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Group Work

Leadership skills, task and treatment group types, important values to promote within the group, group dynamics, skills for conducting groups, preparing for and conducting group sessions

This page has three sections:

  1. Background Material that provides the context for the topic

  2. A suggested Practice Approach

  3. A list of Supporting Material / References

Feedback welcome!

Background Material

Leadership Leaders should help the group / members achieve goals, while meeting needs of members.

  • Of the three forms of leadership (laissez-faire, democratic and autocratic), a democratic type of leadership resonates with values of social work and is most effective generally.

  • However, leaders must show assertiveness in the beginning phase to ensure that order and respect for each group member and the agreed processes are entrenched.

Four key values in group work:

  1. Respect and dignity—We value the worth and dignity of all group members.

  2. Solidarity and mutual aid—We value the power and promise of relationships that help members grow and develop, to help them heal, to satisfy their needs for human contact and connectedness, and to promote a sense of community.

  3. Empowerment—We value the power of the group to help members feel good about themselves and to enable them to use their abilities to help themselves and to make a difference in their communities.

  4. Understanding, respect, and camaraderie among people from diverse backgrounds—We value the ability of groups to help enrich members by acquainting them to people from other backgrounds.

Types of Groups: Treatment and Task Orientation

The role of the group leader and the skills required vary depending on the type of group. There are two broad types of groups: treatment and task-oriented.

A Functional Classification of Group Leadership Skills

The skills leaders require for group work depend on the reason for the group, and the stage the group is at. Different skills are required depending on the requirements of the group at that time, i.e. facilitation skills, data gathering skills and skills to use when action is required.

A. Facilitating Group Processes

  1. Involving group members--universalising a group member's experience; encouraging leadership roles

  2. Attending to others—nonverbal and verbal behaviours that convey empathy, respect, warmth, trust, genuineness and honesty

  3. Expressing self—helping members express thoughts and feelings about important problems or issues

  4. Responding to others—by responding selectively to certain communications, the worker can exert influence over subsequent communication patterns

  5. Focusing group communication—helping the group maintain its focus

  6. Making group processes explicit—this helps members know how they are interacting

  7. Clarifying content—checking a particular message was understood, pointing out when group interaction has become unfocused or side-tracked

  8. Cuing, blocking, and guiding group interactions—inviting someone to speak by cuing, and blocking inappropriate comments

B. Data Gathering and Assessment

  1. Identifying and describing thoughts, feelings, and behaviours—this skill allows elaboration of pertinent factors influencing a problem or task facing the group; it allows the problem attributes to be specified

  2. Requesting information, questioning, and probing—helps clarify the problem and obtain additional information, but be careful of adverse reactions to those who don’t want to delve deeper into problems

  3. Summarizing and partializing information—presenting the core of what has been said and provide the opportunity to consider the next steps; partializing skills break down a problem into manageable steps

  4. Synthesizing thoughts, feelings, and actions—making connections, expressing hidden agendas, making implicit feelings explicit

  5. Analysing information—to synthesise information and assess how to proceed, e.g. pointing out patterns, identifying gaps, planning for how to gather additional data if necessary

C. Action Skills

  1. Supporting group members—in their efforts to help themselves and each other; develop a culture in which all member experiences are valued, empathic responses occur, strengths are highlighted

  2. Reframing and redefining—view a problem from different perspectives

  3. Linking member communications—ask members to share their reactions to the messages communicated by others in the group and/or ask members to respond to requests for help by other members

  4. Directing skills—most effective when coupled with efforts to increase member participation and input but after obtaining member approval about the direction the group should take to achieve its goals

  5. Giving advice, suggestions, or instructions—but only after assessment of what has been already tried; use cautiously. Advice should (i) be appropriately timed, (ii) be clear and geared to the comprehension level of members, (iii) be sensitive to the language and culture of members, (iv) encourage members to share in the process, (v) facilitate helping networks among members.

  6. Providing resources, e.g. medical treatment, home health care, financial assistance, job counselling, important people

  7. Disclosure—use sparingly to deepen the communication within the group

  8. Modelling, role playing, rehearsing, and coaching—modelling is demonstrating behaviours in a particular situations so that others in the group can observe what to do and how to do it; role playing can help improve particular responses; rehearsing is practicing a new behaviour or response; coaching is use of verbal and physical instructions to help members reproduce a particular response

  9. Confrontation skills—can be used to overcome resistance and motivate members by clarifying, examining and challenging behaviours; they will elicit strong reactions

  10. Resolving conflicts—both within the group and with individuals and social systems outside; use moderating, negotiating, mediating or arbitrating skills to resolve conflicts

Dimensions of group dynamics

Group leaders have to manage a variety of dynamics within a group: supporting communication and interaction, ensuring the group operates cohesively, being aware of power or lack of power residing in group members, and managing conflict.

A. Communication and interaction functions

The social worker must be looking at the verbal and non-verbal communication and interactions patterns.

  • Who is dominating the interaction and who is marginalised?

  • Is this the result of group roles, power, emotional bonds or intentional exclusion?

B. Group Cohesion

In working towards group cohesion, social worker needs to nurture members’ attraction to each other and the group through fostering the belief that each person is valuable, will benefit from the group and has something to contribute to the towards achieving group goals.

C. Social integration and influence

In social integration, helping the group to establish norms and roles. It is important to observe and manage the effect of status on the behaviour of group members because those who have no leadership roles could behave in ways that negatively impact on group processes.

D. Group culture

In terms of group culture, social workers should be mindful of the effect of multicultural backgrounds on what could be accepted as the dominant values, norms and way of doing in the group.

E. Power

  • It is important to note that if a group is going to function, the issues of power need to be sorted out from the beginning and also carefully managed to avoid alienating some members.

  • Power is a neutral force and can be used in a positive or negative way.

  • The worker has different sources of power.

o Coercive power — based on threat of punishment

o Reward power – based on use of reward

o Legitimate power- based on social position as worker of institution/agency

o Referent power - based on personal liking and respect

o Expert power – based on possession of special knowledge

F. Conflict

  • Conflict is inevitable between group members and between group facilitator and some members. This requires that a conflict management framework be developed.

  • Conflict also arises in co-leadership and workers must deal with it in a professional manner.

Essential Skills for Group Work

Contracting skills

  • According to Shulman (1999) contracting involves getting clients to engage with the service or group work. The worker’s role is to mediate the initial engagement between the client and the service/agency. i.e. looking for common ground.

  • In contracting you need to clearly state the purpose of the group & your role without the use of professional jargon.

Tuning-in skill

  • The worker uses this to tune-in to experiences around the client’s concerns, feelings and needs, i.e., “reaching for the client’s feedback” (Shulman, 1999) and allowing the individual members to present their concerns to the group.

  • Also used to try to elicit response from the group to a particular member’s feelings or narrative.

  • Be conscious of the fact that you are dealing with “two clients” (individual and group) and that some themes raised by individuals may be affecting other members quite strongly. Shulman calls for the worker’s use of mediating skills here to empathise with the “two clients” by finding a common ground.

  • Try to note members’ specific experience with groups that can be falsely generalised to every other group.

Elaborating skills

  • Using questions and comments to help clients elaborate and clarify specific concerns.

Empathic skills

  • This is the skill to help the client manage their feelings.

  • This involves openly receiving and recognising the feelings of members; use of appropriate comments and sharing experiences that help the client see that you understand and/or care.

  • Empathy breaks down the barriers to group interaction and the sharing of stories and ideas.

Observation Skills

  • Observation is essential to the worker’s ability to gather information about group dynamics, the group’s functioning and the individual members’ performance in the group

Listening Skills

  • Listening allows worker to be able to respond appropriately including use of empathy, effective use of questioning and elaboration.

Focusing Discussion Skills

  • Moving from general to specific issues so that energy is directed at some work including mutual problem solving.

Questioning Skills

  • Questioning skills that allow worker to pose questions in ways that convey effort to understand rather than to intimidate, humiliate or judge.

Practice Approach

Preparation The following areas need to be considered prior to engaging in group work.

  • Type of group: task or treatment. Choose the subgroup within the chosen category (see table above)

  • Clarify the purpose of the group as specifically as possible

  • Revise the four key values of group work

  • Clarify the role of the leader

  • Link the leader’s role to the leadership skills required, e.g. facilitating, data gathering, action

  • Develop a broad plan of action, based on key values, to achieve the purpose of the group, including any procedures to ensure open communication, group cohesion, accommodating cultural differences, power, and conflict.

  • Organise how the meeting will be recorded, e.g. minute taker

Group Session(s) Group work sessions will vary depending on many factors, e.g. type of group, cultural background of participants, number of sessions, number of participants.

1. Introductions (where necessary)

2. Outline the purpose/aim of the group and leader’s role

3. Depending on the purpose of the group (facilitating group processes, data gathering and assessment, or taking action), establish norms and procedures around communication, cohesion, cultural differences, power and conflict.

4. As the group proceeds use the essential skills for groupwork above: elaborating, empathic, observation, listening, focusing discussion, and questioning.

5. Procedures to encourage collaboration and cooperation may be useful in large groups (from Kagan (1994):

  • Brainstorming: for any task which has many possible solutions. A problem is posed and group members generate solutions quickly; these are written on a board for all to see. Categorisation and re-categorisation of ideas follows until responses are grouped into main themes which can then be explored further.

  • Roundtable: Gaining ideas in response to a problem. Pose the problem, pass a blank page to one group member who writes a response and passes the page to the next group member, who reads the response(s), and add a response to the page; the page is them passed to the next person.

  • Think – Pair – Share: promoting thought and reflection. A problem is posed, group members think alone about the problem for a time, then form pairs to discuss the question with someone. The pair’s response is then shared with the group. In large groups you could use Think – Pair/Share – Square, where pairs join to share with another pair before sharing the group of four’s response with the whole group.

  • Spend-A-Buck: for seeking consensus. Each group member is given four coins to spend in any way they like on the choice of alternatives. Each member must spend his/her coins on more than one item. The team then tallies the results to determine the team decision. To make the decision even less polarized, have the members spend 10 coins with each member obliged to spend something on at least three items.

6. As appropriate, clarify progress that the group has made.

7. Monitor the recording of important information as necessary, and circulation of such to group members.

8. As the group concludes draw together the discussion, assign homework if required, and outline a plan and time for future meetings if necessary.

Supporting Material

(available on request)

Kagan, S. (1994). Cooperative learning. San Clemente, California: Kagan.

Toseland, , R. W., & Rivas, R. F. (2014). Pearson new international education: An introduction to group work practice. Harlow, Essex: Pearson Education Limited.


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