Wishing you well.

Waking up into a thought can be a refreshing experience. Recently my thoughts ran onto members of the  Experiential Group I had facilitated for 22 weeks. My thought was simply this: I wished them all well. I also wanted to thank all of the group members.

I have described in an earlier blog what the function the experiential group had and what my role was. What I have not given is a facilitators perspective on how the groups development was and why I wish the members that attended well.

1st Meeting September 2015

The first meeting of the group was interesting. They came into a room that was ill prepared for any therapeutic endeavour. Chairs and tables were hurriedly arranged in a heap towards the back of the room. I entered the room and found a seat and sat towards the front of the room. Members of the experiential group came in after me and found a chair and placed it in a loose formed elliptical shape and then took to their seats. Other members were already in the room and either stayed in their seats or chose the lesson change over time to stretch their legs and take time to wander into the corridor and chat with other students. They would return in time for the beginning of the next lesson and again take their seats.

Sitting at the ‘front’ of the group became my habit for at least 5 of the first meetings. I would later change my position in the room which caused slight ripples of discomfort amongst the group. Comments included “why has Michael changed where he used to sit?” Not providing an answer and allowing the group to give reason for the slight change presented them with a new reality of me their facilitator.

Changing something small

Being a mischievous person altering my seating position in the room and not sharing as to why I had moved from the front of the class to the side or sometimes the back of the room gave the students an opportunity to appreciate change within the therapeutic space. Initially I moved as I wanted to test the group. Would moving to the left or right of the front of the room change the dynamics of the room?

The change represented difference and I feel that a number of conversations occurred in relation to the subtlety of my movement. The group responded by discussing differences of opinion about the course, each other, perspectives on race, religion, sex, counselling, spirituality, profession, age, family, the why of this career as opposed to any other. Identities for the group became a little more defined, roles the members played changed from week to week: the information bearer, joker, quiet one, challenger, agreer, arguer, dismisser, lecturer enthusiast, social commentator, pessimist, optimist and realist changed from week to week. Which offered the group a chance to simultaneously grow individually and together.

Time and Timings

There were a number of boundaries that were initially presented as trigger points which the group  agreed on or raged against. The clock on the wall in the space we used was roughly 3 minutes faster than real time (my watch). By the 3rd week I had identified that my start and stop times were out of sync with the clock on the wall and members of the group were agitated by this discrepancy.

I chose to raise the timing of the start and end time with the group to gain perspective on whether clock time or watch time would be best to use for the timing of the experiential group hour. On reflection the group decided that they would like to use the clock on the wall to time the beginning and the end of each experiential group.

By the 4th week the timing of the start had slid to coincide with my ‘watch time’ and so I naturally chose to adjust the timing of the experiential group to allow for a later start. Challenge to the timing of the Experiential Group became a frequent issue in the 1st few weeks of the group being run. No sooner had I either raised my hand or indicated that our time together had come to an end, students were making their way to the door. I found it curious. It was like something had gone wrong with the work. Their exit provided them with an abrupt end to a difficult experience. At times this may well have been the case.

Challenge

Describing the purpose of the experiential group was something I had not spent a lot of time reviewing before the group started. In short I said to the 11 members how I perceived the space could be used and said ‘Welcome to your first experiential group. How has your first day been?’ I was promptly informed that the group had started the course a week ago and that this was infact their 2nd week.

Ah, the facilitator gets it wrong! But can he regroup? Internalised thought

I then said something about the idea of safety and that I wanted to provide a safe environment in which all students could share things in the room and be heard. The other idea that was put across to the room was that they needed to be authentic as their professional logs would be marked on reflection of what they had shared in the room.

Challenges came from the group in terms of not fully understanding the purpose of experiential group, or what my role as facilitator was, and questioning if the material that was discussed would disrupt the fragile new alliances that were being formed amongst the group. I took up the gauntlet and attempted to manage the groups development as I had with other groups I had supported previously, which included the Skype group of counsellors that I met with every month and the various basketball teams I had coached.

Experiential Group as a Catalyst

If a person could take a picture of themselves before joining a group experience and then another at a mid-point of a course and then another picture near the end of the course they may well be able to perceive subtle changes about themselves.

Things like their stance whilst sitting or standing, as they talked and expressed ideas to a group of peers. When being challenged by another on a point, they would not try to slink away and hide nor become defensive but seek an empathic understanding of why the question or challenge came when it did.

The picture of themselves in the last experiential group would present them with their growth. By journeying with peers, subtle and significant changes will have occurred. For me as a facilitator all students appeared to have hewn from the granite of the course an identity of who they were and where their counselling journey was to lead them to next.

Good bye and Thanks

I have mentioned in a previous blog that saying goodbye to this first group of counselling students was bittersweet. We were able to develop a closing experience of the group that seemed to resonate with all members that attended.

At one point my voice cracked as I shared that I was going to give up ‘Fear’ and what I was going to take was ‘All 11 of you’. The closing of the group had been mentioned as an idea roughly 9 weeks prior. It was similar to the ending of the Roda when I attended Capoeira with the London School of Capoeira 1999-2001. A completing of a good dance with fellow capoeiristas.

I considered all I had worked with, as a facilitator of this years Experiential Group, ready to move on to the next stage of their journey, capable of fulfilling their roles as mental health practitioners/counsellors/psychotherapists/students.

My thanks are largely due as a result of the group’s patience, resilience, trust and belief that I could facilitate the room and support the group to hold each other and the issues discussed with sensitivity warmth and compassion.

What a ride! I look forward to my next group of students, going again and supporting learning and development.

I wish you well.

Belonging v Fitting In

Confusion 2015-05-25 15.32.10

There are many reasons that I have wanted to write a regular blog. Mostly to share a perspective on things I experience from bewildering and conflicting perspectives. These perspectives include myself as a thinker, a past time of mine since I was a young man.

  • A black male psychotherapist, three words that cause me to pause and reflect on the meanings that are associated with each and how these three words interact with each other and with the social fields I come into contact with on a daily basis. I suspect a blog about being a black male psychotherapist is to be written in time.
  • Being a father of 2 young black boys the responsibility I am presented is to support their development in being able to simply just be. With Janelle Monáe’s Hell you Talmbout I recognise that my involvement with my sons’ lives is of primary importance and one in which I am invited to be an educator, coach, listener, artist, co conspirator, chef, journey planner and Doctor. Ta Nehesi Coates speaks and writes well on this subject in his book Between the World and Me.
  • Some of the other roles I engage with are; as a member of a mental health organisation working alongside probation and with service users, as a husband, as a lover of jazz, a reader, a former interior designer, youth worker, comic book reader, movie goer, longboard rider, podcast listener, basketballer and coach, friend, walker, facilitator and multiple sclerosis sufferer. This list is not exhaustive and there are probably at least 5 or more subjects I could add.

Fitting in, Belonging

For this blog I wanted to discuss an awareness I sensed but hadn’t fully brought into full consciousness until I came across it whilst reading Brené Brown’s ‘Daring Greatly’. One of the concepts she was able to describe was a simple concept of either fitting in or belonging. At the time of reading ‘Daring Greatly’ in Oct – Nov 2015 I was experiencing what it meant to either ‘belong’ or to fit in.

2014 into 2015

Working for a large organisation with a group of people one knows vaguely who each have slightly differing roles and responsibilities to yours, there can be points when you are offered a chance to either fit in, or if lucky to choose to belong. When I joined the organisation I attempted to go with the flow and fit in.

Fitting in often does not cause great offence to others ‘no boats are rocking’. Perhaps in oneself the effect is of losing grip on what is important – oneself and one’s reality. Losing sense of oneself can be unsettling and what could be worse is not realising that your way is lost until you are saying and doing things that you don’t recognise.

In December 2014, I left an experience of belonging to a staff team in a high security prison and joined the organisation I currently work with in January 2015. The mental health team I left consisted of Psychiatrists, Social Workers, Nurses, Counselling Psychologists, counsellors , an EMDR counsellor who was also my line manager and supervisor, Occupational  Therapists, and counsellors on placement.

HMP Belmarsh’s mental health team was a robust co-operative, co-ordinated group of professionals that met every week to discuss mental health referrals. It took me 2 years to get used to the quick fired nature of the referral process and dissemination of potential clients to departments within the mental health team. In the last 2 years of working at Belmarsh I gained a sense of how valuable these differences amongst the mental health team were as Social workers would have a different perspective to Psychiatrists or CPNs another opinion to Occupational Therapists and counsellors to counselling psychologists.

With these differing opinions in relation to treatment options, barriers for individuals seeking treatment were overcome and mostly resolved. The experience I had was of belonging to a staff team who were willing to work together for the greater good of those seeking mental health support. I was able to recognise that differing viewpoints can be supportive rather than only negative, that can appear to slow or block progress.

A reminder

Whilst training as a counsellor 2008-2011 I had experiences that were of not being able to neither fit in nor belong. I was one of a few minority ethnic people on the course and one of only 3 males that completed year 1. Struggling alongside 18 other students on a bewildering counselling MSc course, I would have thought would generate a sense of belonging or camaraderie. My experience was that of being outside of a group of people who were able to exist in a quasi-understanding of fitting in with each other.

I made a choice in October 2015, which was supported by Daring Greatly, that fitting in was not going to be how I operate whilst working with others. Belonging was a better coat to wear. I had been in a number of previous working experiences pre Belmarsh were belonging was a part of the fabric of the organisation.

Currently I find myself reminded of my training to be a counsellor and the discomfort of attempting to fit in amongst a student populace that I was to belong to, but was different from.  The knowledge of being an outsider from a group is not a new one and has the possibility of offering me an internal conflict which can lead to personal growth.

Reality

The reality is that the experience of belonging or fitting in will repeat in whatever work context I find myself involved with. The interesting thing for me is that I will attempt to gain a sense of belonging wherever I work. The cost of attempting to fit in I find too great. It’s the experience of not sharing your perspective on subjects you care about, of fearing that you will be ostracized by people you work with, finding that you stand out and being uncomfortable with this.

Belonging

Being amongst a group of others I would find it important to relate and talk about any number of subjects on a number of different levels and not be judged or ridiculed in my sharing. Depending on a person’s background and family of origin the aim could be to gain a sense of belonging similar to that of a family system. Perhaps without some of the negative aspects of a family group. For me it’s about the feelings that come with the experience of recognising that one belongs. Which feels very different to fitting in.

I would liken belonging to hearing a favourite song by chance whilst out doing something innocuous. The song I would be happy to hear would be Ooh Child by the Five Fairsteps and something like love spreads throughout your system like you’re in a hot bath.

My experiences of belonging are many-fold, for example attending my first BAATN mens group and mentioning that unlike Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man I WAS being seen and heard by the group, and that I also belonged. Coaching basketball in a number of settings was the epitome of gaining a sense of containment attachment and belonging for every team I coached and for all that attended. My sense of the Experiential Group even though I was the facilitator, I felt part of the group not apart from it, lastly, when my family get together we express our love in volume but each member receives that warm bath feeling…

Belonging.

Endings and New Beginnings

2015-07-05 14.47.16In September 2015 I began facilitating a group of year 1 MSc Therapeutic Counselling Students at University of Greenwich. My role was to sit with 11 students in something called Experiential Group.

Group Aims

Perhaps explaining what the group is to do and the aim of the Experiential Group would help to frame what I have enjoyed about the experience and why I am sad to see the group come to a close. The Experiential Group is essentially the last component of 4 or 5 sections of training to be a counsellor. Other training providers and universities may have a range of different modules for training counsellors. At the University of Greenwich the course is comprised of; Theory, Skills, Case Discussion and Experiential Group and this was the running order of the day when I attended 2008-2011.

In Experiential Group, members discuss topics that have arisen in the course of the week and share these with the group. The space is infused with dynamism, ideas, emotions and rememberings . My role is to sit amongst the group, and notice what is happening in the room and offer insights and reflections for reflection and application to the conversation. It is a role that I feel is as challenging as that of an orchestral conductor without a pre-designed, pre-aranged outcome or destination.

Facilitate?

At the first meeting in September 2015, the group asked what my role was, ‘Like what do you do?’ I smiled in response and did not offer much as an explanation. The 11 members of the group as one, looked perplexed, as if I were holding back some valuable information. I eventually offered that I facilitate the space.

Different yet the same

I can reflect on joining my experiential group in 2008 with 15 unknown people in the room and feeling at odds with 2 conflicting ideas. The first was that my previous counselling skills course at Morley College had offered a similar collective learning experience but was termed either a check in or a check out. The ‘Check ins’ were at the beginning of the course and the ‘Check outs’ came at the end. I had some knowledge of what the experiential group was about. But did I? Really?

Framing

I can remember in 2008 that I wanted to suggest we check-in and check-out. This would have given me a frame to work within for every group meeting. It may have provided others with a ‘have to’ which could have been prescriptive and not as comforting. Great for me, perhaps not necessary for everyone else. After attempting to make check-ins a part of our experiential group meetings the idea was phased out after 2 meetings. At the time I was not happy about this phasing out but looking back I can see the reason that check-ins were moved past.

The second thought at the time was, there are other people here and they may know more about counselling than me so I should listen and follow their lead as I don’t want to make myself look inept and out of my depth.

Growing Awareness

Looking back on my need for structure then, I can witness a need to control and pace things in a measured way. What happened with this year’s year one students, was apart from time boundaries there were little imposed rules for the group to hold on to. They managed well with little to guide discussion or rules for the group.

The purpose of the experiential group as identified in an article in Therapy Today (Peer supervision and collaborative power) , which is not in the course hand book but a suspicion on my part, is to grow the counselling experience and the counsellors awareness of self and other in the 28 x 1 hour appointments. I have found this group process remarkable, confusing, frustrating, hilarious, as a way of engaging student counsellors works to hone inherent skill development.

Differences

It works because of what each member brings to each meeting. There are differences of opinion, differences in thought, seeing aspects of counselling and psychotherapy in a wide number of perspectives, a collaboration of suspicions, they share successes and failures, difficulties are offered as talking points for the group to reflect. The aspect that makes me wryly smile is that the energy of the room sways and motivates discussion in surprising ways. Pop culture and Pop psychology is often used to hang uncomfortable and indigestible components of counselling and psychotherapy on. Humour was often used to smooth away the cracks that appeared in a discussion that encountered difficulty or a differing opinion.

Appreciation

The group then use the experiential group and components of the course as well as their placements to write 2 professional logs. The professional logs are informed by personal notes taken throughout the year. These notes observe how each participant has used/observed themselves and material from the course in describing themes relevant to them, their progression on the course and relating this to skills, placement (counselling skills application), case discussion and the experiential group. With each professional log, students grew their awareness and their roles as counsellors in each particular setting they practiced their skills in. It was a privilege to sit amongst the group and witness these nano changes, that were in fact gargantuan.

My excitement wanes as I acknowledge that I won’t have this 1st again. These 11 students go on to year 2 or elsewhere to continue their journey in a way that is outside of my knowledge, experience and guidance.

With this said, I am invited to look at what lies at the horizon and begin my walk toward this…

Bon chance.