Developing Pluralistic Encounter Groups
Ani de la Prida, University of East London, Association for Person Centred Creative Arts
My training was person-centred, and my practice has always been on the experiential and integrative end of the spectrum of person-centred practice rather than classical client-centred therapy. In my practice I draw on various types of knowledge and skills in order to best to support a client’s actualising tendency, particularly the creative arts, an area where I am passionate about non-directive facilitation.
Person-centred therapy considers that for constructive change to occur certain qualities–psychological contact, client incongruence, therapist congruence, empathy, and unconditional positive regard–known as the ‘six necessary and sufficient conditions hypothesis’, are needed.
Over the years my experience and my practice have evolved and whilst I believe that most of the time the six conditions are necessary and sufficient I have come to recognise that different people need different things at different times, and there may be times when the six conditions may not be entirely necessary, or entirely sufficient. So I now describe my practice as person-centred and pluralistic.
The person-centred approach has a strong tradition of encounter groups that have no set agenda, structure, or rules, they are a space to see what emerges. Carl Rogers suggested that, given a reasonably facilitating climate of empathy, unconditional positive regard, congruence, and trust in the actualising tendency, the group can develop its own potential and the potential of its participants. A person-centred encounter group is a space where each person is free to do or say anything.
My experience in person-centred encounter groups has been significant and crucial to my development, both personally and professionally. At times I have found an almost magical, transpersonal quality of experience that has been profoundly moving, healing, and transformative. At other times, in encounter groups I have witnessed and experienced an absence of empathy that has been unpleasant, and on occasion unacceptable and deeply wounding.
To be honest I struggled with this for a long time, trying to understand my experience. I eventually concluded that person-centred encounter groups were not for me. But I was left with many unanswered questions.
The pluralistic approach and the person-centred approach are both rooted in humanistic principles and values, and although they share similarities there are also differences. For example, both approaches acknowledge primacy of the client, but rather than prioritising either therapist or client knowledge, the pluralistic approach holds client and therapist knowledge as of equal importance.
This got me thinking. Person-centred encounter groups are aligned with person-centred principles, so what might an encounter group shaped by pluralistic principles look like?
I started to explore questions such as, How would it differ from a person-centred encounter group? Would it have facilitators and, if so, what would their role be? What kind of structure and ground rules, if any, might such a group have? How would pluralistic principles shape the group space?
From a philosophical perspective I see a person-centred encounter as a cultural response to the modernist paradigm of the time. Modernist thinking holds that reality is fixed, objective, and measurable. Truth is singular, and the authority of the expert is valued.
Postmodernism rejects the idea of a fixed, universal, measurable reality, arguing that reality is individual and dependent on cultural experience and power dynamics. Its rejection of structure, rules, and order is a cultural response to modernism. Postmodernism has a focus on the present and aims to dissolve structural power and give voice to the ‘other’.
Postmodernism grew in influence during the 1960s, and I see the development of the person-centred approach, and encounter groups around that same time, as an evolutionary cultural response to modernist thinking.
Metamodernism is seen as a kind of higher-order synthesis that includes and transcends both modernism and post-modernism. Metamodernism is not an ‘either or’ philosophy, but an inclusive philosophy of ‘this and that’. Its development over the last two decades is ‘driven by ideals of creating open, participatory processes, inner work and embodiment, co-development’.
Metamodernism can also be seen as a cultural shift, an evolutionary response to postmodernism with a focus towards finding constructive solutions to social issues and promoting anticipatory and proactive thinking. Metamodernism aims to understand, contain, and integrate opposing positions, structured and unstructured for example, and holds a hopeful attitude about constructing new meaning and positive change.
I think there is a connection between metamodernism–its movement towards collaboration, participatory processes, and integration with an inclusive ‘this and that’ attitude–and the development of the pluralistic approach. This leads me to consider that the development of a pluralistic encounter group could also be seen as evolutionary. In the same way that person-centred encounter groups grew from postmodernism, perhaps pluralistic encounter groups are a contemporary metamodernist development.
If so, what might some of the key differences be?
It seems to me that a greater value is given in person-centred encounter towards expression. The communication of feelings that are being experienced in the ‘here and now’ is prized over attempting to ensure communication is empathic, congruent, and non-judgemental, and over attention to how it might be received. This, interestingly, aligns with a post-modernist ‘anything goes’ attitude with a focus on here and now process. I’m not suggesting that encounter groups should avoid the expression of intense feelings, I think that is a crucial aspect. My point is about how intense feelings are expressed, and how this could be a negotiated aspect of pluralistic encounter groups.
A key principle of pluralistic practice is an ‘ethic of care’, which asks practitioners to question how we act towards others. Pluralistic practice highlights the need for good communication, co-operation, compassion, understanding, and ‘give and take’.
This suggests that a pluralistic encounter group could be a collaborative, compassionate space, with a commitment to mutuality. A stated intention to create positive interactive relationships with an explicit stance towards sincere, respectful communication within the group where constructive dialogue is prized along with expression of feelings.
I love the concept of developing pluralistic encounter as a brave space–a concept developed in social justice work. As counsellors we are familiar with the term ‘safe space’. But feeling safe can become conflated with feeling comfortable, and the term ‘safe space’ can have an inhibitive effect in groups with participants not speaking out because they don’t feel comfortable.
Using the term ‘brave space’ acknowledges that group space may be uncomfortable, and can help to promote participation. It encourages negotiation of ground rules to keep participants free from attack. It encourages ownership of intentions and of the impact of communication which can help to foster challenging dialogue more safely. I like the idea of being able to explicitly address and negotiate these issues in an encounter group.
Emphasizing the importance of bravery might encourage participants in pluralistic encounter groups to challenge themselves to take risks, to be courageous. Pluralistic therapy positions clients as ‘heroic’, and brave space might also position participants as brave and heroic. Could offering opportunities to be courageous in pluralistic encounter groups have potential implications for influencing a positive self-concept in participants?
The principle of–‘individualisation – therapy is likely to more helpful when individualised’–could be applied to pluralistic encounter groups. It promotes a facilitator’s responsiveness and adaption to the needs and preferences of the group. No two groups would be the same, each group’s rules, structure, and aims would be created collaboratively. Perhaps pluralistic groups can find a constructive integrative balance between having enough structure to encourage authentic courageous participation with enough unstructured space for the group process and actualising tendency to evolve.
The pluralistic facilitator role is one of helping to locate and articulate knowledge without overshadowing the process. The key principle of ‘knowledge’ positions the knowledge of the group as equal with the knowledge of the facilitator. So, whilst groups would negotiate structure and rules, the facilitator would also have some input. This contrasts with a person-centred encounter group where the group is free from any rules or structure, and entirely responsible for determining direction.
These are some of the ideas that are a starting point that we would like to explore and develop.
So, what next?
Firstly, we have a discussion at the Pluralistic Conference. If you’d like to join in the discussion please come along to Room 1 at 1.45pm on Saturday 17th July where Mick Cooper and myself invite you to join in with discussion and exploration to start to collaboratively develop a framework. We will be using this blog as a starting point, and will also be referring to the chapter on key principles in The Pluralistic Therapy Primer.
If you can’t make the conference and are interested in helping us developing these ideas, please get in touch with me via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
And lastly, we are very excited to announce that we will be holding our first pluralistic encounter on Saturday 30th October at Roehampton University. We are planning this to be in person, details to follow.
Ali, D. (2017) Safe Spaces and Brave Spaces. 2. Washington: NASPA Research and Policy Institute, p. 13. Available at: https://www.naspa.org/images/uploads/main/Policy_and_Practice_No_2_Safe_Brave_Spaces.pdf (Accessed: 30 June 2021).
Arao, B. and Clemens, K. (2013) ‘From safe spaces to brave spaces: A new way to frame dialogue around diversity and social justice’, in Landreman, L. M. (ed.) The Art of Effective Facilitation: Reflections From Social Justice Educators. Stylus Publishing.
Counselling Study Resources. (2021, 12th July) The Six Necessary and Sufficient Conditions for Therapeutic Personality Change. Counselling Tutor. https://counsellingtutor.com/counselling-approaches/person-centred-approach-to-counselling/the-six-necessary-and-sufficient-conditions-for-therapeutic-personality-change/
Sanders, P. (2012) The Tribes of the Person-Centred Nation, 2nd Edition: an introduction to the schools of therapy related to the person-centred approach 978 1 906254 55 1 (2012). Available at: https://www.pccs-books.co.uk/products/tribes (Accessed: 29 June)