There are many methods of group counseling and support. There may indeed be a theory, philosophy, or method to match almost any preference. It can be difficult to determine which approaches yield the best clinical results. It is somewhat less difficult, though, to recognize when an approach goes beyond what seems likely to help the client.
Typically, in a group counseling setting, different members of the group participate, either at random or as they are called on (e.g., as their turn comes up). That is, group counseling is not usually like a lecture-style classroom, where one person is handing out the information and everyone else is expected to absorb it. The person who speaks up in a group counseling session may offer just a brief question or comment; but in some group settings, s/he may be put “in the hotseat” – may be questioned, that is, in some detail.
The hotseat is not always a pleasant place. The purpose of group work is not always to make people comfortable and happy. Sometimes a client seems not to understand or care about the effects that his/her words and behaviors have upon others. In such instances, if group work is to help the person to achieve some kind of improvement in the problems that have brought him/her to the group session, it may be necessary to confront the person about those words and behaviors. This can be an unpleasant experience for the person in question.
Ordinarily, if people are to be motivated to return to the group and to participate effectively in it, it will be advisable to convey a general sense that the group exists to help the person – that the therapist, in particular, is committed to seek his/her welfare and that other group members tend to behave in a helpful rather than hostile manner. The therapeutic relationship between the therapist and the client is often found to be one of the most important factors – if not *the* most important factor – in bringing about positive change in the client’s behavior.
So there is a tension between the need to focus upon, and even to confront the client about, certain undesirable behaviors, while not crossing the line into a position of hostility that may prompt a client to leave the group altogether or to adopt a sullen, uncooperative, or false attitude in order to cope, in his/her own way, with what may thus become a hated group experience.
In my social work training, over the past half-dozen years, I have seen group therapists cross that line repeatedly. In an organization practicing one form of outdoor adventure therapy, for example, I was appalled to see that the therapists spoke of the outdoors as though it were a prison. In countryside that I found absolutely beautiful, they told the boys under their control that they had been sent to “this shithole” because of their misbehavior. That organization took a blaming, punitive stance toward its clients, within a “boot camp” approach that has been demonstrated ineffective; the organization hired untrained individuals at low wages to administer these psychological interventions while soaking Mom and Dad for more than $250 a day. “Supervision” was provided by counseling psychologists and social workers who sat in an air-conditioned building, 15-20 miles away, while the boys were out setting up camp, taking down camp, and marching, day after day.
The low-paid staffers who actually rode herd on these young males enjoyed certain privileges and power over the boys, and tended to enjoy their work. As one of them said to me, “Ray, this is a fantastic experience. Where else could I apply my ideas about psychology to actual clients without having a degree?” From a best practices perspective, it was a nightmare. The smart kids, in this place, learned to play the game – not to change any of their thoughts or goals, necessarily, but certainly to get in line, do what they were expected to do, and say what they were expected to say, so that they could get out.
What I have observed thus far is that, in these group settings, controlling and even hostile approaches tend to be taken disproportionately toward male rather than female clients. This seems to occur both within and between groups. That is, whether the group in question consists solely of male clients or has a mix of male and female clients, the men that I have observed have been far more readily subjected to abusive treatment than have the women. The concept appears to be that women – even women who have been found guilty of physically violent behavior that is more commonly associated with men – are receptive to, and deserving of, treatment that is fundamentally understanding and supportive, while men need to be clubbed upside the head in order to get the message.
I cannot say that female social workers are more likely than male social workers to behave abusively toward men in a group setting. Of course, women vastly outnumber men in social work, so even if female and male social workers had exactly the same attitudes, I would expect to see such abuse occurring more frequently where the therapist is female. But at one school I attended, the professor who taught group counseling courses happened to be both male and more verbally abusive, in the classroom, than any other social work professor I have had. Even there, however, the style differed: he was merely demeaning to selected female students, but he went well beyond that toward selected male students. In my case, for example, one of my classmates summed it up in these terms: “Ray, I don’t know how you can stand to come to class when he yells at you like that.”
In some regards, I have become aware of forms of abusive therapist behavior in group settings that may be more readily available to and/or practiced by female social workers. Such group settings include, again, the classroom, as in the case of the male social work student who found that a certain female professor would stand over him, when calling upon him, in what he found to be a threatening manner (a parentally disciplinary manner, I would say, if I interpret his reactions accurately), or the male social work student who had to step back out of the way when a female social work professor physically charged right into the space where he had just been standing. It seems likely that a male professor behaving thus toward a female student would be far more at risk of being adjudged to have engaged in physically threatening behavior – which may explain why that large, loud professor mentioned above did not yell at his female students.
Regrettably, I have observed abuse of males in social work group contexts, not only where they have to just “shut up and take it” in order to get through a juvenile, educational, or judicial process, but even where the men in question are participating in the group on a completely voluntary basis in order to get some needed therapeutic help for traumatic events in their lives.
Female clients, too, are no doubt sometimes at risk of being labeled (directly or through insinuation), by their male and female social workers, as liars, cheats, or otherwise low-life characters. There is, however, one regard in which male clients do seem to be at disproportionate risk in that regard. When the discussion verges toward dating and other relationships between men and women, I have repeatedly seen female social workers (that is, persons from the dominant body of social workers) take an unquestioningly negative and even hostile attitude toward male clients. What the man says, in those regards, seems especially likely to be treated as false, or to be sifted through in search of evidence of underlying misbehaviors and character flaws. On repeated occasions, I have seen female social workers in such circumstances invent unfair or inaccurate motives or other additions to the male client’s story; yet when the impropriety of the social worker’s inventions have become obvious, these social workers have not apologized for or withdrawn their insinuations and accusations.
Group work has great potential. It can be very cost-effective. It will not work, however, if clients cannot trust social work group leaders to recognize and take a self-critical stance toward their own needs, attitudes, and assumptions. Female and male clients alike have grounds for concern, in those cases where social workers adopt arrogant or capricious group leadership styles. This message focuses particularly on some concerns of special interest to male clients. I hope that social work training and practice improve in the future, so that I may be able to recommend group work to male clients in confidence that the experience will be helpful rather than harmful to them.