Group Leader Reflections on Their Training and Experience: Implications for Group Counselor Educators and Supervisors
Jonathan H. Ohrt Elizabeth Ener Jessica Porter
University of North Texas
Tabitha L. Young University of Mississippi
Effective group leaders possess specialized counseling skills and abilities; how- ever, attention to group leadership training appears to be lagging behind that of individual counseling. In this phenomenological study we explored group leaders’ perceptions of their training and experience. Twenty-two professional counselors participated in semi-structured interviews in which 7 primary themes within 2 cat- egories were identified: (a) group counseling practice, (b) observation of group leadership, (c) supervision of group leadership, (d) experiential group participation, (e) academic/instruction, (f) group leader role, and (g) group process and dynam- ics. We discuss implications for counselor educators and supervisors and future research.
Keywords: counselors-in-training; group leadership; supervision
Group counseling is widely accepted as an effective treatment modal- ity that results in positive client outcomes in a variety of settings (Burlingame, Fuhriman, & Mosier, 2003; Fuhriman & Burlingame, 1999, 2001; McRoberts, Burlingame, & Hoag, 1998). For instance, in a meta-analytic review of 111 group counseling studies over a 20- year period, Burlingame et al. (2003) found significant improvements for clients who participated in group counseling over wait-list control groups. In addition to clinical benefits, the cost-effectiveness of the
Manuscript submitted June 30, 2013; final revision accepted December 19, 2013. Jonathan H. Ohrt, Ph.D., is an assistant professor; Elizabeth Ener, M.A., is a doctoral student; and Jessica Porter, M.Ed., is a post-baccalaureate student in the Department of Counseling and Higher Education at the University of North Texas. Tabitha L. Young, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the College of Leadership and Education at the University of Mississippi. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Jonathan H. Ohrt, Department of Counseling and Higher Education, University of North Texas, 1155 Union Circle #310829, Denton, TX 76203. E-mail: email@example.com
THE JOURNAL FOR SPECIALISTS IN GROUP WORK, Vol. 39 No. 2, June 2014, 95–124 DOI: 10.1080/01933922.2014.883004 © 2014 ASGW
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group modality indicates it is likely to continue to be a standard thera- peutic intervention (Dies, 1992). Additionally, the group modality is fre- quently used in both community and school settings (Steen, Bauman, & Smith, 2007). Considering the efficacy, efficiency, and widespread use of the group modality, it is imperative that counselors-in-training receive high quality group work education. However, attention to effective group work training appears to be lagging behind individual counseling (Markus & King, 2003).
To date, most training models in counselor education are specific to the individual counseling modality (Buser, 2008; Paladino, Barrio, & Kern, 2011; Urbani et al., 2002). For example, Carkhuff’s (1971/2000) model consists of role-play in which counselors-in-training rotate as counselor, client, and observer. The counselor and client role play a counseling scenario and the observer debriefs the triad and provides feedback following the session. In Ivey’s (1971) microcounseling model, counselors-in-training role-play and reflect on specific skills. Further, in Interpersonal Process Recall (Kagan, Krathwohl, & Miller, 1963) counselors view session recordings and process what happened in the moment.
Researchers have found success for individual models in promoting counselors’-in-training interpersonal skills and cognitive development. For example, in a meta-analytic review of skill performance out- comes, Baker, Daniels, and Greeley (1990) found a large effect size (1.07) for Human Resource Training/Human Resource Development training (Carkhuff, 1971/2000), a medium effect size (0.63) for Ivey’s (1971) microcounseling program, and a small effect size (0.20) for Interpersonal Process Recall (Kagan et al., 1963). More recently, Paladino et al. (2011) developed an Interactive Training Model (ITM) that consists of a role-play session including a counselor, client, client advocate, counselor advisers, and an audience. The client brings a pre- senting concern to the session, while the client advocate (typically a course instructor) provides reinforcing or corrective statements dur- ing the course of the role play. The counselor advisers provide support for the counselor and the audience notes the skills used and pre- senting concerns expressed by the client. The authors found support for the ITM in increasing counselors’-in-training autonomy, self and other awareness, and overall development. Despite the support for various training models, research on individual counseling cannot be generalized to the group modality (Rubel & Kline, 2008).
Although evidenced-based training models are essential in sup- porting counselors’-in-training’ individual counseling skills, they need to possess specialized skills in order to effectively facilitate groups (Markus & King, 2003). In fact, Furr and Barret (2000) proposed a two-course sequence at the master’s level in order to meet professional
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training standards. Barlow (2004) summarized four components of group leader training including: (a) academic, (b) observation, (c) expe- riential, and (d) supervision. The author suggested addressing the components through a combination of lectures, readings, observa- tions of experienced group leaders, group participation as a member, and supervision of group skills. The components are reinforced by the Council for Accreditation for Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP, 2009) which emphasizes the importance of group work within its training standards. For example, group work is one of the eight common core curricular experiences within the CACREP Standards (2009; Standard G.6) and is required as part of counselors’- in-training internship experience. Content in a group class typically includes the types of groups, group dynamics, group development, ther- apeutic factors, and group stages (Corey, Corey, & Corey, 2014; Yalom & Leszcz, 2005). Additionally, CACREP (2009) requires students to participate as a group member for at least 10 clock hr (Standard 6.e).
The ASGW outlines essential training and practice elements within its Training Standards (ASGW, 2000), Best Practice Guidelines (Thomas & Pender, 2008), and Multicultural and Social Justice Competency Principles (Sing et al., 2012). For example, within its training standards the ASGW recommends 20 hr of observation or participation as a group member or leader/co-leader and at least one graduate course in group work that addresses group leadership, group process and dynamics, group development, and types of group work (Standard I). More specifically, Thomas and Pender (2008) emphasized that group leaders be competent in attending to therapeutic condi- tions and group dynamics (Standard B.4), helping members develop goals (Standard B.6) and derive meaning from the group (Standard B.5), and evaluating member progress and outcome (Standard C.3). Additionally, the authors emphasized the importance of group lead- ers engaging in self-assessment of how their own knowledge, beliefs, and values influence the group (Standard A.3.a), and being sensitive to client differences while developing competence in working with diverse groups (Standard B.8).
Singh et al. (2012) further emphasized the importance of training group leaders who understand how multicultural and social justice concepts affect aspects of group work. The function of a group (e.g., processes, dynamics, client outcome) is influenced by multiculturalism and social justice issues. Additionally, oppressive systems affect group members’ functioning in various ways. Thus, group leaders are respon- sible for developing awareness of their own multicultural identity and the identity of their group members as well as how the identities influence the group process. Further, group leaders develop strate- gies and skills for planning and facilitating multicultural and social
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justice sensitive groups, and work as social justice advocates for their group members (Singh et al., 2012). Although group leaders partici- pate in continuing education and professional development, counselor educators are responsible for providing counselors-in-training with a foundation in multicultural and social justice group work com- petence (Ibrahim, 2010). Therefore, group leader training typically includes multiple instructional strategies and experiential learning activities intended to assist counselors-in-training in developing spe- cialized skills and an ability to conceptualize groups and individual members from a diversity-sensitive perspective.
To address the group leader training gap, Smaby et al. (1999) developed the Skilled Group Counselor Training Model (SGCTM). The SGCTM consists of three sequential phases: (a) exploring, (b) under- standing, and (c) acting. The exploring stage consists of identifying group member concerns. The understanding stage focuses on develop- ing member goals, while the acting stage focuses on how to reach the goals. Within each phase students learn: (a) six interpersonal skills, (b) two group processes, and (c) one purpose (Smaby et al., 1999). Thus, the model teaches 18 lower-level (e.g., eye contact) and higher-level (e.g., confrontation) counseling skills, empathy, and decision-making skills. The authors found that the SGCTM was effective over a comparison group in interpersonal skill acquisition among counselors-in-training in a simulated group setting.
In addition to standardized training models, authors have described various pedagogical strategies to infuse when teaching group work. For example, Riva and Korinek (2004) discussed modeling group leader skills within the classroom. The authors recommended conceptualiz- ing the class in stages (i.e., early, mid, end) that are parallel to group. In the early stage, the teacher models building trust and rapport. In the mid-stage, the teacher facilitates cohesion, increased spon- taneity, greater risk-taking, and deeper discussion. Finally, in the end-stage, the teacher facilitates reflections on course progress and class closure. Torres-Rivera et al. (2004) described a model for train- ing psychoeducational group leaders that included lecture, discussion, role play, demonstrations, and video. The trainees also participated in a psychoeducational group as a member. Author-created evaluations indicated positive ratings of the training by the trainees.
Another common component of group leader training is an experi- ential group in which counselors-in-training are members (Shumaker, Ortiz, & Brenninkmeyer, 2011). Group member participation is fre- quently cited as a necessary and valuable part of group leader devel- opment (Corey et al., 2014; Yalom & Leszcz, 2005). Ieva, Ohrt, Swank, and Young (2009) found that counselors-in-training who participated in a personal growth group believed they could better empathize
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with their clients and were more confident in facilitating groups as a result of seeing leadership modeled. Additionally, Ohrt, Robinson, and Hagedorn (2013) found that counselors-in-training who participated in either a personal growth group or a psychoeducational experien- tial group reported increased group leader self-efficacy from pretest to posttest. Young, Reysen, Eskridge, and Ohrt (2013) found that counselors-in-training who participated in a personal growth group experienced significant increases in their beliefs in their competence and ability to set personal goals. Therefore, there is some evidence to support experiential groups as an effective group work training strategy.
Despite the evidence supporting various group work training strate- gies in counselor education, additional research is needed to evaluate training effects on specialized skills and transferability to natural settings (Buser, 2008). Steen, Bauman, and Smith (2008) investi- gated school counselors’ training experiences related to group work and found that most students had one course in group work and few students were able to observe or co-lead groups with children or adolescents. The authors also found that students valued super- vised practice experiences during their internship phase. In a study with expert group leaders, Rubel and Kline (2008) found experiential influences, leadership resources, and leadership process to be emer- gent concepts describing group leaders’ experience. Nevertheless, there is limited research investigating practicing group leaders’ develop- ment in relation to their training experiences. Whereas examining students’ perceptions of critical incidences related to their growth as developing counselors clarifies counselors’-in-training needs both in the classroom and beyond (Skovholt & McCarthy, 1988), exploring more experienced counselors’ perceptions of their training and expe- rience may provide useful information for group counselor educators in designing group training experiences. Therefore, the purpose of this study was to explore group leaders’ perceptions of their group work training and experience. Our specific research questions were: (a) what are group leaders’ perceptions of their group training experience? and (b) what are the critical aspects (e.g., challenges, therapeutic elements) of leading a group?
Because we were seeking to understand group leaders’ unique experiences of their group work training and experience, we approached this study from a phenomenological perspective (Creswell, 2012; Moustakas, 1994). This method allowed us to gain a deep
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understanding of how experienced group leaders individually and col- lectively experienced their group leader training in relation to their experience (Wertz, 2005). Rather than attempting to generate a the- ory through data saturation, we sought to understand the participants’ subjective accounts of their group work training (Hays & Singh, 2012). We followed Moustakas’ (1994) transcendental phenomenology by set- ting aside our own experiences and focusing on the participants’ descriptions of their experiences. Consistent with the phenomenologi- cal tradition, our purpose was to uncover the central underlying mean- ing of the participants’ experience through interviews by bracketing our assumptions, reducing data, analyzing specific statements, search- ing for all possible meanings, and creating meaning units (Creswell, 2012).
Our research team consisted of two counselor educators, one counselor education doctoral student, and two master’s level counselor education students in the internship phase of their training. The first author is a White male and the second, third, and fourth authors are White females. The additional investigator is also a White female. The first and fourth authors have multiple years of experience facilitating groups, teaching group counseling courses, and have conducted mul- tiple research studies related to group work. The second author has experience facilitating various groups and has participated in several research studies related to group work. The third author and addi- tional investigator have a defined interest in group work practice and have facilitated multiple counseling groups. The fourth author served as a peer debriefer and was not involved in data collection or analysis. The additional investigator served in the initial data collection pro- cess and was not involved in the analysis process. The first and fourth authors have training in qualitative research through a doctoral-level counseling course and have published multiple qualitative research articles. The second author also has doctoral-level qualitative research training.
We bracketed our positions prior to collecting data. We sought to set aside our own experiences and refrain from adding our own judgments (epoche) in order to view the phenomenon from a fresh perspective (Hays & Singh, 2012; Moustakas, 1994). This process consisted of an initial meeting to discuss and record our own experiences, beliefs, and assumptions about group leadership training. We recognized that we all have positive views of group work, believe strongly in experien- tial learning components of group work, and believe there should be a greater emphasis on group work training. We also discussed our beliefs about what is helpful about group work training and how our own
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courses in group work are structured. We acknowledged that we hoped participants would validate the training components that we use in our courses. We continued to revisit our assumptions throughout the data collection and analysis processes in order to maintain as much objectivity as possible.
After obtaining approval from the Institutional Review Board (IRB), we purposefully recruited participants based on their experience con- ducting group work using criterion-based and snowball sampling procedures (Creswell, 2014; Patton, 2002). We contacted local area counselors in private practice, schools, and community agencies via: (a) phone, (b) email, or (c) in-person, to invite them to participate in the study. In order to be eligible for the study, potential participants must have had at least one course in group work at the graduate level. Additionally, they were required to be currently leading at least one group as part of their practice. After discussing the purpose of the study with participants and obtaining informed consent, we arranged times to conduct individual, face to face interviews with each participant.
This study included the unique, subjective experiences of 22 counselors with group leadership experience. The group leaders were post-master’s level counselors who were working in a community setting, school, and/or private practice. The leaders were 18% male (n = 4) and 82% female (n = 18). In addition, the racial composition was 68% White (n = 15), 4.5% Latino (n = 1), 13.6% Black (n = 3), 9% Asian (n = 2), and 4.5% Native American (n = 1). The group lead- ers’ ages ranged from 25 to 77 (M = 40.27). Overall, the group leaders had an average of (7.5) years of counseling experience (range = 1–40). Finally, the percentage of time that each group leader spent facilitat- ing groups during their clinical practice ranged from 5% to 30% of their total case load (M = 14.3). The counselors completed their grad- uate training at 10 different universities in the Southwest. We include participant demographics and pseudonyms in Table 1.
Prior to participating in the semi-structured interviews, the partici- pants completed a demographic questionnaire that included questions related to their age, sex, race/ethnicity, education level, and group experience. Our data collection method consisted of interviews with
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Table 1 Participant Demographics
Pseudonym Age Sex Race
Kelly 53 Female White Doris 25 Female Black Vincent 32 Male Black Beverly 30 Female White Nadine 39 Female Native American Bill 45 Male White Darlene 40 Female Asian Steve 44 Male White Perla 27 Female Hispanic Megan 27 Female White Mary 51 Female White Kerry 40 Female Black Stacy 37 Female White Joshua 77 Male White Casey 34 Female White Marina 66 Female Asian Susan 62 Female White Dorothy 37 Female White Carolyn 41 Female White Michelle 28 Female White Wanda 26 Female White Kara 25 Female White
participants who have experienced the phenomenon of participating in group work training and leading groups with clients (Polkinghorne, 1989). We developed an individual, face-to-face, semi-structured inter- view protocol that consisted of open-ended questions (Patton, 2002). We asked participants general questions about their experiences of the phenomenon and influences on their experiences (Moustakas, 1994). Additionally, we developed other open-ended questions. Examples of interview questions included: “Reflecting on your graduate training, what aspects were helpful in preparing you as a group leader?” “What aspects of group counseling do you find most difficult as a leader? (e.g., planning, preparation, in session)?” and “What aspects of group counseling do you believe are most helpful for members?” We audio- recorded and transcribed the interviews, which each lasted between 45 min and 1 hr.
We used a phenomenological data analysis procedure developed by Moustakas (1994) in order to analyze the data. The process consisted of:
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(a) bracketing our assumptions about group leader training; (b) iden- tifying all non-repetitive, non-overlapping statements related to the phenomenon (horizontalization); (c) grouping significant statements into clusters of meaning and creating a textural description (descrip- tion of participants’ experience); and (d) seeking multiple meanings and variations in the descriptions and creating a structural descrip- tion (Creswell, 2012). In our first meeting we discussed our experiences with group work (discussed in the research team section), discussed our perspectives and biases, and bracketed our assumptions about group work training. Next, we each independently read through all of the individual interview transcripts to get a sense of the data. We then individually reviewed the transcripts and listed out significant state- ments related to the research questions (horizonalization). We then combined our lists and met face to face to decide on a final list of all significant statements. We reviewed the statements to ensure there were no repetitive statements. After creating a list of non-repetitive, non-overlapping statements, we grouped the statements into meaning units and created a textural description of the experience. During this step, the coding team met multiple times to reflect on the descrip- tions, revisit the meaning units, and subsequently decide on our identified themes and subthemes. Finally, we reflected on the textural descriptions and explored the context and meaning of the participants’ experience and discussed any tensions in the data to create structural descriptions.
We used multiple verification procedures to enhance the trust- worthiness of the study (Creswell, 2014). For example, we monitored our biases by bracketing our assumptions and beliefs about group work in order to view the data as objectively as possible. Prior to collecting and analyzing the data, we explored our personal beliefs and assumptions. We continued to revisit our biases as we met to develop themes to help ensure objectivity. Additionally, we participated in multiple weekly research team meetings to share our independent analyses results and come to a consensus on statements, meanings, and themes. We presented the findings using thick, rich descriptions. We used member checking by presenting the meanings and descrip- tions to the participants and soliciting feedback about the accuracy of our findings. After we developed the themes and descriptions, we sent each participant an electronic copy and asked them to review the docu- ment. We considered the feedback. Finally, the fourth author served as a peer debriefer who reviewed and asked questions about the research
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study, including review the transcripts and themes to ensure the find- ings resonated with someone with a different perspective of the study (Hays & Singh, 2012).
The purpose of this study was to explore experienced group lead- ers’ experiences and perceptions of their training in relation to their development. After analyzing the data, we discovered themes that we grouped into two broad categories: (a) training influences, and (b) crit- ical aspects. Training influences include the participants’ beliefs about what was most and least helpful about their graduate training in group leadership. Within training influences, five main themes emerged: (a) group counseling practice, (b) observation of group leadership, (c) supervision of group leadership, (d) experiential group participation, and (e) academic/instruction. Critical aspects encompass participants’ perspectives about the most important aspects of group counseling. Within critical aspects, two themes emerged: (a) group leader role, and (b) group process and dynamics. Multiple subthemes emerged within each primary theme for critical aspects. We present the categories, themes, and subthemes in Table 2. In the following section, we discuss the themes and subthemes and illustrate them with direct quotations from the participants.
Table 2 Categories, Themes, and Subthemes for Group Leader Training and Experience
Category Themes Subthemes
Training Influences Group Counseling Practice Observation of Group
Leadership Supervision of Group
Leadership Experiential Group
Critical Aspects Group Leader Role Co-leadership; Structure; Leader Style; Leader Awareness
Group Process and Dynamics Progress; Interactions; Cohesion; Universality; Interpersonal Learning; Managing Conflict
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Group Counseling Practice
When reflecting on their graduate training experiences in group counseling, participants expressed appreciation for opportunities to practice leading groups both in the classroom and outside of class at various sites in the community and schools. Participants acknowledged that nothing can replace real world experience and actually “getting in there and doing it.” They valued having actual group leadership responsibilities as part of their course requirements. Megan partici- pant succinctly stated, “I think the most helpful aspect of my training was actually leading groups.” Another participant, Beverly, mentioned the benefits of practice facilitation in class, “When we practiced lead- ing groups that was really helpful. Just learning what it feels like to practice and kind of be attentive and get a feel and get feedback on our skills as a group leader.” Doris reflected on experiences co-leading a group outside of class:
Actually having to lead a group during that class was the most helpful because it actually got me into the real situation. Initially when I started the group training here in the group class, the professor ran it like a group, and so I was like yeah this is easy. I was getting little tips and things like that until I actually got to the site where I was leading my group and I realized it was a lot more challenging than I thought. But I learned so much from the co-leader that I worked with during that time. I think that was the most helpful. I mean, reading the textbook and all that was helpful and being in class, but there was nothing like actually getting in there and getting my feet wet and doing it . . .
Overall, participants appeared to learn most from actually experi- encing groups in action in multiple formats. Participating as a member, co-leading with an experienced leader, and actually leading were all considered helpful aspects of training.
Observation of Group Leadership
Participants reported benefits from observing other, more experi- enced group leaders in action through multiple learning activities. For example, participants learned from having group leader skills mod- eled in the classroom by the professor. Carolyn stated, “I think he (the professor) did a really great job of modeling what it meant to be an effective group leader and counselor overall.” Several participants com- mented that it was beneficial that “The class itself was run as a group.” Additionally, they appreciated watching videos of more experienced group leaders. When responding to the question about helpful aspects of training, several participants mentioned watching videos of other groups in action. Further, several participants mentioned that they
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learned by co-leading groups with a more experienced group leader. Darlene responded that she liked “Being with someone who has more experience that you can learn from in the moment. Not like reading from a textbook, but being in the moment.” Megan recognized that a more experienced group leader played a vital role in her development when commenting, “I also think it really helped to have a co-leader who was more experienced than I was at the time as she pushed me to move forward.” Participants had an opportunity to view firsthand, different ways to handle complex situations. However, seven partici- pants did not report observation as a beneficial practice. Nevertheless, many of those who didn’t find it beneficial did mention desiring more observation opportunities. For example, Beverly mentioned, “Watching other groups to help really talk through as it’s happening.” Participants appreciated viewing groups in action and conceptualizing the delicate situations that can occur in a group setting.
Supervision of Group Leadership
Throughout the interviews, participants frequently discussed the benefits of receiving supervision and feedback on their group leader- ship skills. Participants found value in conceptualizing their groups with a more experienced leader (e.g., their professor) and also appre- ciated constructive feedback on their specific skills. In particular, participants emphasized the importance of good supervision for groups that they led outside of class. For instance, Nadine described the most helpful part of her training:
I think the practical use under guidance. You know, being able to run a group and come back in supervision and talk about what worked, what didn’t work, what could be done different in order to bring the group where I want them to go. I think the supervision part is the most helpful.
However, not all participants reported benefits from supervision and feedback. In fact, most participants reported wanting more super- vision. Megan expressed a desire for more intensive supervision, including reviewing session recordings, “I also think having hands- on supervision where we review tape of my group with the professor would have also been helpful. It’s hard to get effective supervision when we’re just relying on my perspective in the group.” Doris reit- erated this perspective, “if we could record our session, which I know is already hard, but record those sessions and maybe every class period 2–3 members show their video, and then we get feedback from the pro- fessor; some supervision in class.” Bill expressed a similar sentiment, “we had supervision meetings, but it wasn’t recorded. Recording of the
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groups would be helpful, but I know there’s a big trade off for that regarding confidentiality.” Collectively, participants appeared to appre- ciate the supervision and feedback process and strongly desire more of it. Participants were genuinely open to constructive feedback in order to continue developing their leader skills.
Experiential Group Participation
The theme “experiential group participation” is a description of par- ticipants’ accounts of being a member of a group as part of their group leader training. Participants mentioned multiple benefits of being a member in the groups, often despite some initial hesitation. Many par- ticipants in this study were required to be full members of a group that was led by doctoral students or a course instructor. Viewing a group leader in action, learning about group dynamics, and experi- encing personal growth all appeared to be beneficial aspects. Dorothy stated:
I think one thing that was helpful was actually being part of a group in class because I had never been through a group so being a group member and watching how our group leader moderated was really helpful. . . . I think our group was very close and so it was a good way to see the group dynamics.