Groups vary greatly in their purpose, members and type. Although the word ‘group’ can be pleural, they are as distinct as your face. A group can prove very beneficial for people, especially offenders and those with addictions. Some examples of groups include social groups, group psychotherapy, group counselling, educational groups, social treatment groups and self help groups. These types of groups are quite well known. The definition of a group could be defined as a collection of individuals who come together normally with a common aim. Groups can be preventative and lead clients and members to change their behaviour through the support of others. Having the opportunity to discuss issues or problems can lead to behaviour change because of the sense of belonging and identity that can be established from being a member of the group.

Some groups are formal and some informal. For example, you would usually find that a social group is informal because they have no leader, and no obvious timescale/aim. Different groups have different kinds of memberships. Some groups may be for young people, some are for adults and some are suitable for all ages. For example, a ‘reminiscence’ group would be more suitable for older people, as they have had more life experience and they can enjoy talking to other members of the group about memorable events, i.e. the war.

Some groups are optional or compulsory about whether the members attend. For example, those who take part in a social group attend entirely out of their own choice, just for their own interest and enjoyment. On the other hand, offenders may be expected to attend a treatment group that deals with their behaviour. It may be part of their court sentence, the same as community service.

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The membership of the group is very important in terms of the progress and success. Group members who share a common aim about why they are attending are more likely to succeed. Some members of a self-help group may be dominant, which could make the more submissive members withdrawn or unconfident. If members are of a similar age, background and have similar life experience there could be more opportunities for each member to ‘bond’ with one another and make the group experience a more rewarding one. However, some arguments could be made that groups who have members too similar are not being challenged and encouraged to bond with people completely different to themselves. They could also say that putting opposite types of people into a group provides a more interesting experience.

As mentioned earlier about dominant and submissive members, this relates to power issues. If one or two members in the group have control and power over decisions, such as what is discussed, who is doing what, etc, then some of the quieter members could become resentful of the power that these members possess. They could feel envious that they have the power to take on the leadership, whereas they do not. It may also mean that some group members feel like ‘the black sheep’ because they feel unable to express their views. The group may fall apart as a result.

‘What helps the group to develop?

* The willingness to be process-orientated, i.e. to understand how it is working and what it is doing

* The willingness to be interactive, i.e. to give and receive feedback, receive impressions, share thoughts and ideas about your own learning.

* The willingness to challenge the group supportively, i.e. to resolve conflicts and to keep boundaries for individuals.’

Summerfield, et al, Counselling in the workplace, 1995:182

The size of the group can also be another important factor in relation to the nature of groups. For example, a new member of a group may feel slightly intimidated by joining a group with a small number of members in fear of not blending with their ‘clique’. They may prefer joining a larger group, where there would be more variety of people for them to mix with.

However, some members may feel more comfortable in joining a small group because they think it has a friendlier feel as compared to a larger and wider group. Some arguments put forward in favour of larger groups are that members of the group are more likely to gain better progress because more people are contributing to its input. An argument against it could be that people in larger groups can become ‘invisible’ because less time is given to each individual.

Questions Members Often ask Themselves

* Will I be accepted or rejected here?

* How will this group be different from my daily interactions?

* What exactly will these sessions be like?

* What risks will I take in here?

* How am I like other people here? Different?

* Will I feel pressured and pushed to perform in some way?

* How important will I be?

* Who will be the real leaders here? What can be achieved here?

Groups are varied in their aims and composition. It is important to take planning into consideration before the group can begin. For example, it is usually found that informal groups are less likely to need a structure or plan. A mother and toddler group is beneficial to both parent and child and can help the mother to overcome feelings of isolation by mixing with other mums. However, it does not need a structured plan of what will be happening in each meeting. This type of group does also not need a leader. On the other end of the spectrum, there are formal groups that usually require some planning. An example would be a psychotherapy group for child abusers.

Very careful planning would be needed to make sure that each member gains a therapeutic experience rather than a chance to socialise with other abusers. A leader would have to provide close supervision on every member to ensure they were not gaining sexual kicks from blending with other abusers. There may be strict procedures as to where people sit or how /when they move around the group. The membership of a group has to have some common aims and ideas otherwise it is possible that the group will fail at the first hurdle. Groups usually work best when people attend voluntarily, either to socialise or to deal with their problems. There are other groups where members are expected t attend because they have no choice in the matter, e.g. an offenders group.

Types of groups

Social groups are defined by their content, for example the social or recreational activities. There is no concrete purpose for this type of group, they are usually provided just for enjoyment and for members to socialise with each other. They may provide a positive experience for some members, by helping them to overcome isolation. There is usually no leader of the group because of the informal setting. Generally all members are encouraged to participate and give their suggestions. Each member can be given a role of responsibility that can help the group develop when working together. An example of a social group could be a youth club, because young people can mix and socialise with other people of the same age and interests.

Psychotherapy groups aim to provide relief from emotional problems and basic personality change. This type of group is quite formal, mainly because members are not attending just to socialise and meet people, but to discuss and analyse their problems. The emphasis is on helping members achieve their personal therapeutic goals, such as overcoming low self esteem, lack of purpose or direction, and lack of a clear identity. Individuals may have symptoms such as anxiety, depression, and an inability to cope with difficult situations, i.e. stress. Members have to be motivated and want to make changes to their life.

They should join the group because they want to, not because of other people’s opinions. These groups use lots of verbal communication, so members should be able to use verbal skills. Each member should also be able to accept ‘psychological-mindedness’. This means that each individual has to have an ability to accept an appropriate psychological explanation about their issues within themselves and with others. Obviously the leader would be the psychotherapist, and they focus on the goals and future development of each individual. The leader will attempt to steer the group into a here and now focus and may direct their comments either to individuals, sub-groups or the whole group.

Counselling groups focuses on dealing with particular problems or modifying specific situations. Usually each member shares a common problem that the group can focus on, for example the focus may be on overcoming an affair. Attention is paid to the particular problem, whilst other problems have little focus. Some other examples of how counselling can be used could be depression, isolation, children who are beyond control, etc. The counsellor takes place of the leader by helping members to identify and keep to the focus of the group. Another is to enable members to build links between themselves. The group share both the problem and solutions adopted by individuals.

Educational groups offer information and to offer members the chance to learn skills through instruction. For example, a practical skills group could aim to assist members in easier ways of dealing with practical problems around the home when on a tight budget. An environment is provided where basic skills are learnt through practise.

Another form of its purpose could be to prepare members for life stages, new experiences and challenges. The group could focus on the feelings produced from transitions, i.e. from junior to secondary school, from school to employment, and from work to unemployment/retirement. In leading such groups, it is useful to know how people learn. Effective learning is more likely to follow from a willingness to participate in a process of discovery and enquiries in which members can contribute their own experiences. A shared learning process and through discussion can be beneficial in each members learning process. Also, simulation exercises help members to approach a situation they may be facing.

Self-help groups have a variety of aims, which range from campaigning for attitude or social change to using the resources the group have for support and individual problem solving. However, whatever the group’s purposes, the group-workers aim to become less central in or less responsible for the work of the group, often to the point of the group meeting without them. A women’s self help group may hold aims such as providing an opportunity for each member to have fun and enjoy each other’s company. The group could help women feel more confident and more in control of their life and facilitate ways in which women can recognise and care better for their own needs. Such groups can also help women communicate their feelings and needs to others and learn to give and receive support.

Discussion groups are usually informal settings where members focus on the general rather than anything particular, on topics of interest to each person rather than on specific difficulties or problems. This type of group can help members develop social skills and gives them the opportunity to socialise with others who wish to discuss the same topic as they do. The group-workers task is to create an atmosphere of trust and support in the group so that members may voice and develop their interests and use the contributions of other members.

Social action groups aim to utilise the groups’ resources for collective power as a tool for campaigning for social change and for the rights/needs of each group member. An example of a campaign would be to refuse to work. This is a concept that has been advocated at various times by many social activist groups, mostly located on the libertarian left wing. The idea is that if enough of the working class refused to show up for work, parts of the capitalist power structure would be stalled, paving the way for effecting social reforms that will make job quality better. Many members feel trapped in social and economic deprivation and will often form around issues like housing standards, community facilities or welfare rights.



* Summerfield, et al, Counselling in the Workplace, 1995, Institute of Personnel and Development, London.


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