They let a fox into the henhouse. By which I mean, they let a clinical psychologist into the research seminar series! I am now in my second summer of the research seminar focused on work-integrated learning, and I cannot help but bring my psychology lens to my work in this program. The primary way in which I have noticed my psychology background coming out is in my attention to group process and dynamics within the seminar series. In any group educational setting, there are two streams of activity: content and process. In our seminars, the content is pre-determined to some extent and planned in advance, but the in-room process is ongoing and ever-evolving, especially as we transition in our goals across the three-year program. I’d like to offer several observations about attending to interpersonal dynamics and group process that I think will be helpful for our ongoing group research projects in CEL.  

Much of the writing on group process in clinical psychology has come from the well-known Irvin Yalom. In his work, Yalom identified 11 therapeutic factors in group therapy (Yalom 1970).  

A diagram shows "Selected group factors from Yalom's framework": Instillation of hope, universality, imparting of information, altruism, interpersonal learning, group cohesiveness, catharsis

Some of these factors are unique to the therapeutic context, but several transcend therapy and are applicable more generally in any sort of group situation. The first relevant concept from Yalom is that of “instillation of hope” (Yalom 1970). In the psychological context, this refers to building trust between provider and client, and fostering self-efficacy and optimism about the process in the client. Certainly, this is pertinent in a research group process – facilitating trust between group leaders and group members is an essential first step to effective teamwork and productivity later. Likewise, when embarking on any sort of long-term academic task, hope and promise that the project will be meaningful are critical conditions for setting up success over time. As we have all likely seen in the classroom, building enthusiasm and excitement for the content are important prerequisites for engagement. Also relevant from the classroom, it is important to start building trust and mutual support right away by being timely and clear in expectation setting and supporting members in establishing clear goals and working procedures so that members are excited and prepared for the work ahead (Novotney 2019).  

A second of Yalom’s concepts that is relevant to our group process in CEL is the idea of “universality” (Yalom 1970), or the idea that we are all in the same boat. Some have described this as helping group members to realize that we are more the same than different (Bryde Christensen et al. 2021). In the psychology realm, this typically refers to recognizing our common humanity and seeing that others share our struggles. On one hand, the need to acknowledge our commonalities is relevant in our group work in the same way – seeing each other as whole people who share struggles can help us to connect and empathize effectively. Beyond that though, we are often bringing together people from vastly different backgrounds whether that be in terms of academic focus, nationality, or personality styles. Given the unique nature of the folks coming to collaborate on such scoping projects, it is so important for us to help participants connect and find common ground. Having a strong interpersonal connection can make the group process a joy; having a difficult set of relationships can slow progress. Helping group members see each other in the whole and find places where they can overlap and collaborate is among our chief goals in terms of facilitating group processes in larger research projects. This year, for example, we assigned seminar participants to groups for lunch and provided prompts to get group members talking about their lives outside of work. It was a delight to get to know each other personally, and we all learned so much about our outside lives.  

Related to this is Yalom’s concept of “group cohesiveness” (Yalom 1970). Yalom defines group cohesiveness as the feeling of interconnection and belongingness among group members. In therapy this is often seen in group bonding around a common diagnosis or issue, and it shows up as members supporting each other and forming bonds rather than just relying on support from the group leaders. In many ways this maps on to our seminar work directly. At first, seminar leaders interact heavily with groups with the goal of facilitating the transition to group members supporting each other, both in their small groups as well as across the program. Group cohesiveness can take time to emerge. Often group members are hesitant to fully engage until they are confident in others’ motivation, and like any social situation, it can take time for group members to establish safety and trust among them and to find their place in the group (Bryde Christensen et al. 2021). Once they gel, though, it is a powerful force for connection and support. There are endless strategies for building a sense of team-ness. This year we strategized using lists of team-building activities to help groups bond, but this bonding must be on top of a general sense of safety in the group. Group leaders should attend to “ruptures” in the group, by which I mean moments of tension and stress or conflict that may interfere with group cohesion (Yalom 1970). Group leaders should also manage group dynamics much as we do as teachers (e.g., balancing quiet vs. vocal participants) and communicate their respect for diverse identities and perspectives to ensure that all participants feel welcome and seen.  

Overall, managing a group is the same across contexts – certainly, there are some differences based on the group’s purpose, but at the end of the day we all want to feel included and connected to others. In our research seminars, it is among our essential duties to set a positive tone and to facilitate safe community for our participants so that they can collaboratively and productively work towards the goal of our programs.  

CJ Eubanks Fleming is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Elon University, where she serves the Faculty Fellow for Internships in the College of Arts and Sciences. In this role she evaluates department- and university-level data regarding internship outcomes, shares internship best practices with faculty, and serves as a liaison between faculty/ students and the university’s career center. She also serves as a seminar leader for the 2022-2024 research seminar on Work-Integrated Learning.

How to Cite this Post

Fleming, CJ. 2023. “Group Therapy Techniques Relevant for Group Research Facilitation.” Center for Engaged Learning (blog), Elon University. September 5, 2023.