that most members are willing to offer a word or a number even though they are not willing to say much more than that. Most members will say something, and from this, the leader gains a better sense as to whether certain members will begin to become more engaged in sharing. For example, when conducting a group for students who are at risk of failing, the leader may say something like:
Leader: In a word or phrase, when you think of school, what comes to mind?
In a DUI group, the leader may say something like:
Leader: I want each of you to say how you see yourself in regards to alcohol by saying one of the following: ‘‘I have a serious prob- lem with alcohol,’’ ‘‘I may have a problem,’’ or ‘‘I don’t have a problem.’’
Another round that could be used in a DUI group is:
Leader: On a scale from 1–10, where 10 is ‘‘my drinking causes me lots of problems’’ and 1 is ‘‘my drinking causes me no problems at all,’’ what number would you give yourself?
Use Movement Exercises
Since one major problem with involuntary members is getting them engaged, the use of movement exercises can be very helpful in accomplishing this task. Movement exercises refer to any activity where the members have to be up, out of their seats moving around (Jacobs et al., 2012). It could mean moving along a continuum such as:
not angry at all——————————very angry math is easy————————————math is very hard. The leader would have members stand in the center of the room
lined up behind each other and then on the count of three, members move either right or left depending on how they felt about the issue being presented. Another movement activity involves having the members stand and show how they feel about the group
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using their arms and positioning themselves like a sculpture. For example:
Leader: I want you all to stand in a circle and in a minute I’m going to ask you to sculpt how you feel about being in the group. That is if you hate the group and feel closed off, you could turn away from the circle with your arms folded (leader demonstrates this); if you have some interest, you may put one foot forward and stand sort of open; if you don’t like it, you can put your hands over your ears. Sculpt how you feel. Do you understand what I mean? (All nod) Okay, on the count of three, sculpt how you feel.
Another movement exercise that could be conducted in a second or third session of an involuntary group involves having members face an imaginary line that represents their getting something meaningful out of participating in the group. Then, the leader asks members to physically move towards the line to represent how far they feel they are from that goal. For example:
Leader: I want you all to stand and face this imaginary line (leader pre- tends to draw a line in the middle of the room or actually draws a line on the floor–the members are all lined up, side-by-side, about 10–15 feet from the line). This line represents you reach- ing the goal of getting something meaningful out of this group. On three, I want each of you to move either towards or away from the goal showing me where you think you are in terms of getting something good out of this group. Again, the line represents ‘‘getting something meaningful out of the group.’’ One, two, three. (Some members move and some stay station- ary) Now let’s talk about how all of us can make some move- ment towards that line.
These are just three examples of movement exercises. Many more move- ment exercises exist and leaders should feel encouraged to create their own. Movement activities have a better chance of engaging involuntary members than almost any other kind of exercise (Jacobs et al., 2012).
Strategies and Skills for Dealing With a Few Involuntary Members
There are many settings where members are required to attend group counseling. Settings such as treatment centers and crisis care centers often have some group members who are involuntary. When leading groups with these difficult dynamics, it is important for the leader to pay close attention to each person’s level of interest or investment in the group process. If the leader fails to recognize the varying levels of involvement, he may focus much of the group’s energy
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on trying to get that one or two members invested. Leaders often make the mistake of focusing on the negative, involuntary members when these members are not ready or wanting to share. This causes the involuntary members to have more hostility about having to be in the group (Erford, 2011). A skilled leader focuses on those members wanting to gain from the experience, while at the same time assessing if the involuntary members seem ready to engage in the group.
Assess Member Readiness
Listed below are three means of assessing whether or not members are ready to work.
Pay attention to speech pattern, voice, and body language. Skilled leaders can usually read amember’s attitude towards the group by read- ing their non-verbal cues as well as by listening to their speech pattern and their voice. Negative members tend to look all around the room, roll their eyes, sit with arms crossed and generally look disinterested. If negative members say anything at all, their voice and speech is usually abrupt, argumentative, or even hostile. If the leader does not pay atten- tion to members for non-verbal gestures and voice and speech patterns, she may call on or focus onmembers who have negative energy which in turn negatively affects the group process. By paying careful attention to speech patterns and body language, the leader can focus on those who seem to have positive energy for the group.
Use dyads. Another technique that can be used to assess members level of willingness to participate is for the leader to put themselves into dyads with the negative member to talk about how the member is feeling about the group (this is while other members are paired together to discuss some relevant group topic). The leader asks the negative member(s) how they are feeling about the group and how they would like to participate if at all. By using dyads, the leader can talk with, encourage, and possibly confront the member(s) some- what privately. This way the group does not experience the hostile and negative reactions that can pollute the otherwise positive energy.
Use inner circle, outer circle. As the group develops and the leader feels that most of the members are interested in talking, one technique that can be utilized is to have an inner circle and an outer circle. Having hostile, involuntary members sit outside the group may be of benefit to both them and the larger group. The outside members are permitted to sit, read, or draw; however, at any time they can request to be part of the group if it is agreed that their participation will not be negative. The leader can say something like ‘‘For those of you
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wanting to work and get something out of group today, scoot your chairs to the middle and those of you who don’t can sit quietly out of the circle.’’ This serves a couple of purposes; mainly, members who want to gain from the group have the opportunity to do so, and resistant members don’t have a chance to disrupt the flow of the group. Many times when this technique is employed, members on the outside circle pay attention and may even ask to speak and join the group. Even if they don’t join, resistant members usually pay attention and possibly gain something of value.
Invite Positive Members to Question Negative Members
The leader can conduct an exercise that invites positive members to ask questions of the negative members to assess if they are willing to work. This strategy removes the leader from putting resistant members on the spot. These questions may include some- thing like:
Leader: Is there anything you (to positive members) would like to ask Josie (negative member) about her ________________________ (drinking, relationship, job, etc)?
Leader: (to all positive members) I want to get some of you to ask Jeremy what we could do to get him more involved in the group. Shelly (a positive member), let me start with you.
Conduct Feedback Exercises
There are a number of feedback exercises that may get the involun- tary member(s) interested or more involved. One simple exercise involves having members answer questions like ‘‘Who do you trust most in the group?’’ and ‘‘Who do you trust least?’’ or ‘‘Who do you feel most comfortable with?’’ and ‘‘Who do you feel least comfortable with?’’ By having members do this, the involuntary member is involved unless she leaves the room. She may not say anything but she will be listening to whether her name is called. The leader can then ask her how she feels about what was said.
Another feedback activity that may work is to have everyone write a word or a phrase on 3� 5 cards for each member of the group and then give each member their feedback cards to read. Most of the time, the resistant member will read them and sometimes may react. Caution should be used with this technique in that the leader should only do this when she thinks there may be a chance that the member will open up or will react in a way that may start the process of him becoming involved in the group.
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In the example below, the leader attempts to give the negative member(s) feedback by eliciting comments from the members who are more engaged:
Leader: (Knowing that four or five of the eight members are now actively engaging in the group and ready to work) Those of you who are now more interested in getting something good from our group (leader gestures towards the four or five mem- bers who are engaged) do this for me. Talk to me about how you are feeling about members who are not engaging or parti- cipating in our group. What is your wish for them? How does their sitting quietly and being negative affect you? What would you like for them to do?
Finally, it should be noted that it is important to understand that not all people benefit from groups, especially those who are mandated to attend. Skilled leaders who make sure their groups are engaging and relevant can frequently get members interested in a mandatory group, but there will be times when a mandated member refuses to buy into the group process and can potentially ruin the experience for the other members. Ideally the leader has the option to ask nega- tive members to leave the group, or screen them out of the group, but, many times, agency policy dictates that these members must attend the group. Leaders who do have authority to screen out members should do this privately, not during a group session, and with com- passion and empathy towards the member.
Working With Groups Where Involuntary Members Are Joining an Existing Group
Many of the ideas presented in this article can be used in situations where the group is an open group and new, involuntary members are joining an established, ongoing group. The key to working with groups where open membership is the policy and new members are frequently involuntary and negative is to not cater the group to the new, negative member. Skilled leaders do not focus the energy of the group, especially a group where the energy is good, on the new, negative member. Leaders also should avoid letting the new, negative member take over, sabotaging the group experience for all members. Leaders are encouraged to meet with new members prior to or following their first group session to gage their level of commitment and attempt to establish a positive attitude toward the group (Day, 2007).
With regards to introducing a new member into the group, it is recommended that the leader get the existing members to briefly introduce themselves, say something they are getting from the group,
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and let the new member say a little about herself. The leader should lead the group with a focus on the existing members and not focus the energy on the new, negative member. A common mistake that many leaders make is to ‘‘give the floor’’ to the new member without assessing whether or not the member is going to be positive.
Leaders faced with involuntary members frequently make a num- ber of mistakes in the beginning that make leading the group much more difficult than it should be. Screening group members and plan- ning group sessions are two areas that group leaders mistakenly neglect prior to leading involuntary groups (ASGW, 2007; Corey, 2008; Jacobs et al., 2012). Listed below are additional common mistakes that leaders make with involuntary groups.
Allow negative tone to be established. Many leaders make the mistake of letting members express their negative feelings in the beginning in such a way that a negative tone is set (Jacobs et al., 2012). Earlier in this article we gave the example of the leader starting with letting the members express their negativity by putting a garbage can in the center of the group. In that example, although members started negative, the leader had a definite plan for ending the nega- tivity by putting a lid on the garbage can. In other words, she was in charge the whole time. What we are referring to here is when onemem- ber says something negative and the others join in and the leader does nothing to stop the flow of negativity. Very quickly the group can turn into a gripe session. Often leaders make themistake of askingmembers at the beginning what they expect or want and that opens the flood gates for all kinds of negative comments. The key is to try to set a posi- tive tone by using some of the ideas and techniques described in this article. It is especially important to make sure that members are not allowed to begin in such a way that a negative tone is established.
Rely on members. Leaders who rely heavily on the members to make something meaningful occur create a group that most likely will be unfocused, have argumentative members, and is unproductive. In an involuntary group, the leader should not put responsibility for the group in the hands of the members. To avoid this, the leader should plan the sessions and be very active because members in an involuntary group will usually not have much positive to say during the first couple of sessions (Jacobs & Schimmel, 2008).
Not making the group interesting. The main purpose of any invol- untary group is to get some, if not all, members less resistant and
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somewhat open to the idea that the group could be helpful. In other words, there should be a strong emphasis on altering the negativity in the group by making the group interesting and engaging, so that the negativity starts to lessen. Using the creative ideas outlined in this article will help to make groups more interesting and engaging. Mem- bers will not learn if they feel the group is not interesting and not relevant to them (Corey, 2008).
Engage in group negativity. Because these groups can be intimidat- ing, beginning leaders often get in arguments or put the members down, which, in turn, sets up dynamics which are usually difficult to overcome. The goal is to meet the members where they are and to move them in a positive direction. The leader should avoid being angry towards or judgmental of members for their negative feelings or beha- vior and should certainly not further engage the negativity by getting into any type of power struggle with the members (Corey, 2008).
Working with involuntary members is a tremendous challenge for group leaders. One key is to use activities that are interesting and engaging. We suggest using props, movement, written activities, and rounds as ways to engage members. Doing the unexpected as a leader is often a good way to get involuntary members involved which in turn can lead to them becoming voluntary members. It is always worth con- sidering the use of unexpected interventions or activities during the early sessions with involuntary members. A key to leading meaningful groups with involuntarymembers is not allowing the negative energy to consume the group. The primary purpose of the first couple of sessions of a group where some or all members are involuntary is to convince some, if not all, of the members to believe that the group experience can be helpful to them. Always look formembers who seem to have some positive energy and work with them initially rather than focusing on resistant members. Skilled leaders who are willing to think out of the box can usually turn involuntary members into voluntary members.
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158 THE JOURNAL FOR SPECIALISTS IN GROUP WORK / June 2011
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